The UFC delivers an international pay-per-view date for the third consecutive month, as this year’s annual March trek to London, England gets an upgrade.
While the London events are always excellent and the crowd is electric from the jump, this week’s stop should be even better as UFC 286 is a stacked card featuring not only some of the best talent from the United Kingdom and Europe, but also features Justin Gaethje taking on Rafael Fiziev in the co-main event before Leon Edwards defends his welterweight title in a rematch with Kamaru Usman in the main event.
The 02 is going to be jumping from the early stages, and there will be plenty of performers looking to make an impression before the night is out.
Here’s a closer look at three that appear poised to take full advantage of that opportunity this weekend.
In terms of impact, I would argue that Dolidze did more in the second half of 2022 than Kevin Holland did in the entirety of his 2020 run, but with about half the fanfare.
Entering the year off a tepid unanimous decision win over Laureano Staropoli one year earlier, Doldize registered his first of three wins in June by knocking out Kyle Daukaus with a punishing knee to the face along the fence just 73 seconds after the bout began. Four months later, he picked up a second consecutive first-round finish and Performance of the Night bonus by knocking out Phil Hawes, getting there only after nearly wrenching his leg from his body moments earlier.
And then five weeks after that, the Georgian jumped at the opportunity to replace Derek Brunson opposite Jack Hermansson and pounded out a second-round stoppage win over “The Joker,” pinning him belly-down on the canvas with a calf slicer before unleashing an unanswered series of bombs that brought the fight to a halt.
Three fights, three wins, three finishes, and three bonuses, leaving Dolidze on a four-fight winning streak and stationed inside the Top 10 in the middleweight division. This weekend in London, he looks to climb into the Top 5 by continuing his run of success with a victory over Marvin Vettori.
The 29-year-old Italian enters in a bit of a weird spot, having only lost to Israel Adesanya (twice) and Robert Whittaker in the last five years, but entering having registered just two victories and four appearances since the end of 2020. He’s a durable, grimy veteran despite still being south of 30, and should provide a stern test for Dolidze on Saturday.
As great as the surging 34-year-old has looked of late, this weekend’s pairing with Vettori is the real measuring stick — this is the one he has to win in order to elevate himself to the next level in the 185-pound ranks, and if he does that, he could find himself in a title eliminator in the second half of the year.
Christian Leroy Duncan
Duncan is the first Cage Warriors middleweight champion to matriculate to the UFC in over five years, joining the likes of Hermansson, Martin Kampmann, and Jack Marshman in making the move from the elite UK promotion to the Octagon.
Undefeated in seven professional bouts with six stoppages, the 27-year-old, who trains under UFC veteran Mark Weir, won the Cage Warriors strap last April with a third-round knockout win over Djati Melan and successfully defended his belt with a first-round finish of Marian Dimitrov seven months hence. He was scheduled to face off with two-time TUF contestant Jesse Taylor on New Year’s Eve, but the bout was scuttled at the 11th hour and “CLD” was inked to a UFC deal.
Now the talented and dangerous newcomer gets to make his promotional debut on home turf, in front of a supportive crowd, opposite Dana White’s Contender Series grad Dusko Todorovic on Saturday night.
Six fights into his UFC run, the 28-year-old Todorovic has gone 3-3 with all but one of those contests ending inside the distance. After suffering a first-round stoppage loss to Chidi Njokuani in his first appearance of 2022, the Serbian middleweight rebounded with a second-round finish of Jordan Wright in October to bring his record to 12-3 overall heading into this one.
The last few Cage Warriors champions to transition to the UFC have found success right out of the chute, with Modestas Bukauskas standing as the most recent example. Duncan will look to follow his lead — if not outshine his light heavyweight counterpart — this weekend and quickly establish himself as one to watch in the always wide-open middleweight division.
This time last year, O’Neill was the ascending flyweight most fans and pundits would have tipped as the most likely to challenge Valentina Shevchenko for her UFC title, as the Scottish-Australian standout was fresh off a good win over Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 271 that pushed her record to 4-0 in the UFC and 9-0 overall.
But “King Casey” suffered a torn ACL in late April as she started working towards a summer date with Jessica Eye and has been forced to sit on the sidelines and watch as Erin Blanchfield continued her ascent up the rankings and Alexa Grasso shocked the world by claiming UFC gold on March 4.
Saturday in London, O’Neill makes her return against Jennifer Maia in the kind of matchup that presents her with the opportunity to make a loud statement about where she stands in the divisional hierarchy and how she remains one of the brightest young talents in the entire company, not just the 125-pound weight class.
The 34-year-old Maia is a former title challenger and divisional stalwart who seems to be settling into a role as the veteran test in the lower half of the Top 10 in the flyweight ranks. She served as the initial step-up in competition for French contender Manon Fiorot last March, dropping a decision to “The Beast,” but rebounded nicely with a solid unanimous decision win over Maryna Moroz in November to get things moving in the right direction again.
Maia is the most well-rounded and highest-ranked opponent O’Neill has faced to date, and if she can pick up where she left off in the first quarter of 2022, she could force her way into the Top 10 and set herself up for another step up in competition in the second half of 2023.