As any UKMMA fan worth their salt will know, the UFC have been shopping for talent on these shores recently. With the big show returning to the UK at the end of September, it was always on the cards that they would look to add more domestic talent and they have picked the cream of the crop from the 205, 185 and 125 pound divisions.
For the benefit of those who may have just crawled out from under their rock when they heard the news that I had posted a new blog: The new signees are Jimi Manuwa at light heavyweight, Tom Watson in the middleweight division and Phil Harris at Flyweight.
All will be well into their fight camps, preparing to take to the biggest MMA stage of them all. In this post, I’m going to break down their upcoming fights and my own thoughts on their potential progress in the premier league of Mixed Martial Arts.
UFC on Fuel 5 – September 29th Capital FM Arena, Nottingham
Jimi famously refused an offer to move to the UFC a while back now, choosing instead to concentrate on honing his craft and improving as a fighter. A stalwart of UCMMA, he won the Light Heavyweight champion in his 5th professional fight, defending it 5 times. He is undefeated in 11 fights and his last win was a TKO over Anthony Rea at BAMMA 8.
Manuwa has finished every one of his 11 opponents and is a certified beast at striking range. Because his striking is that good, his ground game and wrestling are relatively unproven. If I had one concern about Jimi’s potential to progress in the UFC, it would be how he will fare against the wrestlers and grapplers at the highest level. His debut opponent, Kyle Kingsbury has been competing in the UFC since he debuted at the TUF8 finale in 2008. In that time he has gone 4-4 and his last fight was a submission loss to uber-prospect Glover Teixiera. Kingsbury is a powerhouse ex-college Footballer who trains out of AKA. A third straight loss against “the poster boy” could see him getting his marching orders so he will literally be fighting for survival in this one.
Most of the 205′ers in the big show, save for the true elite will be looking to avoid the standup game altogether against Manuwa and Kingsbury should be no different. After all, why would anyone play to their opponents strengths? Whilst he does possess big power in his hands, Kingsbury does not have the kind of complete Muay Thai game that will allow him to hang for too long against the Brit. Barring a big shot landing, you’d have to fancy Manuwa all day if this turned into a straight up kickboxing match. The clinch game will most likely be where this fight is won. Manuwa’s muay thai will make him especially dangerous here with knees and elbows but if Kingsbury is able to put Jimi on his back, all bets are off and we’ll have to wait and see how good Manuwas ground game is.
Manuwa will not be entirely unfamiliar with competing against a higher level of opponent than your average UCMMA contender, having spent time at Alliance MMA and I like him to score a win on his debut. Watch for him to hurt Kingsbury in the clinch with knees and capitalises with some brutal punching to end the match. Should Kingsbury be able to get this the mat however, we could see a very different fight play out.
Jimi could find a place in amongst the middle-tier fighters at 205lbs. How far he is going to go will come down to his ability to round out his skill-set to allow him to compete against the dazzling array of talent at 205. He is 32 now and if he is going to make a run at the title, he doesn’t have long to do it. I think the UFC will want to throw him into explosive fan-pleasing scraps: The likes of Stephan Bonnar, Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna and Joey Beltran all pose very interesting future challenges if he is victorious in his debut. How he fares against this level of opponent will dictate whether we ever see him in against your Rampage / Machida / Bader / Rua / Gustafsson level players. I personally don’t think we will see him contesting a UFC title and the leap from fighting domestic UCMMA/Bamma opponents to international competition will be a big one for Jimi. That said, don’t be surprised if Jimi adds to his bank balance with a couple of KO of the night bonuses during his tenure with the big show, A drop to 185 could be intriguing, but I’m not sure if he can make that weight.
Tom Watson 15-4-0 vs Brad Tavares 8-1-0: Middleweight
Tom ‘Kong’ Watson has long been one of the UK’s top Middleweights. The Southampton man started out training in a barn with a bunch of mates due to a lack of top class gyms in his area. He now fights out of the world-reknowned Jacksons MMA in Alberquerque, with a who’s who of MMA talent as training partners. Watson has only dropped one fight in his last 12, a run that stretches back to 2008. His lone loss in that period was a decision defeat to Jesse Taylor in MFC where he was outwrestled by the Canadian. That match did take place in a ring not a cage though, something worth noting when you consider how the lack of cage wall changes the game a bit.
A UCMMA and BAMMA champion in the UK, Watson is known mainly for his striking ability. Watson has never been KO’d and 7 of his 15 wins have come via KO. This includes his highlight reel KO of the Year head kick of Travis Galbraith in his MFC debut. He started out as mainly a boxer but he has rounded out his game from being a pure striker into a much more polished fighter. When in the UK he trains with Manuwa at the famous Keddles gym and here – and at Jacksons – he has put together a devastating Muay Thai arsenal. An outstanding win over superstar Mauricio ‘Ninja’ Rua and a destruction of the previously undefeated Jack Marshman cemented Watsons position as the best unsigned Middleweight in the UK and showcased his brutal striking to great effect.
Like Manuwa, Kong makes his UFC debut on the undercard of UFC on Fuel in Nottingham. He faces Brad Tavares, a fighter who has lost only once since making his professional debut in 2008. Tavares made his name with 5 wins from 5 – all stoppages – in his native Hawaii. He then made the cast of TUF and was signed up after making the semi-finals. He is 3-1 in the UFC with 2 decisions and a huge KO over Phil Baroni in his win column. Tavares may fancy his chances on the mat as he looks to be the superior jiujitsu player, but I’m not sure his wrestling is good enough to put Watson there. If this one does play out on the feet, the fans are in for a treat and this will definitely get the audiences juices flowing in readiness for the main card.
Watson will enjoy home advantage here, tapering any ‘octagon jitters’ he may feel. He is the more experienced of the two men and trains with UFC superstars all the time. Tavares has never been finished in any of his fights, but he may well experience his first stoppage in this fight. After witnessing Watson dismantle Rua and Marshman, it is no great leap of faith to predict the same fate befalling Tavares. If ‘Kong’ finds any gaps in the defence of Tavares, it’s game over, but I think Tavares could tough this out to the end, finding himself on the wrong end of a decision.
Watsons presence in the 185lb division, will inevitably draw comparison to the UK #1 at the weight, Michael Bisping. They are fairly similar, both preferring to strike, but I think Watson has bigger power. Bisping has been fighting at the highest level for a long time and is probably the more complete fighter at this point though. Watson will certainly need to get a few wins under his belt before he finds himself on that level, but I think he has the potential to match or even surpass Bispings achievements thus-far. He is in the right camp and has the right training partners to go right to the top. If he can continue to improve his wrestling and round out his jiujitsu game, we could be looking at Watson as a legit contender in a couple of years time. A match against CB Dolloway would be a good gauge of how Kong will fare against one of the UFC’s high-level wrestlers at middleweight if he comes through this fight against Tavares.
UFC on FX 5: October 5th, Target Centre Minnesota
Philip Harris 21-9-0 vs Darren Uyenoyama 7-3-0 – Flyweight
Phil “Billy” Harris served a long apprenticeship in UKMMA before being recognised as Europes #1 Flyweight and he’s now ready to break out into the mainstream. Fighting since 2003, mostly well above his own weight, he is a 30 fight veteran in MMA. Fighting in all brackets up to and including Welterweight, his 9 losses have all come outside of the flyweight limit. At 125lbs Harris is undefeated and can finally realise his full potential competing with fighters at his own weight. Harris has the majority of his wins by submission and with a judo blackbelt to his name this is not surprising. But he is no one trick pony, also boasting a white collar boxing record of 10-1-0.
He trains out of Gym01, a gym in his hometown of Portsmouth that is fast making a name for itself. Home to some of the best UK talent at the lighter end of the weight categories, Gym01 is the ideal camp for Harris.
Vastly experienced, he has even faced off against none other than current UFC Featherweight Champ and P4P great, Jose Aldo. Although pretty much no-one outside of UK fight fans will have heard of Harris, fight fans watching his UFC debut (and indeed his opponent!) would be foolish to underestimate him.
Although he favours the ground game more than other ranges, he can mix it up everywhere. His judo skills make him dangerous in the clinch and he is very strong at the weight. He uses his boxing skills to set up takedowns and clinch opportunities well and he is a handful in all ranges for anyone at this weight. He can take a shot too, as he proved against TUF alumni Casey Dyer when he ate a huge knee in the final round. Harris hung in there to take the UD win after dominating the previous two with takedowns and top control.
The call up came quickly for Harris, who steps in to replace the injured Louis Gaudinot. In Uyenoyama he faces someone who is far less experienced in terms of fights under his belt, but had fought on far bigger stages than the Brit. Like Harris, ‘BC’ favours the ground game and is a BJJ blackbelt. In his UFC debut against Kid Yamamoto he dominated the grappling and came close to finishing a number of times. Kid though, as we all know, much prefers to be stood up and Uyenoyama probably won’t enjoy the same kind of grappling dominance against his opponent this time. Harris will be mindful of the ground and pound of his opponent and will have seen the tape of his dominant win over Shoot World Champion Shuichiro Katsumura, but Uyenoyama won’t bring anything that Harris hasn’t faced before in his 30 previous professional matches.
The result will come down to who asserts their game plan the best. I think Harris’ boxing is good enough to test the American on the feet and work out if his opponent wants any part of a standup exchange. If Uyenoyama wants this on the ground he will be looking to take top position rather than play guard after seeing how well Harris shut Dyer down, so Harris needs to be on his game with getting to his feet or hitting the sweep so he doesn’t find himself in a bad spot.
This fight will be a baptism of fire for the Brit and unlike his fellow signees mentioned above, he will be travelling to the homeland of his opponent for this one. Not too many punters outside of the UK will fancy Billys chances here, but we know something they don’t and my money is on Harris putting on a show of toughness and skill, taking everything BC can throw at him and walking away with the win. Uyenoyama is at his most dangerous in the first round and if Harris can gut that one out, he will find he is able to start to take control as the fight progresses, winning via decision or late stoppage.
The flyweight division is still so young, but there is an abundance of talent already. The key players like Johnson, McCall and Benavidez are a little way off for Harris, but will be on his radar. A good win against Uyenoyama has to be the first objective and his performance in that fight will give us a lot more information. I expect a few Bantamweights to drop down and as the division starts to look a little more stacked, Harris will find his place in the middle to upper tier early on. After that, it all comes down to his training camps and getting big stage experience. Working more on his explosive power (which I’m sure he is doing in prep for this fight) will stand him in good stead as some of these flyweights are freakish athletes.
A lot will depend on whether Phil gives up his day job and dedicates himself to fighting full time, as up to now he has trained around his full-time job. If he becomes a full time fighter and is afforded the luxury of training 3 times a day with his pro team at Gym 01, the sky is the limit. I’m not wrapping the gold around his waist just yet, but he has the right tools and the right mindset to find himself in there fighting for the strap some day. Tough to say who Phil should fight next but I guess a match against Louis Gaudinot makes sense if Billy gets past Uyenoyama.