Darren Till And Former Champion Robert Whittaker Clash
Two of the biggest names in the UFC middleweight division collide on July 25th on the picturesque Yas Island when Darren Till comes up against recently dethroned champion, Robert Whittaker. Headlining the fourth of a four-card series on ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi, it’s a contest that holds huge intrigue given its potential impact on the immediate futures of both men in this rejuvenated division.
Loss to Adesanya
Whittaker will enter the octagon for the first time since his devastating title loss to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 in October of last year. Played out in front of a crowd of 57,000 at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, ‘The Reaper’ suffered the most crushing moment of his career when he was outmatched, and brutally finished in the second round, by an inspired Adesanya.
Billed as the ‘Battle of Oceana’, the strap was a supplement to the pride and local bragging rights that were on offer for Aussie Whittaker and Kiwi Israel. However, those anticipating a close contest were mistaken. The unparalleled movement and striking of Adesanya left Whittaker frequently over-extending, and ultimately floored.
With a previously unblemished record in the middleweight division, the impact that the loss will have on Whittaker’s confidence and aggression in the cage is one of the key questions going into the match-up with Till.
Till’s Move to Middleweight
Liverpudlian Till, on the other hand, enters this bout looking to record consecutive victories for the first time since 2018. He was able to halt a two-fight skid with a cagey, yet disciplined, victory against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 244 in November of last year, in what marked his debut at middleweight.
In a fascinating sit-down fight review with Nick Peet on BT Sport, Till spoke of his nerves and apprehension in advance of the fight with Gastelum. He highlighted the tension in enduring what he described as the most difficult ring-walk of his life. The circumstances of the contest go some way to explaining Till’s feelings at that time. It was a step-up from welterweight in a co-main event at Madison Square Garden, on a card headlined by Jorge Masvidal; the same man who put him to sleep in London earlier that year. More pressing was the fact that on the other side of the octagon stood a top-5 ranked opponent in Gastelum, who had come closer than anyone else to defeating Adesanya months previously in a fight of the year contender.
Till was ultimately able to overcome the heavy-handed Gastelum over three rounds, demonstrating an under-rated fight IQ and a much-improved clinch game against an opponent with a distinguished wrestling background.
Opportunity for a Title Shot
For Till, the path to a title shot seems clear. Beat Whittaker and not only will he have established himself as a legitimate contender but he may even find himself as next in line to face the winner of Adesanya-Costa (which is expected to be booked for later this year).
Right now, the only other men above him in the rankings are Jared Cannonier and Yoel Romero. The currently sidelined Cannonier may be unable to generate the necessary steam to campaign for a title fight and Romero may very well have had his last shot at the belt in the drab outing with Adesanya in March.
Added to that, it’s a fight that both Till and Adesanya would clearly relish. A rapport has been built between the two over the past year, but there’s an undertone to their relationship that suggests they know that they’re on a collision course. We’ve seen good-natured tweets flying back and forth between the two, indicating that each already has the other in their crosshairs.
Rapid Rise Of Till
Despite the potential rewards on offer for Till, it’s still far too early to talk about his potential to claim a title, given his relative lack of experience in the weight class and his rapid ascendancy to the upper echelons of the both the UFC welterweight and middleweight divisions.
Although hard to believe, it’s been less than three years since he first came to the public’s attention, headlining a Fight Night event against Cowboy Cerrone in Gdansk. Since then, the UFC hasn’t afforded Till a single opportunity to reset (seemingly at the fighter’s request) with consecutive fights against established killers in the form of ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, Tyron Woodley, Jorge Masvidal and most recently, Gastelum.
Even for the educated fight fan, it’s still difficult to assess where Till truly sits amongst the elite of the division. Although the victory against Gastelum went some way to silencing the critics and indicated he is at least able to compete against a top-ranked opponent, a win against Whittaker would finally establish Till as the real deal in the middleweight division. Lose, and he finds himself trying to retain top-5 status against up-and-coming challengers like Jack Hermansson and Edmen Shahbazyan and the path back to the top begins to look a little rocky. At 27, Till still has plenty of time to challenge for a belt. A loss here won’t define his career, but a potential mega-fight against Adesanya awaits if he can take his moment and get past Whittaker.
Whittaker looks to bounce back
For Whittaker, the fight represents an opportunity to restore some confidence and to ensure he remains in the mix at the top of the middleweight rankings. With a third fight against Yoel Romero unlikely to be booked any time soon, a win against Till would put Whittaker within touching distance of a shot at reclaiming the belt. Although a follow-up victory against Cannonier, Gastelum or Hermansson in the Autumn might be required for him to get that opportunity, the upside is far more appealing than the prospect of back-to-back defeats and a lengthy road back to the belt.
A Confident Whittaker
After the tough loss to Adesanya and a gruelling ten rounds endured against Romero, Whittaker has spent some time on the sidelines and now looks primed for a return to the cage. Originally earmarked for UFC Dublin in August, the fight against Till is one that he has been targeting for quite a while and is a contest that he clearly fancies.
As the pandemic hit and the future of the proposed fight appeared in doubt, Whittaker actually joked that the two should forego training and meet at a 195 pound catchweight. More recently, and with the fight now confirmed for Yas Island at normal weight restrictions, his talk has turned much more bullish.
In conversation with Submission Radio, Whittaker made it clear that despite the cordial build-up, he plans on “crushing” Till once they set foot inside the octagon in what he has described as the “fight of his life”.
The popularity of both men among fans is unquestionable. It’s difficult to root against either, but for the UFC a win for Till is undeniably the most favourable outcome. With Conor McGregor currently in “retirement” and Nurgamedov relatively inactive, Till is one of the organisation’s biggest European cash cows, and has the potential to headline their UK/Ireland-based cards for a number of years to come. Immensely popular on social media, he will have got the juices flowing amongst UFC owners when he suggested Anfield for the location of a potential title fight against Adesanya, should both men get past their respective opponents.
As close as that dream might seem, Till couldn’t be facing a more game opponent intent on ensuring it doesn’t become reality. Whittaker is a fighter who is equally adept at fighting stand-up or when it goes to the floor, and has expressed confidence that he has the beating of Till wherever the fight ends up. The former Ultimate Fighter winner has the capability of ending fights early and also of sustaining a high level of intensity when fights move into the deep waters, as seen in the consecutive wars with Romero.
The outcome of the match-up between Till and Whittaker may well be determined by Till’s ability to take the heavy shots from a legitimate middleweight and his proficiency in managing the pressure-fighting style Whittaker is able to maintain in the later rounds. At the end of July in Abu Dhabi, we’re going to find out where Till stands in his development as a fighter, what impact the loss to Adesanya has had on Whittaker, and which of these fighters can set their sights upwards towards the middleweight belt.
Follow Eoin Moloney on Twitter @eoin_moloney1
Images courtesy of dailyexpress.co.uk, latimes.com & scmp.com
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