There's a new wave of fighters emerging from the UK and Ireland and they're ready to take over the UFC.
Historically, British fighters have been few and far between in the leading promotions. Just five years ago, you could count the number of well-known athletes on one hand, but the recent growth of the UFC means that more youngsters are getting involved than ever before.
Ian Freeman paved the way in the early 2000s when competing at a time where there was little money or fame in the sport. Dan Hardy then became the first Brit to have a title shot, losing out to arguably the greatest ever fighter in Georges St-Pierre. Soon after, Brad Pickett made a name for himself as the first who could really compete with the American wrestlers. And four years ago, Michael Bisping became the first and only English champion – a decade after he joined the promotion.
But now, there's a new breed of fighter to have developed in the British Isles. Conor McGregor has become the poster boy of UFC and MMA, while Darren Till is looking to steal headlines alongside fellow Liverpudlian Molly McCann. Joanne Calderwood is also enjoying a tremendous run of form and is likely to challenge for the women's flyweight title shortly.
As the UFC has taken off, so has the pool of British fighters. The homegrown promotions – namely BAMMA and Cage Warriors – have given athletes the chance to prove themselves to talent scouts. And while there is still a severe lack of female fighters on the UK circuit, the men's divisions are brimming with talent.
An impressive 95 fighters have made the jump from Cage Warriors to the UFC, including Bisping and McGregor. In just the last 12 months, six have signed contracts – including three British fighters. Jack Shore, Tom Aspinall and Jai Herbert were all due to compete at UFC London before the event was cancelled.
With multiple UFC events in the UK and Ireland on the horizon once action resumes, several national prospects could get their name scrawled on the fight cards. But who's most likely to step up next?
Ross Houston (Bellator)
Hometown: Inverness, Scotland
His fighting style: The self-titled 'scalp collector' has shown that he's not afraid to go the distance. Five of his eight professional fights have been won by decision, while he's also achieved a handful of submissions across the first two rounds. With a background in ju-jitsu, the purple belt is extremely comfortable on the ground and competent in the grappling game, but has also proven he can strike from range.
What makes him special: This year has proven Houston is a unique character and that's something Dana White is always intrigued by. After walking away from Cage Warriors – a promotion known for producing UFC talent – to fight internationally, he linked up with Bellator in February.
His fight against Nicholas Dalby at Cage Warriors 106, which ended in a no contest after the ring became too slippery from blood, will go down in history as one of the promotion's greatest ever fights. The five-round spectacle truly put Houston's name on the map. It was unofficially said the winner would be offered a UFC contract, and despite ending in a stalemate, Dalby did return to his former promotion as Houston missed out.
But following his arrival in Bellator on a multi-fight contract, he's already called out fan favourite Michael Page and demanded a title opportunity within three fights. Houston has already won three championships with On Top and Cage Warriors and is leaving no stone unturned en route to the UFC.
What's holding him back: Finding the right fights. Houston has always been vocal about only fighting the best and hit a stumbling block with Cage Warriors. The move to Bellator earned a great reaction and matchmaker David Green has refused to rule out his desired clash with Page. However, he did warn that as a new entry to the promotion, things may be taken slowly with Houston. If he can't impress early on, it may become a very frustrating time with the welterweight division already bloated.
Mason Jones (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Blaenavon, Wales
His fighting style: Jones can do it all. He's a Brazilian ju-jitsu, judo and kickboxing black belt, has a 4-0 professional boxing record and grew up competing with the Welsh national judo team. Jones has varied finishes with chokes, kicks and knees, and has shown he can go the distance during his unbeaten career. In fact, he's yet to stop a fight in under four minutes and prefers the waiting game. His varied combinations and style have quickly made him one of the most exciting fighters in Cage Warriors.
What makes him special: He's only about to get better. As well as training in the Rhondda Valley in his native South Wales, Jones has been travelling to California to practice with Team Alpha Male. The move has seen him work out with some of the sport's very best and it's common to find up to 20 UFC or Bellator athletes training there at any one time. New sparring partners will provide a huge learning opportunity for Jones and he could add to his already versatile skillset while preparing for a call from the UFC. He's noted that his wrestling game is lacking compared to many of the Americans who grew up with a grappling base, so this could be something he looks to learn from when across the Atlantic.
What's holding him back: Defending the Cage Warriors Lightweight Championship. Jones was determined to get his hands on the belt before permanently heading across the pond, and he was fortunate to be handed a last-minute title fight at Cage Warriors 113. The behind-closed-doors event saw several contests scrapped, meaning he was given the opportunity against Joe McColgan. After the first-round knockout, he'll now have to prove himself now by defending the belt. Jones refuses to turn down an opponent and prides himself on fighting anyone he's offered, and while this speaks volumes about his confidence, it could also be his downfall.
Alfie Davis (Bellator)
Hometown: Enfield, England
His fighting style: Davis entered into MMA with an extensive kickboxing background but quickly proved he wasn't going to be a one-dimensional fighter. The Londoner won silver at the European and World Championships, but after taking kickboxing as far as he could, eventually transitioned into Muay Thai and competed across Southeast Asia.
Striking remains his most prominent tool, but he's continued to develop his groundwork. Despite initially struggling with grappling, his first two professional fights were won with chokes and he's yet to lose by submission or knockout. While his three defeats have all come by decision, he's usually victorious on the scorecards and has five successful decisions from 13 wins. The ju-jitsu blue belt has recently gone the distance in all three Bellator wins, and despite lacking in some disciplines, seems to be doing enough to keep opponents at bay.
What makes him special: A lot of Davis' fights go to a decision, but when he ends them early it's in spectacular fashion. His kicks quickly made him exciting to watch, and he'll impress on any card if he proves they can remain effective against the best.
After a stint in Ultimate Challenge MMA, his Cage Warriors debut marked his first knockout while relying on his kickboxing background. From that moment, he opted against submission attempts in favour of frenzied blows. In his following fight, Davis went viral for a devastating head kick that knocked Nick Baker out cold. The axe kick has been watched over 60,000 times and forged a strong fan base early in his career.
He swiftly moved on to knock out Jordan Miller by impeccably connecting with another strike to the head, and Jay Dods was later dealt a roundhouse kick and body blow before collapsing to the ground in their contest. Rico Allen was the latest to suffer as Davis kicked his way to the UCMMA Welterweight Championship and a spot on Bellator's European Series roster.
What's holding him back: His wrestling game. While it's yet to halt his career considerably, there's only so far he can progress without improvements. More experienced opponents will quickly catch on and take advantage, so he's severely limiting his available prospects if he doesn't want to suffer rapid defeats. Should Davis successfully compete in the UFC, he cannot have flaws this big and would struggle to come close to any ranked fighters.
That said, he'll have plenty of opportunities to improve on this while training at the London Shootfighters. Davis will be able to spar with some of the best European talents and may want a few more fights in Bellator to test himself before trying to make the jump. By no means does he have to become an expert in the ground game, but just removing the substantial gaps in his talent will go a long way.
Unfortunately, the top four lightweight fighters in the UFC all have an extensive background in wrestling, and while entering the promotion will be an accomplishment in itself, he may be fighting for survival rather than championships. It would be an extremely quick and painful match-up against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Co.
Rhys McKee (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Ballymena, N. Ireland
His fighting style: McKee has gradually adapted his game since his amateur days so places himself in good stead for the future. A submission specialist in his amateur days, he's turned his attention from the rear naked choke to punches, and for a good reason. From 10 professional wins, six have come via first-round blows. McKee has no preference over where the fight goes and is equally comfortable on the ground or standing; his focus is solely securing the finish one way or another. Perhaps sensibly, he hates taking the risk of the decision in case of a bad call from a judge. Even in the UFC, questioning these results is becoming a weekly topic, and given they rock up to Northern Ireland once a decade, it's unlikely he'd be getting any hometown bias from the sidelines.
What makes him special: Fighting was a world unknown to McKee until the age of 16, but he's shown his talent from early on. Growing up accustomed to a football pitch rather than the pads, the youngster fell into combat sports by chance but picked things up extremely quickly. By the age of 22, he was BAMMA champion and following in the footsteps of John Phillips and Paul Craig.
He's also demonstrated his mental strength impeccably during the journey. He remains the only person to beat Jai Herbert in 15 attempts at amateur or professional ranks, and did so under extraordinary circumstances. As he was beginning his training camp, McKee was devastated by the sudden death of his father. With the fight just eight weeks ahead, many suggested the 21-year-old should drop out against an opponent seven years his senior. Instead, he continued and needed less than two minutes to deal a lethal left hook that sent Herbert crashing down on the mat. McKee was crowned lightweight champion.
Skeletor feels he's been ready for the UFC for almost two years now, but has continued to make a strong account of himself since joining Cage Warriors in late 2018. He's comfortably beaten experienced fighters in Jefferson George and Perry Andre Goodwin, and recently brushed off Hakon Foss within a minute. His performances earned him a title opportunity scheduled for September, and he'll vow for the same belt, in the same arena as a youthful Conor McGregor once did.
What's holding him back: He'll need patience for the next year. While a handful of powerful performances should theoretically be enough to have Dana White ready to make a move for the Northern Irishman, the forced 'off-season' due to the lockdowns may hamper those plans. Once action resumes in the cage, the UFC's priority will be arranging events for the plethora of fighters already under contract and guaranteed a certain number of bouts. The backlog of fights keeps increasing and means that fewer new arrivals can be welcomed until their existing fighters are content. For the short-term future, fight cards will be dominated by internal athletes.
His time will come, but McKee might be waiting longer than he initially expected. If he wants to make a move as quickly as possible, McKee will have to keep fit at all times and be hopeful of a last-minute call-up from a contracted fighter's withdrawal. Remaining at peak fitness could be a challenge.
Paddy Pimblett (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Liverpool, England
His fighting style: A highlight-reel specialist, Pimblett's unorthodox style makes it extremely hard for opponents to replicate in training camps. The dynamic fighter has already recorded seven submission wins, with three of those coming in the opening minutes. He's a fan of the rear naked choke and there's no doubt that his grappling prowess can earn him a spot in the UFC. But Pimblett has also proven himself with his standing game and struck out an opponent in just 21 seconds as a fresh 18-year-old.
What makes him special: Pimblett is the most marketable figure in the UK scene and could well be England's answer to Conor McGregor. He's already become a superstar in his home country but is determined to gain a worldwide fanbase in his UFC debut. Pimblett is known to embrace media opportunities – unlike many fighters – and never shies away from controversial comments in front of the camera. His 'House Party' entrance alone has become an enormous ticket seller for Cage Warriors.
And if that wasn't enough, he's already called out McGregor and told him he's "getting smoked". Following up his interview by unveiling a banner repeating the message at the Europa League final, he managed to rile up every fight fan across Ireland. If the two were to ever meet in The Octagon, it would be quite the spectacle.
What's holding him back: Consistently getting in the cage. Pimblett has previously been offered two deals by the UFC but turned them both down. The first saw the Cage Warriors present their reigning champion a better financial package, while a hand injury stopped his second opportunity. But after having three consecutive bouts cancelled, he's fought just once in 18 months. It's still unknown when UK events will resume, and Pimblett could now be facing another lengthy dry spell. He needs to have a consistent run to impress Dana White for the third time and be offered a deal that he's admitted he would now accept.
Kennedy Freeman (Bellator)
Division: Flyweight (W)
Hometown: Stanley, England
Her fighting style: Freeman knows what she's good at and sticks to it. With a background in boxing and kickboxing, she stays on her feet and dominates opponents up against the cage. With an explosive right hook, she managed to wrap up her debut in the first round and has proved a threat with combinations ever since. However, she's yet to be tested on the floor in her professional career and may end up having to adapt her game when fighting some of Bellator's stronger athletes who will look to take advantage of this inexperience.
What makes her special: She's known as The Machine 2.0 for a reason. Freeman is coached by her dad, but it's always a bonus when he was the first Brit to compete in the UFC and enjoyed 28 professional fights. Ian "The Machine" Freeman has been in her corner from day one and watched her win nine of her 10 bouts across amateur and professional ranks.
Freeman's also working with a Florida-based management team that is responsible for the likes of Jon Jones, Tyron Woodley and Yoel Romero. She'd struggle to have a better team behind her and will hope to really push forward soon. Having signed with Bellator in August 2019, she's yet to make her promotional debut but will hope to capture some international attention in a division with some seasoned fighters.
What's holding her back: Injury scares. Freeman was forced to have hip surgery in October or faced the prospect of never fighting again. The road to recovery will be a long one before her Bellator entrance, and while she's back to sparring, a competitive fight will be a very different experience to test her ability post-recovery. Even if Freeman does impress in the European Series, she might require some luck to avoid injury complications on her journey towards the UFC. Should she make it, she's likely to face plenty of comments about living off her dad's name, and will require the mental strength to prove she's her own fighter.
James Webb (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Colchester, England
His fighting style: As a five-time national champion in Brazilian ju-jitsu, it's unsurprising that Webb has climbed the Cage Warriors ranks thanks to his aggressive grappling. His first four professional wins came via submission; all but one of those a rear naked choke. He's also recorded a single knockout win during a hometown event in 2018, and needed less than 90 seconds to do so. To kickstart 2020, Webb even emerged victorious when going the distance for the first time and punished Mick Stanton with a daunting 15-minute onslaught.
What makes him special: His rapid rise and remarkable journey to the top. All fighters who achieve success do so with several sacrifices en route. But for Webb, he decided to travel across the Irish Sea to make his dreams a reality. He moved to Dublin, Ireland five years ago specifically to work under former The Ultimate Fighter contender Chris Fields, and felt he had to leave Essex to progress in the sport. Now living at the renowned SBG Swords Gym during the week, he returns home to Essex every weekend to visit his girlfriend, friends and family. He'll even occasionally train at his local gym during his brief stop in Colchester.
What's holding him back: As the oldest inclusion on the list, time is the biggest factor that could prevent Webb from progressing to the top. However, with UFC Dublin planned for August 2020, it's the perfect opportunity for him to step up to the mark. The Englishman has trained in the city for several years and would comfortably fit onto a homegrown card. And while several promising Irishmen are emerging in Cage Warriors and desperate for a chance on the big stage, most compete at smaller weight classes. There's definitely an opening for a fighter like Webb in the preliminaries.
And after all, Jai Herbert has recently proved it's possible to make your mark as one of the older fighters. He signed from Cage Warriors at the age of 31 this year.
Jack Grant (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Grimsby, England
His fighting style: Grant is one of the most exciting fighters in Cage Warriors thanks to his creative striking and offensive submission skills. Win or lose, he loves a first-round finish. With 15 wins under his belt, he's won in almost every way imaginable and proved his versatility in strikes, kicks, chokes, armbars and even a calf slicer. The ju-jitsu brown belt has gone to the judges just once when victorious and averages a finish in under two and a half minutes. His single defeat in the past four years saw him go the distance with Jai Herbert in his penultimate fight before joining the UFC.
What makes him special: He's a nightmare to train for. Everything about Grant's game is unorthodox and extremely hard to prepare for. At 6'1", it's unlikely any opponent could match him for size in the lightweight division, and he's equally comfortable utilising his reach while standing or his length on the ground. His size also gives him the option to compete at welterweight, something his coach Danny Mitchell has said they're looking to pursue in the future. For now, Grant is committed to dominating at lightweight, but will have the flexibility in weight that many of his rival fighters struggle with when changing promotions.
What's holding him back: His defeat to Herbert at Cage Warriors 106 will have knocked back his plan. With his opponent off to the UFC after claiming the vacant Lightweight Championship, it shows just how close Grant was to breaking into the promotion. However, with just a few solid displays in the next year, it would be reasonable for him to expect the call. His coaches felt the weight cut was the limiting factor in that fight, and despite being an advantage in the long run, it might be a case of working out which division is best for the fighter if he's to make his mark against the strongest opponents. If he gets the weight cut correct, little should hold Grant back.
Jack Cartwright (Cage Warriors)
Hometown: Bolton, England
His fighting style: The best way to summarise Cartwright in the cage? Dangerous. He has an obsession with first-round finishes and will do anything to achieve one. Adjusting between featherweight and bantamweight as an amateur, Cartwright ended four of his seven wins in the opening round. Another two were won promptly after the restart, and his only decision win came with a Budo Fighting Championship title.
And as a professional, he's stuck to the game plan that worked. His first seven professional fights all ended in the first round and by any method possible. Three knockouts and four submissions with an average time of just 80 seconds earned him a title and successful defence. Once again, he took the fight to the judge's decision before retaining the Cage Warriors Bantamweight belt. Everyone can see his strategy, but no one has found a way to stop it yet.
What makes him special: Cage Warriors Unplugged 2 proved Cartwright is not a fighter to be taken lightly. Entering the four-man, one-title tournament without any experience in a professional title fight raised questions and doubts about Cartwright's inclusion. However, he spent less than five minutes in the cage across both contests to be crowned Bantamweight champion.
Cartwright drew a tournament favourite in Scott Malone in his first fight, with the Scottish sensation fresh from his previous title challenge against Jack Shore. It took the Welshman three rounds to choke out Malone and retain his title, and he was subsequently rewarded with a UFC contract. With Shore out of the division, Malone was desperate to get his hands on the title, but Cartwright needed just 49 seconds to counter a takedown attempt and land a quick combination to send him home.
He then drew Marko Kovacevic in the final, with the Swiss submission specialist on a three-fight win streak. He hadn't lost since Nathaniel Wood beat him nearly four minutes into their 2017 contest, and within a year, Wood had also joined the UFC. Cartwright, in his second fight of the evening, knocked out Kovacevic ten seconds quicker than Wood did in his only fight of the night.
To beat two experienced fighters in the same night, and quicker than current UFC fighters, is an achievement that won't be beaten for some time in Cage Warriors. And if that doesn't justify Cartwright receiving a call-up to the UFC, not much could.
What's holding him back: Nothing. Cartwright is UFC ready and will be expecting the inevitable call-up himself. Following his display at Unplugged 2, he's already set up the perfect match in either Nathaniel Wood or Jack Shore. Having bettered their performances, a bout at a British UFC event would be a huge seller.
There's a strong chance that Cartwright is handed an opportunity at UFC Dublin, and even if the priority will be on existing fighters, he's been too good to ignore. He recently called himself "the most exciting bantamweight in Europe" and a first-round finish on his UFC debut would be a major statement. Expect to see his rats tail flying around The Octagon sooner rather than later.
Justin Burlinson (Bellator)
Hometown: Sunderland, England
His fighting style: There's no doubt that Burlinson is a finisher, with just two of his 22 career wins going the distance. He's one of the most explosive fighters on the UK scene at the moment and is determined to get out of the cage as quickly as possible. A purple belt in Brazilian ju-jitsu, he also has a powerful array of strikes at his disposal and can compete with a wide variety of fighters due to this versatility. Burlinson has often begun fights with standing strikes, before moving into ground and pound to wear his opponents down and ended with the submission. Few can handle such pressure.
What makes him special: Burlinson has an astounding amount of experience for a fighter of any age, let alone a 22-year-old. Making his amateur debut at just 15, he went 17–1 before turning professional two years ago. His only defeat to date came to Adam Proctor, another top British prospect, and went to a decision in only his third ever fight.
Four of his five professional contests have ended in the first round, and having preferred the guillotine choke and Kimura in his amateur fights, he's since found success with the rear naked choke. His 20-fight win streak now dates back over six years and puts Burlinson amongst some of the UFC's elite in terms of longevity. He has the best current streak for all English fighters across amateur and professional ranks and is keen to keep that going while actively pursuing his next Bellator opponent.
What's holding him back: Not much. He's still very young for the UFC and is likely to keep adding to his experience in the coming years. Burlinson will have no intention of rushing a move to compete in the United States and is likely to see Bellator as his "developmental contract" before looking towards the world's best. Although he might need some media training if he's going to be the real deal for Dana White based on previous interviews. He's not one for words.