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“UFC London” will go down as the night Tom
Aspinall
turned the corner from heavyweight super-prospect to
true contender.

Facing the biggest challenge of his young career in the headline
fight of
UFC Fight Night 204
at London’s O2 Arena, Aspinall made it look
shockingly easy, running right through Alexander
Volkov
in just 3 minutes and 45 seconds. The Russian giant only
landed one strike of any real consequence; the rest was all one-way
traffic, as Aspinall beat Volkov to the punch, took him down with
ease and used a nifty kimura transition to lock on a straight
armbar for the finish. It is the worst defeat anyone has handed
Volkov since Vitaly
Minakov
nearly a decade ago — or perhaps ever.

With the dominant performance, the 28-year-old Mancunian moves to
the forefront of the youth movement that has taken the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight
division by storm over the last few years. By the eyeball test,
Aspinall appears to be one of the most well-rounded fighters in the
division, with a blend of size and athleticism that is truly rare.
His streak of five finishes in as many Octagon appearances — four
within the first round — has followed a natural, logical
progression, culminating with borderline contender Sergey
Spivak
in his previous fight and now a legitimate Top 10
fighter in Volkov. There’s nowhere to go from here but up, and more
significantly, there isn’t much further to go.

In the wake of UFC Fight Night 204, here are matchups that ought to
be made for Aspinall and some other prominent winners.

Aspinall’s callout of “Bam Bam” after styling on Volkov probably
raised some eyebrows, especially considering that former interim
champ Ciryl Gane
was sitting right there. However, there are some compelling reasons
to give Aspinall what he asks for. First, Gane is coming off of a
loss, while Tuivasa, like Aspinall himself, is riding high on the
momentum of a career-defining win, in his case a second-round
knockout of Derrick
Lewis
at UFC 271 last month. Like Aspinall, Tuivasa is on a
streak of five straight wins by stoppage. They are easily the two
men with the greatest positive momentum in the division, Tuivasa is
actually the higher ranked fighter at the moment, and he probably
will still be when the new rankings come out next week. On paper,
it’s the best matchup available for both men.

The second, trickier reason is this: Despite Tuivasa’s win streak,
the burly Aussie has his share of doubters, who have difficulty
separating him from the fun but limited slugger who was in real
danger of washing out of the UFC in 2019 on a three-fight skid. If
Tuivasa is still that same fighter, just on a lucky streak — for
the record, I don’t think that is the case — then this might be the
only time he will be ranked highly enough for this matchup to make
sense. Either way, book it.

“Almighty” did his stock a world of good in Saturday’s co-main
event, spoiling Dan Hooker’s
return to featherweight with a first-round thrashing. Allen came
out aggressive, hurt Hooker quickly and never let up; the fight
could arguably have been stopped several times before referee
Daniel Movahedi intervened at 2:33. The emphatic win did two
important things: extend Allen’s Octagon win streak to nine in a
row, best in the division; and silence the detractors who
questioned his finishing ability. Allen requested a date with
Kattar in his postfight interview, and on a night full of
shockingly sensible callouts, it was one of the best. “The Boston
Finisher” didn’t manage to finish Giga
Chikadze
in his last appearance in January, but he did put a
serious beating on a man who might have been the most feared
striker in the division coming into their bout. Kattar proved he is
far from done as a top contender, while Allen is proving he
deserves to be one. Make the fight, and consider the winner within
shouting distance of a title shot.

It’s been a fun ride so far, hasn’t it? Through two bouts in the
UFC, “Paddy the Baddy” has managed to grab headlines, start fires
on social media, enrage a bunch of his co-workers, and deliver two
first-round finishes in wild, entertaining scraps. That last bit is
the problem, though: Pimblett has now gotten clocked badly in
consecutive bouts by marginal UFC talents who were frankly
handpicked for him. It’s made his fights enjoyable, but it doesn’t
look like a recipe for sustained success in the brutal UFC
lightweight division, much less a run at the Top 10.

In Pimblett, the UFC has an obvious potential star in the making,
right at a time that it desperately needs them. While his many
detractors will chuckle at the mop-topped Liverpudlian getting
knocked down by sub-UFC-level opponents, it doesn’t necessarily
make him a fraud or a bust. Underneath the bluster, he’s a gifted
27-year-old grappler with some fixable holes in his game. The trick
is to give him the chance to keep developing without resorting to
obvious squash matches. Ilia
Topuria
, who gave an impassioned and profane callout of
Pimblett after his win on Saturday’s undercard, would be a very bad
idea. Miller, who walloped Nikolas
Motta
on Feb. 19 to claim the first back-to-back knockouts of
his historic career, is a better call. He has the (new-found) power
to make Pimblett pay for sloppiness on the feet, he is eminently
capable of taking care of himself on the ground, and his waning gas
tank leaves the prospect a safety valve — if Pimblett is smart and
disciplined enough to take advantage.

In the above-mentioned heavyweight youth movement, Pavlovich has
been something of a forgotten man. His devastating loss to Alistair
Overeem
in his UFC debut in November 2018 — never mind that
Overeem was still a contender at the time and one hell of a tall
order for a 26-year-old prospect — led some to dismiss him as hype.
Worse yet, after bouncing back with a pair of first-round knockouts
in 2019, he disappeared for two and a half years, long enough to
vanish from our collective consciousness.

On Saturday, he returned, and reaffirmed his relevance, with a
first-round smashing of Shamil
Abdurakhimov
. While “Abrek” is now 40 and has suffered from
lengthy recent absences of his own, he was a Top 10 fighter just a
couple of years ago and Pavlovich absolutely steamrolled him. If
Pavlovich is healthy and ready to rock, he is a scary new presence
in the division, a 29-year-old with physical gifts somewhat
reminiscent of Aspinall, even if he is far less proven in the cage.
At heavyweight, where 29 might as well be 19, there is no reason to
rush a relative spring chicken like Pavlovich. Oleynik and Latifi,
a pair of solid veterans, will square off next weekend in Columbus,
Ohio for UFC on ESPN 33. The winner would be a reasonable next test
for Pavlovich.

Craig is, to put it bluntly, f***ing ridiculous. Thirteen fights
into his UFC tenure, he still manages to lull foes into his guard —
and a false sense of security — before ensnaring them in his
patented triangle choke. The latest victim, Nikita
Krylov
, landed so many clean, unblocked ground shots to Craig’s
face that he surely must have thought he was about to win the
fight…right up until the last five seconds before he tapped.
Despite a lack of conventional fast-twitch athleticism, despite his
improving but still rudimentary striking and despite one of the
worst nicknames in the sport, the “Bearjew” is not only surviving,
but thriving as perhaps the top submission specialist in the light
heavyweight division. Once he was a curiosity and his buzzer-beater
submission of Magomed
Ankalaev
four years ago a memorable fluke; now he is on a
six-fight unbeaten streak and a Top 10 fighter himself, right
alongside Ankalaev. Craig’s postfight callout of Smith was
competitively appropriate and a tantalizing style matchup. It’s the
kind of name that could vault the Scot into the title picture, and
if Smith can stop the Craig train, it would go a long way toward
getting him back to a title shot himself.


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