By Emma Bramford

On 21 March 2020, the UFC will be making its annual return to the O2 Arena in London.

Headlining the event will see the UK’s own Leon Edwards take on Tyron Woodley, while the rest of the card is littered with a number of British talent.

Among them will be newly-signed lightweight Jai Herbert from Wolverhampton, who will face fellow Brit Marc Diakiese (14-3) after Scot Stevie Ray pulled out of the fight with injury.

Herbert (10-1), who won the Cage Warriors lightweight belt back in October of 2019, has only one loss on his record which was to Rhys McKee back in December 2016.

Herbert made a move to European promotion Cage Warriors in 2018, acquired a new manager in the form of Graham Boylan, and has since gone on a tear in the lightweight division. The “Black Country Banger” has finished his last four fights by way of KO and TKO, with his only decision coming in 2018, and finds himself on a six-fight winning streak.

Boylan also happens to be the CEO of Cage Warriors. Herbert is set to become the 96th Cage Warriors athlete to go on to compete in the UFC and Boylan has always had a unique way of letting the European promotion’s athletes know when they have received the UFC call-up.

“It was about four weeks ago,” Herbert recalled earlier in February. “Graham [Boylan] called me on FaceTime and asked me a lot of questions regarding my weight and how quickly I could be ready to compete if an opportunity came for me to jump in as a late replacement fight.

“Then he said he was meeting with the UFC in an hour or so, and will get back to me, so when I said goodbye, he rang again saying: ‘Oh yeah Jai, another thing (with a straight face) you’re in the UFC, mate’, laughing. I went from thinking I might not ever get in, to being signed in the space of five minutes, I was over the moon.”

Herbert has worked as a scaffolder for the last fourteen years, waking at 6am and getting home at 5pm in a physically-demanding job, only managing a quick cup of coffee before heading back out the door to the gym for a good three-to-four-hour session of MMA training.

Depending on what day it is, Herbert would squeeze in his boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and cardio sessions while holding down a full-time job and competing as an elite professional mixed martial artist at the highest level on the continent.

Now, the Wolverhampton striker should find his schedule allows for a lot more MMA training.

“A couple of days after I found out I was fighting on the London card I handed my notice in. This means I can have a full eight weeks of just training with no work – something I have never been able to do so it will benefit me a great deal,” Herbert said.

The 31-year-old, who still resides in Wolverhampton, has only been competing in MMA for the past seven years. Herbert racked up an impressive record of 9-1 as an amateur, winning the amateur Combat Challenge British welterweight belt and the BCMMA lightweight belt before deciding to go professional in March 2015.  “At the amateur level, I fought all bar one of my fights at welterweight,” Herbert said of his early MMA days. “I never had to cut weight and didn’t see the point of putting my body through the strain at amateur level”.

The lightweight started training out of Wolfpack MMA in Wolverhampton and still does his strength and conditioning with John Ashley there, but is now training at Renegade JiuJitsu in Birmingham under the tutelage of UFC athlete Tom Breese to help improve the jiu-jitsu and wrestling aspect of his game. What’s also proving handy is the level of sparring partners he gets to face in that gym.

“It’s been a great move to Renegade Jiu-Jitsu,” Herbert says. “I get to roll and wrestle with Tom [Breese] a lot and with top athletes such as Leon Edwards and Fabian Edwards. They have brought my game on leaps and bounds. I also train at Firewalker Martial Arts where I do my striking such as Kickboxing and Boxing with Joeby Clayton.

“I have excellent boxing and kickboxing skills; my solid fundamentals will be visible to see on March 21st.  I’m aware of my opponent’s strengths, but I’m concentrating on my skills as I always do and how I will win the fight.”

Talking of Leon Edwards, Herbert says he is excited to share the stage at London’s O2 Arena with his valued teammate, who is seeking to get closer to that elusive UFC title shot.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to be fighting in England on the biggest stage in the world and with my teammate.” Herbert said. “I’m staying level headed and being professional about the situation, I have a job to do first, I’ll celebrate after.”

As for his upcoming opponent in Diakiese, Herbert is well aware of him as they came up in the British MMA scene at the same time. While familiarity is seen as a benefit or an extra incentive in a bout for some, the former Cage Warriors champion is simply just excited to get in there against an exciting fighter.

“Marc [Diakiese] and I both used to fight on BAMMA back in the day, so we know of each other, but that’s about it. It’s an excellent opportunity to get straight in there with a known guy in the UFC. It’s what I want and it’s the level I should be fighting at to get to where I want to be. I want the best fights to prove I’m world-class.

If you were to look at this fight on paper, it would appear as a classic striker vs. striker bout. However, Herbert says fans shouldn’t make assumptions as his overall mixed martial arts game evolves.

“It’s MMA so I’m more than prepared for wherever the fight goes. But whatever happens, I’m going for the finish as always.”