For as much as Darren Till is considered one of the best 185-pound fighters in the world and a legitimate contender to the UFC title, his recent track record can paint a deceiving picture.
Till (18-3-1) has lost three of his last four fights overall and is just 1-1 since moving back up to middleweight in 2019. The brash native of Liverpool, England, has also been forced to pull out of his last two fights against Jack Hermansson and Marvin Vettori due to injury.
Even Till's return on Saturday, headlining UFC Fight Night against Derek Brunson (22-7) at the Apex in Las Vegas, was forced off its original date (Aug. 14) and location when COVID-19 protocols in London forced UFC brass to move the card stateside.
Yet despite his many setbacks and hurdles to get to this point, the 28-year-old Till remains determined he will still fulfill his dreams of one day holding a UFC title and remains undaunted by how much he might need to endure in order to evolve to the point where he's ready to do so.
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"It reminds me a lot of when Dom Cruz was having all those setbacks and injuries. You've just got to come through them," Till said during Wednesday's media conference. "Here I am, a few days before it and I'm a very happy man. It has been a test. I think every fight, we have injuries and we just have to get through it.
"As I'm getting older and wiser, I'm realizing that I have a purpose in life. I know who I want to be and who I am. I am out for something and I'm not going to stop until I get it. No injury or whatever is going to stop me on this journey. It's my journey. People are on it and they come off of it but I'm driving towards something and I have so much motivation."
In Till's defense, his recent defeats have come against some of the sport's biggest names. Till was dropped and submitted by Tyron Woodley in their 2018 welterweight title bout. One fight later, he was leading on the scorecards when Jorge Masvidal, in the midst of a run toward fighter of the year in 2019, knocked him out with one punch.
After rebounding to edge Kelvin Gastelum by split decision, Till fell once more when he came up on the losing end of a five-round technical duel with former 185-pound champion Robert Whittaker.
"[Till] is very tricky," Brunson said. "In this game, you are going to win some and you are going to lose some and I wouldn't say in his losses that he got annihilated. He was winning and he got caught."
When it comes to perseverance, Till can learn a thing or two from the recent model shown by Brunson. The 37-year-old has gone through a career resurgence over the past two years, following a stretch in which he dropped four of six fights, including three by stoppage against some of the division's biggest names (Whittaker, Ronaldo Souza and Israel Adesanya).
Brunson, a native of North Carolina who fights out of Sanford MMA in south Florida, credited his switch to a new gym with helping him return to the basics by rounding out his skill set. A focus on patient striking and a heavy lean into his strengths as a wrestler is what followed as Brunson ran off four straight victories, all against rising contenders who entered on a hot streak.
"I would definitely say this is the best stretch of my career," Brunson said. "We are getting it done against these young, hungry and exciting guys who keep earning a fight against a tough, savvy veteran. I am definitely looking at this as a potential No. 1 contender fight. I have won four fights in a row against these guys that was supposed to have been fighting for titles if I didn't give these guys their hiccups. If I got out here and I finish Till, with five in a row, I should be next [for the title.]"
While securing a title shot with a win might seem a bit unlikely for the No. 5 ranked Brunson given the bottleneck atop the division, a victory over the No. 7 Till would arguably be the biggest of his career. The only problem with that from Till's perspective is that he believes his skills are well above that of Brunson's recent opponents.
"I think [Brunson] is class. Listen, I've got nothing towards Derek," Till said. "I think he's a nice guy and he's here to do a job on Saturday. But this is no disrespecting anyone -- I ain't no Kevin Holland and I ain't no Edmen Shahbazyan. I'm a different animal coming in there. I'm getting more ferocious with age."
While this is far from the first time Till has talked a big game, he needs a victory now more than ever to justify the hype and mystique in which his name has historically carried.
This may not be the deepest card the promotion has ever built, but there's still a few names worth paying attention to throughout. Notably, the debut of Paddy Pimblett at lightweight when he takes on Luigi Vendramini in the opening bout of the main card. Pimblett, a former lightweight champion at Cage Warriors, has taken the long road to get this opportunity with 19 fights already under his belt, but he has looked strong with a 16-3 record that features five knockouts and seven submissions. At just 26, the Englishman could be a potential player in an already loaded 155-pound division.
Let's take a look at the rest of the card with the latest odds from Caesars Sportsbook.
Fight card, odds
- Darren Till -175 vs. Derek Brunson +150, middleweights
- Tom Aspinall -230 vs. Serghei Spivac +190, heavyweights
- Alex Morono -125 vs. David Zawada +105, welterweights
- Modestas Bukauskas -170 vs. Khalil Rountree Jr. +145, light heavyweights
- Paddy Pimblett -155 vs. Luigi Vendramini +130, lightweights
UFC Fight Night viewing information
Date: Sept. 4 | Start time: 4 p.m. ET
Location: UFC Apex -- Las Vegas
TV Channel/Stream: ESPN+
Should you fail to take the wrestling and gas tank of Brunson seriously, even at his advanced age, his current win streak is proof enough that the veteran can surprise you. Just don't expect someone as big and skilled as Till to succumb so easily.
Although the odds are close in this fight given the recent won/loss records of both, this is the kind of challenge Till should win. While staying off his back will be paramount toward Till's success, he proved in a recent loss to Whittaker just how improved his striking and control of distance are when matched up on the elite level.
Despite the loss, Till forced Whittaker into fighting on his terms by slowing down the pace and disarming his opponent with heavy counter shots. Both competitors were dropped in the early rounds and even though Whittaker rallied to barely edge Till by scores of 48-47 on all three cards, he succeeded in routinely stuffing Whittaker's takedown attempts.
Brunson simply isn't the same level of striker as Whittaker and could see himself frustrated should his attempts to wrestle come up empty. That's where it will become key for Brunson to close the distance and get inside where Till's damaging elbow attack could enough to end the fight.
Pick: Till via TKO3
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