DARREN Till can close in on a second UFC world title opportunity if he can finish middleweight rival Derek Brunson behind closed doors at the Apex in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
The 28-year-old from Liverpool first challenged for UFC gold back in 2018 when, in just his seventh Octagon outing, he failed in an attempt to wrestle the welterweight belt away from Tyron Woodley.
Three years and indeed two further defeats removed from that night in Dallas, Texas, Till can almost touch gold once more thanks to both his star power inside and outside the Octagon and perhaps the impact of pandemic restrictions.
Despite registering a win and a loss since moving up to middleweight, the manner of his performances have kept Till in the title picture. The drama around his last-minute arrival in New York, where he defeated Kelvin Gastelum in front of then president Donald Trump in November 2019, was monumental.
Then the following summer, on Fight Island, he went toe-to-toe with #1 contender Robert Whittaker in Abu Dhabi only to suffer a close points defeat. Afterwards, the former champ admitted the intensity of facing Till was one of the toughest of his career.
Current champion Israel Adesanya is also a huge fan. Both are real pedigree strikers and easily the biggest fan favourites in the weight class. An Adesanya-Till match-up would do huge numbers for all involved.
Also, Gastelum gave Adesanya the toughest fight of his UFC middleweight reign. Whilst, despite surrendering the championship to Adesanya in the fight before he faced Till, Whittaker has bagged a hat-trick of contender scalps since to put himself back in pole position.
But with Australasia enforcing some of the most stringent Covid-19 travel restrictions in the world and Whittaker having welcomed another child into his life, his rematch with Adesanya may not work for him at all this year.
That may well open the door for a fresh contender for Izzy, who has run through most of his leading title challengers already. Till, 28, has a wonderful opportunity this weekend to stake his claim for an impromptu chance.
Brunson, of course, has other ideas. Yet despite sitting two places above Till at #5 in the 185lb rankings, he has already lost in one round against both Adesanya and Whittaker. For him, the road back to the title is far more complex.
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The 37-year-old has a high level college wrestling base that could cause Till all manner of problems should he managed to get his hands on the Scouser and take him down. But Till’s elite striking background equally makes the stand-up aspect of the fight a tough matchup for the North Carolina native.
Brunson has won his last four fights, the more recent two against ranked fighters. He’s most certainly the form fighter heading in. But Till has mixed with and beaten far better opposition.
With 25 minutes on the clock, Till can’t afford to wait for the perfect left hand to finish the fight, something he has been guilty of in the past. He has to be aggressive; he has to force Brunson into making mistakes on his feet then let his hands go.
My heart says a finish for Till in round three, via ground ‘n’ pound strikes on the ground. But my head says he may have to settle for a points decision instead. Either way, get ready for Till to cut and promo and demand a fight with the champion shortly after getting his hand raised.
TIP: Till via TKO Round 3