The Ultimate Fighting Championship first ventured into England at UFC 38 in 2002 but they didn’t return until UFC 70 in 2007. Since then the company has launched a UK campaign spearheaded by “The Ultimate Fighter” season three winner Michael Bisping who debuted just a year earlier. Following the collapse of Affliction: Trilogy the UFC picked up Cage Rage champ and former EliteXC welterweight title challenger Paul Daley. Like Dan Hardy, Daley was picked up on his own merits without reality television vetting. There are some other Brit brawlers out there who deserve a look from Joe Silva, and in one case, a second look.
The Must Haves
Only a few athletes aim to entertain on the way to the cage and Tom “Kong” Watson is one of them. He is perhaps the smartest self-promoter in the sport, prompting his fan base to bring inflatable bananas to the arena to cheer him on. Think the Pittsburgh Steelers terrible towels.
Knowing what it takes to be at the sport’s high levels, Watson traveled to Greg Jackson’s camp two years ago to add to his boxing background. A sizeable middleweight, he recently stopped UK standout John McGuire in BAMMA’s tournament, finding himself perhaps one win away from the call.
Strengths: Power, aggression and heart.
Places to Improve: Wrestling.
The former British Cage Rage welterweight champion was an early favorite to win “The Ultimate Fighter: United States vs. United Kingdom” but had an uncharacteristic performance against eventual winner James Wilks in an elimination match.
Despite conceding the major opportunity to Wilks, Mills’ potential has been apparent since early in his career. He graduated culled from Cage Rage’s Contenders series to the U.K.’s top show Cage Rage to EliteXC, where he never appeared due to the promotion’s demise. He holds two wins over Dream welterweight tournament winner Marius Zaromskis and is a personable (if mercurial) fighter with a solid overall game. He could use the push the big leagues provide. Already on the UFC’s radar and in the finals of the BAMMA tournament, he’s like Watson—one win away from graduating.
Strengths: Ground and pound, ability to find mount, scrambles and killer instinct
Places to Improve: Defensive grappling, cardio.
“Judo” Jim Wallhead is a 21-fight veteran and is 2-1 against UFC veterans, losing only to Denis Siver via armbar in 2006 after dominating for the first eight minutes. With an 8-2 record in his last 10 fights, he was also on the UFC’s radar, earning an alternate spot at the UK tryouts for the past season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” He’s not the most enthralling personality, which probably cost him a spot on the show, but fighting is why fans watch anyway.
Strengths: Clinch, takedowns, control and finishing ability
Places to Improve: Off his back
The Could Haves
Abdul Mohamed: There’s a video floating around the internet of Dana White praising Abdul Mohamed. There’s a reason for that.
James Zikic: The light heavyweight London Shootfighter is a decade-plus veteran of the sport and with matches against Cyrile Dibate, Jeremy Horn, and Vitor Belfort on his resume. The former professional boxer and K-1 fighter came up on the losing end of each but does have a win over Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos to his credit. He’s an inactive fighter, but it’s likely due to a dearth of opportunities. He recently turned up on a UFC Countdown show as a training partner.
Jean Silva: While not a native Englishman, “The White Bear” is a Brazilian based out of London Shootfighters and has been on the UK circuit since Cage Rage 1 in 2002. He seems to always come up short against top competition, but his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt make the former Chute Boxe fighter a formidable addition to any organization.
Brad Pickett: WEC featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown believes his friend “One Punch” Pickett can compete in the WEC and is trying to bring him stateside. Brown’s recommendation means a lot, and a six-fight win streak, with his last loss coming against Japanese standout Hideo Tokoro, doesn’t hurt either. At 145-pounds though, the scrappy Pickett would have to compete in the UFC’s baby brother the WEC.
The Maybe File
Tim Radcliffe: With a recent win over Abdul Mohamed, Radcliffe seems to be unfairly placed in the maybe file, but at 9-2 and with only two years experience, he’s best served developing over a few more fights to avoid becoming another Jason Tan. He’s a fighter that’s competent in all departments with solid cardio to bolster those talents.
Ross Mason: Mason is an exciting striker with an affinity for engaging fights. Stylistically, he can entertain in the UFC. Unless he gets a ground game, though, it spells a short Octagon career.
Update 8-19-09: According to Ian Dean of the UK promotion Cage Warriors, “it’s unlikely Ross Mason will fight again after being nearly killed last year in an attack on a night out.” FIGHT! extends our well wishes and hopes that Mason returns to a full, active life regardless of whether it involves MMA or not.
Mark Epstein: Epstein is the Don Frye of British MMA—a blue-collar fighter with no filter for his words. Over 40-years-old, he’s been inactive for over a year, but it’s been his dream to fight in the UFC (or anywhere for that matter). He’s a fighter, a pioneer of British MMA. And for that, one night in front of a London crowd would be a kind courtesy of the UFC resulting in a nice slugfest.