Former UFC middleweight titleholder, Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker and one-time welterweight championship challenger, Darren ‘The Gorilla’ Till remain permanent fixtures at 185-pounds, despite the former’s title defeat to Israel Adesanya, and the latter’s forgettable decision win over Kelvin Gastelum in November. That could all change come the culmination of tomorrow night’s headliner on Fight Island, however.
In his first outing since losing the title to the aforenoted, Adesanya – Whittaker tackles what on the surface, appears to be a hungry and determined Till, who wants to right the wrongs which seen his undefeated promotional run come to an end against Tyron Woodley at UFC 228.
On the other hand, Liverpool karate specialist, Till is tasked with knocking back arguably the most talented competitor he’s shared the Octagon with in his brief five-year stint, and more importantly, similarly to himself – a reinvigorated force.
After his first defeat at middleweight since his move from 170-pounds back in the summer of 2014 – Whittaker looked to make a quick turnaround, opposite the emerging talent, Jared Cannonier at UFC 248 in March, but made the conscious and certainly correct decision to remove himself from proceedings, as he dealt with burnout.
The Australia national came to terms with his hectic schedule, which saw him compete four times in just over two years – but just look at the competition. Earning his first promotional title challenge, Whittaker was forced to go through one-time Strikeforce middleweight best, Ronaldo ‘Jacaré’ Souza, which is undeniably one of the toughest tasks even today.
If that wasn’t gruelling enough – how does a brutal ten-round affair with perennial contender and explosive standout, Yoel Romero sound? Over the two meetings, Whittaker absorbed ninety-six total head strikes, suffered a broken hand, as well as two knockdowns. It’s almost a given; coming out the other side of the Romero meat grinder isn’t a particularly smooth exit.
With as fresh a bill of health as possible, Whittaker attempted the first defence of the middleweight title after he was forced from a matchup with Kelvin Gastelum – as he headlined UFC 243 opposite then-interim best, Adesanya. An eventual second-round knockdown spelt the end of Whittaker’s reign and the first defeat since he faltered against common opponent, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson in 2014.
Speaking of ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, Till has also had a high-stakes run-in with the two-time title hopeful – headlining a Liverpool homecoming in May of 2018. Pushed to the moon and back in terms of marketing, Till was drafted into his first title match under the UFC’s banner following his close decision win over Thompson.
The still only 27-year-old had been largely untouched, up and until his knockdown and then D’Arce defeat to the aforementioned, Woodley – before returning to the U.K. the following March, and finding himself on the end of a stunning second frame knockout by the reemerging Jorge Masvidal. Faced with two consecutive defeats, it was time for a change of pace for the struggling welterweight. That change of pace came in the form of a much healthier switch to 185-pounds.
Despite the almost point fighting display against Gastelum last November – one can’t fault Till’s gunshy approach for two simple reasons. Kings MMA mainstay, Gastelum had pushed the above-mentioned Adesanya the distance in an interim title affair and had some of the best hands in the division – laying claim to Vitor Belfort, Tim Kennedy, and former gold holder, Michael Bisping.
Till had also just been stopped twice in a row, the second, in one of the most shocking finishes of the decade, so testing yourself at a new weight, against someone as poised and loose on the feet as Gastelum is a brave uptaking, to say the least.
Whittaker and Till could very well be on the cusp of a title opportunity versus the winner of Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa in September, however, a defeat for either party would cause me some major concern for their future title aspirations. Whittaker would drop his second-straight, while Till would suffer three blemishes in four outings.
Evidence would suggest Whittaker is the more active striker in terms of output, which is evident in his counter ability and early-round dominance against Romero in their rematch, while Till gauges, like any karate or Muay Thai practitioner worth their salt – and counters. We’ve seen the Liverpudlian find his range with that left straight against Donald Cerrone, almost reminiscent of a featherweight Conor McGregor – as well as a left hook which dropped Thompson in the final round.
For Whittaker, his style is completely polished no matter where the fight ends up. He avoided the takedown on cue against Romero in their premier clash, but it’s his striking, like Till – where he ultimately stands out. Possessing damaging hooks, elbows out of the blue, and a snap kick which stumbled both Jacaré and the Cuban wrestler, with little to no telegraph – Whittaker is as tricky a puzzle to solve, as Till is.