In a recent interview, Lorenzo Fetitta expressed a strong desire to introduce the UFC product to new European countries yet to experience a live event. Having already visited the UK, Ireland, and Germany (with Sweden to debut next month), their expansion plan includes other powerhouse nations Italy, France, and Spain. All of them are targeted with the aim of further increasing their world domination. Europe, as a somewhat dominant, and financially stable continent, was assumed to be an easy picking for Zuffa; however, it hasn’t quite gone according to plan.
Although there is certainly a stable fan base in the UK, MMA hasn’t yet exploded into the national consciousness as expected. Germany hasn’t been a huge success either. Having lived there for many years, I know only too well that the sport of MMA is somewhat frowned upon by both local and national government. Unlike the state of New York, though, the Germans like to generate income, and they have thus far welcomed the UFC on two separate occasions. Contrary to Zuffa belief, however, neither event was an outright success, or even remotely close to, say, Rio de Janeiro or Toronto last year.
Amongst a long list of many reasons, one has been a lack of European fighters who are capable of becoming World Champions. In other words, someone the fans can relate to, and cheer on, as a national or even hometown hero. I got into the sport because of Michael Bisping. I read some random interview he’d done just prior to UFC 89 a few years back, and hey presto, I watched his fight with Chris Leben, and I was instantly hooked. So without further ado, I’ve taken a closer look at the mainland European fighters currently earning a few euros in the UFC:
READY TO GO MAIN EVENT STARS
I covered UK fighters in a previous article, but I intentionally left off our very own Alistair Overeem (36-11-1), a man born in Hounslow, England. I know, I know, he’s Dutch and probably fond of Edam cheese (No stereotyping from this point on I promise!). Overeem will next be seen squaring off against current champion Junior dos Santos at the Heavyweight Grand Prix, sorry I meant UFC 146. Already well known in Holland for his K-1 exploits, a UFC title win would no doubt lead to the Dutch equivalent of a Knighthood. On second thought Heer Alistair Overeem doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!
Swedish MMA fans snapped up tickets to next months UFC on FUEL 2 card and the event sold out in three hours. In addition to it being a novelty, a big reason for this was Alexander Gustafsson (13-1), who will main event for the first time against Thiago Silva. ‘The Mauler’ has looked the absolute business since losing to Phil Davis in Abu Dhabi in 2010. He’s gone 4-0, most recently obliterating the Belorussian Vladimir Matyushenko (26-6). With Jon Jones blitzing through light heavyweight challengers at a rapid rate, Gustafsson will likely get his turn over the next 18 months, providing his momentum doesn’t get halted.
Finally in this exclusive list is Martin Kampmann (19-5). This being the same Martin Kampmann who recently bought Thiago Alves a big bunch of flowers, thanking him for those 60 seconds of complete madness down under. Seriously though, Kampmann’s portfolio of opponents is impressive, probably more so than any other UK or European fighter in the UFC. He’s headlined events before, is scheduled to headline against Jake Ellenberger in June, and could easily sell out an arena in Denmark single handedly. A win over Elllenberger and he’s a serious contender to face GSP, or rematch Carlos Condit sometime next year.
MAIN CARD CONTENDERS
If you want a proverbial gate keeper, look no further than Frenchman Cheick Kongo (17-7-2). Recent wins over Pat Barry and Matt Mitrione, followed up by a devastating loss to Mark Hunt, all adds weight to that claim. Heavyweight Stefan Struve (23-5) is most definitely a talent on the rise. The Dutchman is due to take on Mark Hunt at UFC 146. If he’s got any sense, unlike Kongo, he’ll avoid a stand up confrontation with the Super Samoan and get the fight to the ground like his life depends on it. Adopted German Dennis Siver (19-8) was on a solid four fight win streak heading into his bout with Donald Cerrone last October. A decisive loss prompted Siver to drop a weight class, and he’ll take on Diego Nunes in Stockholm next month looking to make a run at the featherweight title.
Stanislav Nedkov (12-0) was a huge underdog heading into UFC 134 last summer. An undefeated streak from fights in Bulgaria and Japan led to a UFC contract. Injuries saw his debut delayed until the Rio card where Nedkov Impressively managed to silence the rabid Brazilian fans with a first round win over Luiz Cane. Croatian Igor Pokrajac (24-8), after a career ostensibly spent fighting in his homeland, has now gone 3-3 in the UFC. He most recently potentially ended the career of Polish born veteran Krzysztof Soszynski (26-12-1) with a brutally quick finish at UFC 140. With Mirko Cro Cop now retired, Pokrajac represents the entire Balkans region. Fabio Maldonado is up next for him at UFC on FUEL 3 in May.
Cyrille Diabate (17-8-1) will look to bounce back from a defeat to Anthony Perosh when he squares off against Stockholm native, and UFC debutant, Jorgen Kruth (5-0). Kruth himself is a former amateur Muay Thai World champion and K-1 European champion. Although a late comer to the MMA scene, he’s sure to provide Diabate with a real stern test next month in front of his hometown fans in Stockholm. 23 year old Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov (17-0) is a man Bruce Buffer gets cold sweats over pre fight night when the Russian is on the card. In his UFC bow the hugely talented, and undefeated, former Combat Sambo World champion choked out a resilient Kamal Shalorus at UFC on FX in January. Torch cohort Shawn Ennis recently suggested Thiago Tavares or Gleison Tibau as potential next opponents for The Eagle. Tavares has since stepped in as a replacement to fight Tony Ferguson. I agree with Shawn, so let’s do Tibau vs. Nurmagomedov.
Alessio Sakara (15-8-(1)) hasn’t been overly industrious over the past couple of years due to varying injuries. The Rome born fighter makes his return to the Octagon next month in a co-main event against American hero Brian Stann, a fight in which Sakara will rightly be considered a substantial underdog. Constantinos Phillippou (10-2-1) is on a roll right now running up three straight wins. The Cypriot can next be seen taking on Japanese middleweight Riki Fukuda in a tough match up at UFC 148 this July. London Shootfighter team member Karlos Vemola (8-2) will look to bounce back from a loss to Ronny Markes last August in his next fight. Czech Republic born Vemola will square off against Mike Massenzio at UFC on FOX 3, in early May. I mentioned Pascal Krauss (10-0) in my recent UK fighters top 10 column. Krauss will match up against John Hathaway at UFC on FOX 3 in May. I wrote before that Krauss is a prodigious talent with an evolving BJJ game, and he will push Hathaway to the absolute limit.
HOMETOWN CARD FILLERS
Norwegian Simeon Thoresen (16-2-1) and undefeated Swede Besam Yousef (6-0) will square off on the under card of UFC on FUEL 2 in a few weeks. Another match up set for the same card will see yet another newcomer Magnus Cedenblad (10-3) fight Francis Carmont (17-7). Frenchman Carmont will look to move his UFC record to 2-0 after a promotional debut win over Chris Camozzi at UFC 137 last October. Adopted Swede Papy Abedi (8-1) was convincingly beaten by Thiago Alves in his UFC debut. He gets a slightly easier opponent in James Head next month, but he needs a win if he wants to retain his UFC contract.
TUF big mouth Akira Corassani (9-3-1) was expected to face Englishman Jason Young in his native Sweden, but had to withdraw due to injury. Estonian born Anton Kuivanen (16-5) suffered defeat in his UFC debut against Justin Salas at UFC on FUEL. However, the highly rated lightweight, who’s based in Helsinki, Finland, will surely get another opportunity in the coming months. Bantamweight Azamat Gashimov (7-1) is expected to make his first Octagon appearance against Alex Soto at UFC on FUEL 3 in May. Finally, Dutchman Michael Kuiper (11-1), a former European BJJ champion, lost a close fight to Rafael Natal in his UFC debut. At only 22 years old Kuiper is a real talent, and much like Kuivanen will surely get another chance to impress the UFC top brass later this year.
Due to the awkward time differences between Europe and America, UFC top brass will always be loathe to send big stars to fight over here. For example, if Jon Jones were to fight in Europe, the UFC would miss out on huge PPV revenues. In addition to the lost profit, they would also have to financially compensate Jones for losing out on his personal cut of that very PPV revenue. However frustrating, I fully understand the UFC’s predicament. It doesn’t mean it’s an easy pill to swallow, though.
One way of eradicating this problem would be to build up its core base of European fighters. Overeem, Kampmann and Gustafsson are great steps in the right direction, but so much more work needs to be done before the UFC can put on solid main cards made up exclusively of home grown talent. Admittedly, if the talent isn’t there, it becomes a big problem that even Zuffa can’t solve, unfortunately. Until they do, their dominance in the European market will never be as strong as it could be otherwise.
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