When Zuffa purchased UFC in 2001, Dana White often told a story about how they expected, based on the popularity of boxing, that the U.K. and Mexico would become key international markets.
About a decade ago, White and UFC went on a wild spending spree advertising in the U.K., with the goal that every person in the country would hear about the UFC. Now, a decade later, MMA is featured regularly on television and it has remained a strong overseas market. London, which got its ninth UFC event Saturday night, more than any city in the world with the obvious exception of Las Vegas, remains strong. Saturday's event on Fight Pass, where the biggest names were Jimi Manuwa, Gunnar Nelson and Brad Pickett, sold out the O2 Arena with 15,761 fans.
Manuwa and Nelson scored impressive wins in the big two fights, but the emotional highlight of the show was Pickett's battle with late replacement Marlon Vera. Pickett, a journeyman fighter whose career highlight will be as one of two men ever to defeat Demetrious Johnson, was making his last walk into the Octagon.
The time was probably right. He had lost five of his previous six fights and was 38 years old. An attempt to move from bantamweight — the weight he debuted in when he came to the U.S. in 2009 — to flyweight, with the idea that he once beat Johnson, who was dominating the division, didn't go as planned. He returned to bantamweight but wasn't given any easy pickings with recent fights with Thomas Almeida, Francisco Rivera (Pickett's only win in the last three years), and Iuri Alcantara. He was also the victim in one of UFC's greatest career happy ending stories in December with Urijah Faber in Sacramento.
Being born in London, that Sacramento outing likely played into his decision to retire on Saturday's show. It was somewhat heartbreaking, as the crowd was on fire and Pickett won the first two rounds. A former soccer player at a high level as a youth, who turned to boxing before finding MMA, Pickett's distinctive look and nickname, along with a reputation for exciting fights that dated back to his WEC days, made him a crowd pleaser even though he never reached the top of the rankings. Coming to the ring with his hat and suspenders, nicknamed "One Punch," he dressed like someone out of the 40s and his fights were almost always exciting.
The crowd was very much having its own version of the last Faber fight until Vera started taking over in the third round. Pickett was 70 seconds away from winning a decision when a left head kick landed and the fight was quickly stopped. At first, the crowd booed the stoppage, and Pickett questioned it. But the replay showed little doubt the call was correct. Then they started cheering. Dan Hardy, who was interviewing Pickett and labeled him a U.K. MMA legend, said it best, saying, "We've got a sold-out arena and every single person loves you."
The crowd reaction was so strong, that this was one of those rare times that it really didn't matter that he lost, even though he was clearly disappointed. Everyone watching felt that as far as his overall career went, that he was far more of a winner than his 26-14 record indicated.
Meanwhile, Manuwa (17-2) couldn't have looked better. The Sacramento-born but London-based fighter scored his 11th career first-round knockout. Long regarded as one of the hardest hitters in the light heavyweight division, it was knockout No. 15 in a 19-fight career, and it was a one-punch variety finish over No. 6 contender Corey Anderson. Manuwa isn't the first person you'd automatically think of when looking over the championship picture. But when he challenged the April 8 winner of Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson to a title fight, it was hardly far-fetched.
At 37, and with consecutive knockouts over Anderson and Ovince Saint Preux, he's the closest he's ever been to a title fight.
Besides Cormier and Johnson, the other fighters ranked above him are Alexander Gustafsson, who both Cormier and Johnson have beaten, and Glover Teixeira, who Johnson knocked out quickly and who Cormier has never faced.
With Ryan Bader now out of the picture having signed with Bellator, Manuwa would probably be a strong bet for the next title shot except for one thing: Jon Jones. Jones' suspension will end in July, which is around the time the Cormier-Johnson winner will likely be ready to defend the championship. Jones has never lost the title in the cage. Both public interest and economics favor Jones getting the next shot, whether Cormier or Johnson wins.
Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday's show.
JIMI MANUWA — With the title shot probably one or two wins away, the logical next fight for Manuwa would be Teixeira, but Teixeira is facing Gustafsson on May 26. That leaves Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (25-10) as the most logical next fight. Given that Rua is coming off his own series of impressive wins, a strong showing by Manuwa there would get him into the title picture. Rua is a legitimately big name, to the point where a win would get people talking about Manuwa.
Should Jones end up as champion this summer if he gets a title shot, a Gustafsson win over Teixeira would get him in the hunt for Jones. That would be based on the past history between the two, as they had one of the best light heavyweight title fights in history. It's the only fight of Jones' career where there is a debate over whether he truly won it.
GUNNAR NELSON — At 16-2-1, Nelson came into Saturday as the No. 9 contender at welterweight. The best opponent for him would be Donald Cerrone (32-8), who has a strong name and it would be a solid test for both of them. Other possibilities are Alex Oliveira (16-4-1), who just beat Tim Means in Fortaleza, Brazil, or Dong Hyun Kim (22-3-1).
ARNOLD ALLEN — At 23, Allen (12-1) looked impressive with a split-decision win over Makwan Amirkhani. At featherweight, there are an endless number of good fighters, but a strong step upwards would be Andre Fili (16-4).
MARC DIAKIESE — Nobody on the show looked more impressive than the lightweight, who moved to 12-0 with a 30-second knockout over Teemu Pakalen. Diakiese's speed and accuracy made him come across like a potential superstar. David Teymur (6-1), coming off his own impressive win over Lando Vannata two weeks ago, would be another case where the winner could take a big step into facing bigger names.
TIMOTHY JOHNSON — Johnson (11-3) is a big heavyweight at close to 265 pounds, who came into the fight as the No. 12 contender in a division lacking in depth. Marcin Tybura (15-2), who went into the top-15 with his win over Luis Henrique two weeks ago, would be two fighters ranked near each other coming off wins, with the shot at one of the bigger names going to the winner.