UFC 286 from London's O2 Arena: Kligman picks Leon Edwards vs Kamaru Usman, Justin Gaethje vs Rafael Fiziev
The UFC is returning across the pond where a homegrown English talent headlines the card, hoping to reign supreme in his first title defense in London at the O2 Arena this Saturday, Mar. 18.
Leon “Rocky” Edwards was the real-life Rocky the last time he stepped into the cage to capture the welterweight championship; now, he’s looking to replicate the result in his own backyard. Before the main event, though, London will be treated to nine additional fights featuring an Englishman, not including the co-main event involving a former interim champion.
Read more surrounding UFC 286 for picks and a preview of the third international event of the year. In 2023, my predictions are 22-8-2.
UFC 286 Main Card
Welterweight: Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman
Lightweight: Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev
Welterweight: Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena
Flyweight: Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill
Middleweight: Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze
UFC 286 Prelims
Featherweight: Jack Shore vs. Makwan Amirkhani
Lightweight: Chris Duncan vs. Omar Morales
Lightweight: Sam Patterson vs. Yanal Ashmoz
Flyweight: Muhammad Mokaev vs. Jafel Filho
UFC 286 Early Prelims
Featherweight: Lerone Murphy vs. Gabriel Santos
Middleweight: Christian Leroy Duncan vs. Duško Todorović
Flyweight: Jake Hadley vs. Malcolm Gordon
Flyweight: Joanne Wood vs. Luana Carolina
Lightweight: Jai Herbert vs. Ludovit Klein
Flyweight: Juliana Miller vs. Veronica Macedo
Leon Edwards (20-3) vs. Kamaru Usman (20-2)
The O2 Arena will be buzzing with excitement for what’s potentially the best UFC fight ever in England: Leon Edwards against Kamaru Usman III.
The last time these two shared the octagon in August, Edwards dethroned Usman with a left leg kick that knocked Usman out unconscious and shocked the world. It stands as one of the most miraculous knockouts ever, considering the circumstances of a title fight. This weekend Usman is back, but in a situation he’s never been in before: now the challenger.
Before his loss, Usman was riding a 15-fight UFC win streak and a 19-fight win streak overall. The 15 consecutive wins place second all-time in UFC history, and before getting knocked out, Usman was potentially on the path to becoming the best welterweight the division has ever seen. In the first fight, Usman won handily, and until he was sent to the mat in the second fight, he was just a few minutes away from being awarded a unanimous victory on the judge's scorecards.
Edwards has proven he’s the toughest matchup against Usman, and history favors the champion. UFC fighters trying to win back their title in immediate rematches are 3-11 in UFC history. The only people to do it are Randy Couture, Deiveson Figueiredo, and Amanda Nunes. Still, I think Usman is the more gifted fighter in every aspect.
My pick: Kamaru Usman
Justin Gaethje (24-4) vs. Rafael Fiziev (12-1)
In the co-main event, your favorite fighter’s favorite fighter steps into the cage against one of the most decorated Muay Thai artists the company has ever seen.
Justin Gaethje is a former interim lightweight champion tied for tenth all-time in UFC history with ten fight night bonuses and has only lost to former champions - while Rafael Fiziev is an up-and-comer cruising his way through the lightweight division. Fiziev’s only loss came in his UFC debut, but since then has compiled a dominant six-fight win streak, most recently handing former champion Rafael Dos Anjos a loss.
Both these fighters strong suits are in the striking department, but Fiziev has already shown some wrestling skills that Gaethje does not possess. Given that Gaethje has only lost to former champions, it’s hard to imagine how he’s a +190 underdog, per DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook of the UFC. Fiziev won’t be anything Gaethje hasn’t seen before, but Fiziev’s arsenal might be too much to handle. This one should be a barn burner and has fight of the night written all over it.
My pick: Rafael Fiziev
Gunnar Nelson (18-5-1) vs. Bryan Barberena (18-9)
In the middle of the main card, two established welterweights in Gunnar Nelson and Bryan Barberena, aim to climb the standings seeking a ranking next to their name.
Nelson has been fighting in the UFC since 2012 and has assembled a modest 9-5 record but is just 2-3 in his last five fights. Although Nelson prefers to box, he has been willing to take matters to the ground. The Icelander will look to string together his second consecutive victory against Barberena.
Barberena has shown a weakness in wrestling, getting taken down four times his last time out in a loss against Rafael Dos Anjos. Before this loss, Barberena compiled a UFC career-high three-fight win streak. Barberena can undoubtedly pull off the upset, but he’s going to need to defend Nelson’s wrestling to do so.
My pick: Gunnar Nelson
Jennifer Maia (20-9-1) vs. Casey O’Neill (9-0)
In the third and final women’s fight of the night, veteran Jennifer Maia looks to hold off contender Casey O’Neill in what should be an exciting flyweight matchup.
Just under three years ago, Maia was a title challenger to Valentina Shevchenko but ultimately lost via unanimous decision. Since her loss to Shevchenko, Maia is just 2-2, with all fights going to a decision. Maia has shown she’s a capable wrestler but can get stood up on her feet, getting outstruck in six of her last seven fights.
O’Neill is a rising star with an undefeated 9-0 record, with a 4-0 record in the UFC. Three of her four wins in the UFC came by stoppage, with only her most recent fight going to a decision. O’Neill, like another fellow young contender Erin Blanchfield, is a fierce grappler and is not scared to throw punches at anybody. In her last fight, O’Neill battered Roxanne Modafferi with 229 significant strikes.
This looks to be a very strong matchup for O’Neill against Maia, but don’t count Maia out given her extended experience.
My pick: Casey O’Neill
Marvin Vettori (18-6-1) vs. Roman Dolidze (12-1)
Kicking off the main card is an enthralling brawl between top-ten middleweights Marvin Vettori and Roman Dolidze.
Vettori is an experienced middleweight, fighting in the UFC since 2016, managing his way to an eventual title shot loss to former champion Israel Adesanya. After the loss to Adesanya, Vettori is 1-1, most recently losing unanimously to another former champion, Robert Whittaker. Vettori can stand and box with the best of them but has shown when provoked to rely on his ground game.
Dolidze first entered the UFC in 2020 and has only lost once, putting up a 6-1 record in his seven appearances. Dolidze comes into the fight on a four-fight win streak, with his last three wins coming via stoppage. Last time out, Jack Hermansson outstruck Dolidze before Dolidze found the finishing blow, showing there is some vulnerability with his striking.
This will be the biggest test of Dolidze’s career, but if this becomes a boxing match, Vettori should get back to winning ways.
My pick: Marvin Vettori
You can watch the early prelims (1 PM EST) on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, while the prelims (3 PM EST) will be available on ESPN 2 and ESPN+, and order the main card (5 PM EST) on ESPN+.