If you’re looking for signs that things are slowly starting to get back to normal, look no further than the fact that for the first time in three years, the UFC is making its annual transatlantic trip to London with a card that is absolutely stacked with compelling matchups.
From the opening bout to the main event, each fight on this highly anticipated card carries promise and potential and, in addition to there being a couple of bouts carrying serious divisional ramifications, Saturday’s return to The O2 Arena also includes some of the best prospects on the entire roster making their way into the cage.
Here’s a detailed look at three of those competitors you should be keeping close tabs on going forward.
This is the UFC London edition of Fighters on the Rise.
It’s already been an interesting year for Topuria and he has yet to step into the Octagon.
The unbeaten standout was booked to face fellow undefeated featherweight prospect Movsar Evloev in a highly anticipated clash at UFC 270 on January 22, but 10 days prior to the contest, Evloev was forced to withdraw. Charles Jourdain stepped up in his place, fresh off his dominant win over Andre Ewell, only for Topuria to be pulled from the bout due to medical issues during his weight cut the day before the contest, which also happened to be his 25th birthday.
Now the Georgian-born, Spain-based fighter moves up to lightweight for the first time, looking to extend his winning streak to an even dozen when he steps in against Jai Herbert on Saturday.
Topuria is the total package — a legit Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt who has showcased his submission skills inside the cage, but also brandishes clean technique and good power with his striking. The question now, however, is going to be how those tools transfer over now that he’s moving up a division, because while he very much looked the part of a potential contender at featherweight, Topuria is going to be undersized for the lightweight division.
This weekend’s matchup with Herbert will illustrate that straight away, as the British veteran will have a five-inch height advantage and a huge eight-inch reach advantage, which means Topuria will be fighting an uphill battle to get inside in order to be effective. Herbert is coming off an emotional first-round knockout win last October and is going to be backed by a loud, partisan crowd this weekend, so this shapes up to be a tremendous litmus test for the streaking youngster as he ventures into a new weight division.
How this one shakes out should determine how the rest of the year shapes up for the ultra-talented Topuria.
If you didn’t know the name Muhammad Mokaev before now, trust me when I tell you that you’re going to want to remember it going forward because the debuting flyweight just might be the best prospect in the UFC at the moment.
The 21-year-old newcomer was born in Dagestan and moved to England with his father when he was young, ultimately settling in Wigan. He took up wrestling, excelled, and eventually transitioned into mixed martial arts, going 23-0 as an amateur and maintaining his unbeaten record through his first seven professional appearances, logging six wins and one no contest verdict.
Expectations are sky high for Mokaev, who takes on Cody Durden on Saturday, but the promising youngster has welcomed the pressure and the challenge of living up to those lofty goals every step along the way.
After dispatching Irishman Blaine O’Driscoll last time out at Brave CF 54 in September, this weekend’s bout with Durden will be a quality opportunity to see where Mokaev fits in the flyweight division right out of the gate.
The American fought Chris Gutierrez to a stalemate in his short notice debut up a division and bounced back from a loss to Jimmy Flick with a hard-earned win over Aoriqileng last time out. Durden is 12-3-1 overall and 8-1-1 over his last 10, which makes him the most experienced and successful fighter Mokaev has faced to date.
This is one of those instances where containing the excitement folks feel about a prospect is going to be challenging, especially if Mokaev wins in dominant fashion. He’s the latest to be put on that “Beat Jon Jones’ Record” watch and someone observers have been waiting to see reach this level since he made the transition to the professional ranks midway through 2020.
Everything so far suggests that Mokaev is the real deal; now it’s time to see if he can prove that while playing in the big leagues.
Until more people start joining “Team Tank,” Shore will continue to appear in this space ahead of each of his fights.
The 27-year-old bantamweight from Abertillery, Wales has won 27 consecutive fights — a dozen straight as an amateur before going 15-for-15 since turning pro, including each of his four UFC appearances to date. There has never been a moment where Shore has walked into the cage and walked away without getting his hand raised, and no matter who you’re facing or what division we’re talking about, that is just an absolutely staggering fact given that he’s fought 27 times.
Shore had a couple medium-sized layoffs between appearances earlier in his UFC tenure, which limited the amount of momentum he could build or maintain, but he scored a win last April and then picked up another in September, and now he’s returning to London to take on Timur Valiev in a fight that — should he win — should carry him into the conversation as one of the top dark horse talents in the 135-pound weight class.
Valiev had plenty of buzz when he finally rolled into the UFC a couple summers back, and has earned consecutive victories heading into this one. He is the best opponent Shore has faced to date, and how things shake out will clearly shape how people view the Welshman going forward, but through his 15 professional fights, Shore has ticked all the boxes in terms of what you want to see from an up-and-coming talent.
This feels like it could be the fight where Shore moves from prospect to contender and really starts showing that he’s ready to take on these Top 15 fighters in the second half of the year. He’s a suffocating grappler that had earned finishes in 12 of 13 before going to the cards in each of his last two, and if he gets back to his finishing ways this weekend, it will be hard to keep “Tank” from plowing forward in the talent-rich division.