UFC's Toronto return puts spotlight on local talent

Three weeks ago, lightweight MMA fighter Kyle Nelson scored a one-round knockout in a bout in Romania, and when he returned to his training base in Stoney Creek, head coach Alin Halmagean advised him to take a quick rest then stay in shape.

Normally the 27-year-old would take a longer break after a fight, but Halmagean knew UFC 231 was scheduled for Dec. 8 in Toronto. If the world’s largest mixed martial arts promoter needed a last-minute replacement fighter, Halmagean reasoned Nelson needed to be ready.

A generation later, Montreal’s Georges St-Pierre headlined a cohort of Canadians who emerged just as the UFC expanded to places like Quebec. By April of 2011 the promotion finally arrived in Ontario, and St-Pierre headlined a card that attracted a then-UFC record 55,000 spectators to the Rogers Centre.

Seven years later St-Pierre is a semi-retired middleweight champ, and the top end of Saturday’s card at the Scotiabank Centre features fighters from the U.S., Brazil and England. Hawaiian Max Holloway and Californian Brian Ortega will fight for the UFC’s featherweight title in Saturday’s main event.

Canadians, however, figure prominently on the undercard.

Toronto’s Elias Theodorou faces former Calgary Stampeders linebacker Eryk Anders, and Montreal’s Oliver Aubin-Mercier takes on Florida-based Brazilian Gilbert Burns. Aubin-Mercier enters the bout with a growing cult following built around his social media presence, dry one-liners and self-deprecating “Canadian Gangster” character. He also has a strong affinity for fighting in Toronto.

“I like to fight in Canada,” Aubin-Mercier told reporters at Thursday’s media session. “I don’t have to take a plane to get here.”

Nelson, meanwhile, splits his time between Huntsville, where he grew up, and Stoney Creek, where he trains with Halmagean.

“We’ve tried to get Kyle in the UFC for the last couple of years,” Halmagean said. “Everything happens for a reason. He’s fighting a tough opponent who’s been training for six weeks, but we’ve been training as well.”

Though he signed for Saturday’s bout on just four days’ notice, he’s not worried about preparation. He says he’s stayed near his fighting weight since returning from Romania, and plans to impose his aggressive style on his Brazilian opponent.

“He’s going to come out aggressive and I’m going to meet him in the middle,” Nelson said. “Then we’re going to swing and see who falls first.”

Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell