The UFC's return to London this weekend isn't just marked by a card filled with top European fighters, but it could also determine the future of the light heavyweight division contenders’ race based solely on the main event.
Alexander Gustafsson returns after narrowly missing his chance to claim the 205-pound title in a razor close fight with champion Jon Jones, and he's facing an undefeated banger named Jimi Manuwa with bricks in both hands and the added advantage of having nothing to lose going into this contest.
The co-main event on the card will pit former teammates against each other when knockout artist Melvin Guillard takes on Michael Johnson, while the flyweight division might find a new contender when one of UFC President Dana White's favorite fighters, Brad Pickett, drops down to 125 pounds to face Irish newcomer Neil Seery.
In today's fantasy preview, we will break down the main card of this upcoming UFC Fight Night London event and see if there are any upsets brewing or how the favorites may come away with a victory this weekend.
ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON (-420 FAVORITE) VS. JIMI MANUWA (+325 UNDERDOG)
Heading into his fight this weekend, Alexander Gustafsson knows that with a win he will receive a rematch with Jon Jones and another shot at the UFC light heavyweight title. It's those kinds of scenarios that can often lead to an upset in a fight of this magnitude when one of the competitors is looking further down the road and not paying attention to the brick wall right in front of him.
Gustafsson's focus is key in his upcoming fight against Jimi Manuwa, but the Swedish contender has all the makings a cool, calm and collected competitor who now just has to execute what he already knows how to do and go get a win.
The key for Gustafsson against Manuwa comes down to two components - striking at distance and closing the distance for takedowns. Gustafsson is a superior standup fighter when he's working with his 76.5-inch reach. While Manuwa's own reach is only an inch less, Gustafsson has four inches of height to his advantage plus the experience of always looking to keep an opponent away from him. 76.1 percent of Gustafsson's strikes come at a distance, so he knows how to jab and make a fighter like Manuwa work really hard to get inside. Another factor for Gustafsson is a superior ground game because despite his just under 40 percent takedown average, he's a very solid ground fighter and that's one area we've not seen much of anything from the British fighter yet. Both fighters exude great takedown defense, but if someone is going to drag this to the mat it's going to be Gustafsson.
Manuwa has more than a puncher's chance in this one, however, because he throws with ridiculous accuracy, hitting opponents at just over 64 percent accuracy. In other words, he doesn't throw caution to the wind and just start winging punches - when he aims, he lands. Manuwa has to know his best chance of winning this fight comes from his powerful punches, so he's going to have to wade inside to land a combination good enough to put Gustafsson down.
The odds are on Gustafsson's side going into the fight because he has more ways to win and his reach can give anybody nightmares. Add in the factor that Manuwa's never gone into the fourth or fifth rounds of a fight, and the longer this one goes, the more it favors Gustafsson. Look for the Swede to apply a tactical game plan early to tire Manuwa out and then attack with takedowns in the fourth or fifth round to start putting serious damage on his opponent before getting a stoppage prior to the final horn sounding.
MICHAEL JOHNSON VS. MELVIN GUILLARD
Former teammates Michael Johnson and Melvin Guillard square off in a lightweight battle with knockout written all over it. While both fighters actually come from a wrestling background, don't expect either one to concede the knockout while still standing. Johnson has the second most knockdowns in UFC lightweight history with eight, but care to wager a guess who has the most? That would be Melvin Guillard, who holds the record for most knockouts and knockdowns in UFC lightweight history with seven KOs and a whopping 13 knockdowns.
Guillard is so fast and explosive that his work inside the Octagon is often confusing because he will typically stand back, hands relaxed, until it's time to strike, and then he unleashes with the kind of power few fighters can absorb. He also has an incredible 68.4 percent striking defense, and takes more than one strike less per minute than his opponent. Johnson is no slouch on his feet and lately he's become a big fan of trading with opponents, but that could prove to be his undoing this time around.
Guillard typically feasts on strikers who can't match his power, and when you add in the fact that he's trained with Johnson on dozens of occasions, he knows what kind of standup the former Ultimate Fighter finalist carries into the cage. Johnson does have a good chin and he's never been knocked out, but there is a first time for everything, and Guillard has the striking to put anyone's lights out.
If Guillard comes out strong early and doesn't allow Johnson to dictate the pace, he will eventually find the opening he needs to hurt his former training partner and then finish him. Typically, Guillard's finishes come fast, furious and usually need to be replayed a few times to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the power he unloads on an opponent. This one might even earn him a Performance of the Night bonus.
BRAD PICKETT VS. NEIL SEERY
A wave of online support helped Irishman Neil Seery land a spot against Brad Pickett at the upcoming UFC Fight Night London card, but this is not an easy matchup to take on 12 weeks’ notice, much less just a couple of weeks away.
Pickett was a fun and exciting fighter to watch at bantamweight and if his transition to 125 pounds goes well, he could be a contender with only a single win. It doesn't hurt that he holds a win over flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson already either.
Pickett is dangerous any time the fight is standing, and while his striking averages say he only lands at 31 percent accuracy, it's the ones he does hit that count. Pickett's boxing is second to none in the division, and when you mix in nearly 65 percent takedown defense, he's usually able to keep the fight standing as well. Seery is a tough prospect with solid hands and a reputation for being as tough as they come, but this is a tall order to take on short notice.
Seery's glaring weakness has always been submissions, which isn't what Pickett is known best for, so that could favor the Irish fighter making it past a tough first round. As time wears on, Pickett can start to pick up the pace while picking Seery apart on the feet. Pickett is always just one punch or one kick away from ending a fight, and Seery may not meet the judges in his first UFC fight because this one likely ends with the referee ripping the Brit off him after a knockout.
GUNNAR NELSON VS. OMARI AKHMEDOV
Two top prospects in the welterweight division will face off when Gunnar Nelson faces Omari Akhmedov in London with a classic battle between fierce striker and dangerous submission artist.
Nelson's reputation is well known throughout the MMA community - he's a Renzo Gracie black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with better than average hands, but a ground game that should intimidate just about welterweight on the UFC roster not named Demian Maia or Jake Shields. Nelson has won multiple awards in grappling, and his icy like demeanor inside the Octagon may make it seem like he's sleepwalking at times, but in reality he's typically just sizing an opponent up before attacking.
On the other side is Russian fighter Omari Akhmedov, who is another in a long line of competitors out of Dagestan now competing in the UFC. Akhmedov loves the knockout, but don't discount his ground game, where he's finished five opponents by submission. He's also a former middleweight, so he's going to be a sizable opponent for anyone at 170 pounds.
Nelson is going to be the easy pick going into this fight given his pedigree and the hype surrounding him. But hype doesn't win fights and rarely have the fighters coming out of Dagestan been shown up inside the Octagon. Akhmedov won't back down from Nelson's attacks, but he has to avoid the ground or chances are he'll be stuck there defending punches and a versatile submission attack.
If Akhmedov keeps this one standing, his 73-inch reach and 70 percent striking accuracy could give Nelson problems. Don't forget also that Nelson has been out of action for over a year due to injury, making timing an even more important factor. If he can't figure out Akhmedov's attacks to get a takedown or get inside, Nelson could struggle all the way to a decision loss to kick off the main card.
To watch UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa exclusively on UFC Fight Pass on Saturday, March 8, sign up here
Saturday, December 3
Las Vegas, Nevada