A new wave of talent from the Great White Night is making its presence felt inside the Octagon, led by welterweight Mike Malott. Our resident Canadian E. Spencer Kyte, caught up with the proper prizefighter and UFC exec, David Shaw, to discuss the current landscape north of the border.
When the UFC made its most recent outing to Canada with UFC 297,it was a signal that this is a nation who loves MMA.
Prior to UFC 297, the promotion made its first post-pandemic trip back to Canada last summer with UFC 289. The host nation's representatives competing on the card made a point of using the pay-per-view fight card as a breakout opportunity that's worth recapping.
Romanian-born strawweight Diana Belbita, who lives and trains in Stoney Creek, Ontario, got the night started with a unanimous decision win, and one after the other, each of the following four Canucks to step into the Octagon emerged with their hand raised in victory.
Kyle Nelson out-hustled Blake Bilder. Aiemann Zahabi knocked out Aoriqileng in a quick fashion. Jasmine Jasudavicius outworked Miranda Maverick. Marc-Andre Barriault was too much for Eryk Anders.
“I mentioned after the last one that I was prepared to do my thing regardless of how everyone else performed that night,” says Mike Malott, the final Canadian to make the walk in Vancouver. “I wanted us to go 6-0, of course, but that almost feels far-fetched before you get there, and then we’re 5-0, and I’m the sixth guy.
“I was like, ‘Holy s**t — it’s really happening! All I need to do is finish this one off!’”
Although it took a little longer than he usually needs to secure a victory, the 31-year-old Waterdown, Ontario native completed the clean sweep for the Canadian contingent with a second-round submission win over Adam Fugitt. Not only was it the capstone on a perfect night inside the cage for athletes from the Great White North, but it was a fitting end to a breakout week for the ascending welterweight talent.
As soon as events started in Vancouver, it was clear that Malott was primed to be the person everyone talked about throughout the week and following the event.
With a microphone in his hand and a camera in his face, Malott has “Canadian Hockey Player Charisma,” but with a little bit more of a rougher edge. He’s well-spoken and thoughtful, honest with his answers rather than sticking to cliches, and will mix in a few curse words and Letterkenny quotes for good measure.
During the week in Vancouver, Fugitt joked that Malott is a fan of the “compliment sandwich” — a tactic where you stick something critical about a person between two compliments — and when it was brought up to him, Malott quickly agreed before going right back to commanding the room and stealing the show.
He’s unafraid to say exactly what is on his mind, forecasting finishes, making his desire to entertain clear, and unapologetically speaking about his ambitions in the welterweight division.
The whole way through, you got the sense that he was crushing the week, and the only piece missing was a strong performance. Then, he went out and dominated, collecting another finish to close out a week that put him on the map with a wider audience and established Malott as the vanguard of the current generation of Canadians looking to make headway inside the UFC cage.
“It did kind of feel like my coming out party for Canadian MMA, but for me specifically as well, which is wild because it was a UFC pay-per-view, there was a title fight on it, there’s a former champion on it,” Malott says, still a little taken aback that he was the star of the show in Vancouver. “The two fights after me were substantial fights, but it did definitely feel like I got a lot of attention. It was pretty cool.
“It’s awesome that I get to represent my country like this, and I do feel like whether it’s me or the timing of fights coming back to Canada, Canadians are starting to do well. It feels like there is a real resurgence in Canadian MMA. Obviously, that’s a massive part of my life — I’m in it every day — so maybe it’s just the amount I’m involved in it, but it really feels like we’re starting to build up a lot of momentum to make another massive run in this sport.”
While there are currently no ranked Canadian fighters in the UFC, Malott is undoubtedly on the cusp in the 170-pound ranks. At the same time, his flyweight teammate Jasmine Jasudavicius sported a number next to her name following her win in Vancouver before falling victim to the numbers game after her loss to Tracy Cortez in September.
Both seem more than capable of fighting their way into the rankings in their respective weight classes and, along with featherweight Charles Jourdain, serve as the leaders of the emerging Canadian class that is looking to have a similar moment in the Octagon as the generation of talents that inspired Malott to dive head-first into the sport.
Being a kid with dreams of playing professional sports when you grow up is not uncommon. Still, traditionally speaking, visions of hoisting the Stanley Cup have dominated the visions of Canadian youth raised on a diet of Hockey Night in Canada and copious amounts of NHL coverage on TSN and Sportsnet.
Case in point, Malott’s younger brother, Jeff, is a prospect for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, having netted 23 goals in his last two seasons with the club’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.
The arrival of the Toronto Raptors (and quickly departed Vancouver Grizzlies) gave some kids hoop dreams, while baseball and soccer — sorry, football — always ruled the day for others, but by the time Malott touched down at Hamilton’s Hillfield Strathallen College, another sport had caught his eye and a class of Canadians inspiriting his dreams.
“Before I was a Canadian fighting in the UFC, was just a Canadian MMA fan,” begins Malott as we discuss the deep sense of pride he carries for our home nation and the events and athletes that made it clear to him early on that Canadians could succeed and thrive at the highest levels in the sport. “Coming up as a UFC fan from Canada and having guys to get behind like Georges St-Pierre, Mark Hominick, Rory MacDonald, David Loiseau, all these high-level fighters, plus even more from our area like Claude Patrick and Mark Bocek and Sam Stout, those guys inspired me.
“I remember watching UFC 53 a hundred times because it was one of the only UFC DVDs that I had. David Loiseau was on that, and he spinning back kicked Charles McCarthy — jumping spinning back kick for the TKO — and I became obsessed with the spinning back kick after that in high school; I wanted that to be my thing.”
Eventually, Malott started training and competing, first in kickboxing and then in mixed martial arts.
He made his professional debut in 2011, winning his first four fights before running into fellow UFC fighter Hakeem Dawodu at a World Series of Fighting event in Edmonton while the two were still on the come-up.
He pressed pause on his career in the cage to commit to coaching, spending several years with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, where he not only sharpened his skills and built a more profound knowledge base but gained familiarity with the UFC and everything that goes on during fight week, cornering dozens of fighters. When he returned to action towards the tail end of 2020, he picked up where he left off, collecting another first-round stoppage before doing the same on the Contender Series and punching his ticket to the Octagon.
Along the way, his Canadian pride and desire to do for others what fighters like St-Pierre did for him has never wavered.
“Watching those guys, those pioneers fight made me fall in love with the sport, made me develop my game, made me a huge fan of MMA,” says Malott. “It gave me a lot of pride seeing a Canadian champion, seeing Canadians do really well on the international circuit, so that’s part of the inspiration for me now, too.
“I want to give back to the 10-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids that are watching MMA, watching the UFC, and I want them to feel proud when it comes to Canadians in MMA. I want to inspire the next generation to get into wrestling, get into jiu jitsu, get into MMA gyms, and start training.
“I think of it as a lot bigger picture than just my experience and my career,” he adds. “Obviously, that’s first and foremost — you’ve got to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and winning fights is the most important thing for me; winning fights, being exciting, and getting stoppages.
“But after that, it’s representing my home, making sure I’m creating another good trail for the next generation like Georges did.”
After returning to Canada with last summer’s pay-per-view event in Vancouver, the expectation was that the next UFC show to cross the border would take place in Toronto, marking the first time since 2018 that the promotion has brought a show to the Ontario capital.
For Malott, who faces Top 15 fixture Neil Magny on the January 20th event at Scotiabank Arena, it’s a massive opportunity for many reasons.
“There are a lot of different aspects to this,” he says of his impending pay-per-view appearance in Toronto. “One, this will be my second time-fighting in Canada for the UFC, so I’m extremely excited to represent Canada at home again.
“Number Two, this is my first time fighting for the UFC in Ontario, and not only in Ontario but in Toronto. I grew up down the street in Waterdown, like 45 minutes from Toronto, and it’s not only gonna be in Toronto, but it’s gonna be at Scotiabank Centre, and for everyone in this area that grew up here, they know it, and I know it as the Air Canada Centre (ACC).
“There are a lot of cool arenas in the world — Madison Square Garden, the O2 Arena, Staples Center — but the arena for me, my whole life, has been the ACC, now Scotiabank Arena; that’s the arena we grew up going to. If my dad would get tickets from work to go watch the Leafs play, if you would go to a concert in high school, that’s where it was held.
“That was the arena, so to get to be the final Canadian fighting on the card, in the UFC, on a pay-per-view, on the main card, in that arena is definitely gonna feel pretty incredible,” he adds. “It means a lot because it’s in Toronto at Scotiabank, and it means a lot to me in terms of representing Canada.”
David Shaw recognizes many elements Malott sees coming together in the UFC. Like his fellow Canadian, the UFC Executive Vice President and Head of International and Content is excited for what the future holds, beginning this year.
“What we have right now feels like there is a surge. It feels like there is a renewed interest,” said Shaw, who, like Malott, pointed to pioneers like St-Pierre, Hominick, and Sam Stout for helping initially drive interest in the sport in this country. “There are more athletes that are percolating to the top. We’re getting back to Toronto with an event, and we’re extremely enthused by the Sportsnet relationship.”
Towards the end of 2023, the UFC announced a new multi-year broadcast partnership with Sportsnet, returning to its original broadcast partner following several years with TSN.
“They’ve come in with so much energy, incredible ideas that are all athlete-centric and are really interested in helping build this next stage of the UFC.”
In terms of the next stage, the plan is a return to the pre-COVID template for UFC events in Canada, with Shaw outlining not only the significant centers that will continue to feature in pay-per-view discussions but also destinations where he would like to see the Octagon pop up again in the coming years.
“We want to get back to pre-COVID,” began the UFC executive. “We want to get back to two or three events per year, and we want to make sure there is a pay-per-view in a pay-per-view city: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary.
“We want to ensure we get our Fight Nights to those key cities, but also to some other cities across the country. I’d love to get back to the Maritimes; I want to go back to Atlantic Canada at some point. I want to make sure we’re in Central Canada and the Prairies. We don’t know yet, but we do know it’s been a long time since we’ve been in Quebec, so at some point in the next couple years, we want to be back in Montreal or Quebec City.
“It’s extremely important for us to have representation of our live events across the country to the extent that we can.”
Having a solid crop of talent enjoying success inside the Octagon certainly makes a return to bringing multiple events north of the U.S. border easier to do. Malott’s desire to carry the flag, literally and figuratively, has understandably set him as the vanguard for this new group.
“This isn’t a novel concept,” Shaw began with a smile. “Wherever we’ve gone over the years, having a local hero has such a profound effect on the fan base, not only giving them someone to cheer for in the arena, but someone that personifies and represents the values of that community; there are some cultural consistencies.
“(Malott) makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. He’s got a great history with his brother playing hockey, he’s associated with the Nelk Boys now, and he’s sitting there with a backwards hat.
“I think what comes off is pretty authentic, pretty genuine. There is a nice polish, and he’s polite, but he’s kind of figured out what his role is in all of this, and being insightful and charismatic, having a really great energy about him — over the years, he’s done really well, but then you see him compete in Vancouver and after that win, the way he riled up the crowd in there, it’s cool to see.
“As a Canadian and as a member of this UFC team, it’s nice to have that lifeblood and energy, but that’s not to say there’s not a number of other really important athletes,” added Shaw. “Think of the journey Marc-Andre Barriault has been on or Brad Katona winning TUF twice. Charles Jourdain as much as he’s had some wins and losses, he’s been up against a list of killers, and he’s never backed down. He’s not someone that is tentative and reserved — he brings it every single time — and to have him front-and-center, I think he can have a really long and successful career.
“It’s a really fun time to be a part of MMA in Canada.”
Indeed it is.
In addition to Malott, there are another 14 Canadians — plus one honorary Canuck — currently active on the UFC roster.
Marc-Andre Barriault: it took the veteran middleweight a little time to get rolling, but “Power Bar” has put together five wins in his last seven outings to cement his standing as a fixture in the middleweight division.
Brad Katona: the first man to win The Ultimate Fighter twice, the Dublin-based Winnipeg native went 1-2 in his first tour of duty following his win on Season 27, then earned a second stint on the roster with a gutsy, grimy effort in a Fight of the Year contender against Cody Gibson at UFC 292 in Boston.
Charles Jourdain: a two-division champ under the TKO banner before graduating to the Octagon, the 28-year-old Jourdain has started taking a more tactical, patient approach in the cage, resulting in consecutive quality wins over Kron Gracie and Ricardo Ramos in 2023.
Jasmine Jasudavicius: a late arriver to the sport, Jasudavicius has landed a place just outside the Top 15 in the flyweight division on the strength of impressive 2023 wins over Gabriella Fernandes and Miranda Maverick, and a hard-fought setback against Tracy Cortez at Noche UFC in September.
Gavin Tucker: Newfoundland-born and Nova Scotia-based, Tucker has resided on the fringes of the Top 15 in the featherweight division for the last few years following his UFC 256 masterclass against Billy Quarantillo.
Gillian Robertson: still only 28 years old, “The Savage” is set to begin her sixth year on the roster with an appearance at UFC 297. Born in Niagara Falls, Robertson has the most submission wins of any female fighter in UFC history.
Hakeem Dawodu: an outstanding technical kickboxer, Dawodu lives in the same neighborhood as Tucker when it comes to the featherweight division, hovering just outside the rankings and constantly seeming poised to put together a run that lands him a date with more marquee names.
Kyle Nelson: “The Monster” had an outstanding year in 2023, posting a 2-0-1 record, including back-to-back decision wins over Blake Bilder and Fernando Padilla to establish himself as a person of interest going forward in the 145-pound weight class.
Jamey-Lyn Horth: the Squamish, British Columbia product won gold in three different regional promotions before landing in the UFC, where she defeated Hailey Cowan in her promotional debut before dropping a split decision to Veronica Hardy to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten last time out.
Yohan Lainesse: the former CFFC welterweight champ stopped Cage Warriors contender Justin Burlinson to land his spot on the UFC roster. He picked up his first victory inside the Octagon with a win over Darian Weeks at UFC 279.
Diana Belbita: while born in Romania, the 27-year-old Belbita lives and trains in Stoney Creek, Ontario, and picked up her most recent UFC victory on Canadian soil, kicking off the clean sweep for the home side at UFC 289 in Vancouver with a unanimous decision win over Maria Oliveira.
Aiemann Zahabi: the Montreal native has quietly put together a three-fight winning streak in the bantamweight division, most recently stopping Aoriqileng in just over a minute at UFC 289 in Vancouver.
Chad Anheliger: after starting his career with just two wins in his first seven starts, Anheliger rattled off 10 straight wins, including a finish of TUF finalist Brady Hiestand, a split decision triumph over Muin Gafurov on Dana White’s Contender Series, and a third-round stoppage of Jesse Strader in his UFC debut before landing on the wrong side of the results in each of his last two outings.
Serhiy Sidey: the 27-year-old bantamweight was the Battlefield Fight League and BTC champ before earning a UFC contract with a first-round stoppage win on Season 7 of Dana White’s Contender Series that ran his record to 10-1 and his overall winning streak to six.
Malcolm Gordon: like Barriault and Jourdain, Gordon is another former TKO champ to matriculate to the Octagon, where he’s proven to be a solid, veteran litmus test for ascending hopefuls in the flyweight division, including Top 10 standouts Amir Albazi and Muhammad Mokaev.