Ranking the fights: ‘The Highlight’ is fighting … and he’s not No. 1?


The UFC first visited London in 2002 for an event dubbed “The Brawl at the Hall.” The hall was hallowed old Royal Albert Hall, which prior to Matt Hughes defending his welterweight title against Carlos Newton that night had been best known for appearances by tenacious fighter Sir Winston Churchill and fast-hands Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Since then, the UFC has been back in the English capital 11 more times, producing big moments with important fights. In 2007 at the O2 Arena, there was a champion-vs.-champion main event pitting UFC light heavyweight titlist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson against Pride belt holder Dan Henderson. The pride of Manchester, England, the effervescent Michael Bisping, twice headlined shows at the O2 — although both happened before he became UFC middleweight champ.

And that highlights what the UFC has not delivered to the banks of the Thames until this weekend. UFC 286, the promotion’s 13th visit to London, will bring to town for the first time a homegrown champion.

Leon Edwards, who grew up from age 9 in Birmingham, England, less than 200 kilometers from London, will be making the first defense of his welterweight championship when he rematches the man he dethroned, Kamaru Usman, in the main event on Saturday at the O2 Arena (ESPN+ PPV, 5 p.m. ET main card).

Edwards (20-3, 1 NC) is unbeaten in his past 11 fights. Three of his wins during that run came at the O2. He hasn’t lost since a 2015 meeting with Usman (20-2), who was making his UFC debut and wrestled his way to a unanimous decision.

They met again last August, and late in Round 5 of a fight he was on the verge of losing, Edwards pulled a rabbit out of a hat. His last-minute head kick landed flush, putting a sudden end to a 19-fight Usman winning streak that extended all the way back to 2013.

Their rubber match headlines a card loaded with local interest. Edwards will be the seventh fighter from England to step into the cage Saturday. There are three from Scotland on the card and one from Wales. Great Britain, represent!

Whether a showcase for a local hero or a matchup imported from overseas, there’s a lot going on Saturday. Here’s a ranking of the most essential fights to watch … plus one to just fantasize about.

1. Leon Edwards (c) vs. Kamaru Usman

A title fight. A hometown champ. The completion of a trilogy in which each man has defeated the other. The energy inside the O2 is going to be high voltage, especially if by the time the main event comes along it’s been a gangbusters night for British fighters. But while the arena’s locale will ramp up the ambiance, this fight could take place on the moon and still be one giant leap for MMA. Usman was a dominant champion right up to the moment last summer when he was out cold. And Edwards was on a run of success that was going largely unnoticed until he authored a finish that could not be ignored. Here they go again.

2. Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev

I’m pretty sure I’m violating a promise I made to myself to always, under any circumstances, rank a Gaethje fight at No. 1. He’s known as “The Highlight” for good reason; he always straps us in for a thrill ride. And likewise, Fiziev is incapable of putting on a boring performance; the 12-1 lightweight has earned postfight bonuses in each of his five most recent appearances. As soon as these two start walking to the cage and I feel my heartbeat quicken, I fully anticipate experiencing a pang of regret for disrespecting my Gaethje vow.

3. Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill

This is a homecoming of sorts for O’Neill, who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia with her family when she was 10. More importantly, it’s a comeback fight, as the 9-0 flyweight prospect has been out for over a year recuperating from ACL surgery. O’Neill isn’t exactly easing her way back in, either, as Maia is a little over two years removed from a feisty title challenge against Valentina Shevchenko. Questions abound here. Is the 34-year-old Maia, having lost two of her last three, still at contender level? And is O’Neill, 25, fully healed, rust-free and ready to resume her rise in the ranks?

4. Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze

In March Madness terms, this is a mid-major on a hot streak against a Big Dance regular that doesn’t shrink against its conference’s elite. Dolidze has hit his stride with four straight victories, the most recent three by knockout. Vettori has lost two of his last three, but the defeats came against two of the very best middleweights in the world, Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, both in the ESPN pound-for-pound top 10. Vettori is always in big fights, and Dolidze is ready for one.

5. Muhammad Mokaev vs. Jafel Filho

Remember when men’s flyweight was having shovelfuls of dirt piled on top of its tiny grave? Then the division was resuscitated by a fight between Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo and its Rocky-sized series of sequels, plus the emergence of an array of legit contenders. Among them is Mokaev, who is 9-0, 1 NC. The Dagestan-born Englishman is a grappling whiz with submissions in two of his past three fights. Let’s see how his ground game is tested by Filho, a 14-2 UFC debutant with finishes in all but one of his wins (eight submissions, five knockouts). And long live 125 pounds.

And here’s a bonus “fight” to contemplate …

Chris Duncan vs. Christian Duncan

No, this is not a real matchup, but yes, these are two different fighters both making UFC debuts on the prelims. Christian, who actually goes by Christian Leroy Duncan, is an undefeated middleweight from Gloucester, England, who is relinquishing his Cage Warriors title to step into the Octagon against Dusko Todorovic. Chris, who has no middle name that we know of but does have a nickname (“The Problem”) not shared by his namesake, is a former Bellator lightweight from Scotland who has a date in the cage with Omar Morales. Stay tuned after the fights for our pound-for-pound Chris Duncan rankings.

The full UFC 286 fight card

ESPN+ PPV, 5 p.m. ET
Welterweight championship: Leon Edwards (c) vs. Kamaru Usman
Lightweight: Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev
Welterweight: Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena
Women’s flyweight: Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill
Middleweight: Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze
ESPNews/ESPN+, 3 p.m.
Men’s featherweight: Jack Shore vs. Makwan Amirkhani
Lightweight: Chris Duncan vs. Omar Morales
Lightweight: Sam Patterson vs. Yanal Ashmoz
Men’s flyweight: Muhammad Mokaev vs. Jafel Filho
ESPN+, 1 p.m.
Men’s featherweight: Lerone Murphy vs. Gabriel Santos
Middleweight: Christian Duncan vs. Dusko Todorovic
Men’s flyweight: Malcolm Gordon vs. Jake Hadley
Women’s flyweight: Joanne Wood vs. Luana Carolina
Lightweight: Jai Herbert vs. Ludovit Klein
Women’s flyweight: Juliana Miller vs. Veronica Hardy
(c) = defending champion