Darren Till will make his middleweight debut at UFC 244 in a matchup against the hard-hitting former interim-title-challenger Kelvin Gastelum.
Something that irks me about this sport’s fandom is the stigma that is still attached to taking a tune-up fight, where needed.
Now don’t get me wrong, I too find myself rolling my eyes to a certain extent when a fighter on the rise is matched up in such a selective manner that the odds of failure are ridiculously low but in the case of Darren Till, a different viewpoint needs to be taken.
UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi could well stand as conclusive proof of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s status as a global superstar. Everything from the buzz generated during his post-UFC 229 world tour to his blossoming social media numbers would indicate that he’s a potentially huge draw for the company.
In a time where worldwide expansion is paramount, giving Khabib that spot in a venue reasonably close to his Dagestan home is a move that will allow the UFC to place roots in relatively uncharted territory. It’s a genius business decision and the perfect use of an asset who perhaps wouldn’t create the same level of buzz on US soil.
This is what made Darren Till’s UFC London clash with Jorge Masvidal a masterstroke of matchmaking.
Who could have known that Till was going to get starched in such brutal fashion by Gamebred? I’m not in any way slating the UFC brass for making the fight. In many ways, it was the perfect move.
But a lesson should have been learned from that result. In a time where European stars are fading, a man as popular as Till requires a gentle repositioning at this point in his career.
And he is a very popular fighter, make no mistake.
Young, talented, good on the mic, and beloved by his people, I don’t blame the UFC for fast-tracking him to the title.
I wouldn’t have personally allowed things to play out like that myself, but we’ve seen more blatant cases in the past.
Now, with a battering at the hands of the former champ Tyron Woodley and a clubbing courtesy of Jorge Masvidal behind him, the smart move would be to give this young man time to replenish.
There is every chance that Till, who is still just 26, can become the massive European star that Dana and co. believe he can be.
Personal issues outside of the octagon and problems concerning weight-cutting and overall professionalism can be fixed.
But with a move to 185lbs, the seemingly more natural fit for The Gorilla, putting him in there with the hungry, hard-hitting, former interim-title-challenger Kelvin Gastelum is a shocking piece of match-making.
I’m not in any way saying that Darren can’t win the fight, but the management of young fighters on the rise is a game of great risks and to me, this is a completely baffling move – one that could have some serious consequences for the long-term health and confidence of the Liverpudlian.
Look, nobody is going to tell Darren Till that he can’t win this fight. And they shouldn’t – it’s certainly not true at all.
But when you’ve taken a considerable amount of damage in your last two outings and caused some understandable concern from your fanbase due to your behaviour outside of competition, there does need to be steps taken to ease your path back into the win-column.
I don’t hate the Gastelum matchup from a stylistic perspective as much as most do, but there is a very real danger that Till suffers another vicious defeat here. Even the most fervent of his fans will not deny this.
Do the UFC want to push Till right into middleweight title-contention? If so, why?
As things stand, the belt is locked up for at least the rest of 2019 and possibly even early 2020 with both the clash of champion Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya and then the injection of Paulo Costa into the equation.
No matter what Till does against Gastelum, it’s hard to see him skipping over Borrachinha in the queue – so why not give him a top-10 test but perhaps one that puts his chin at less of a risk.
This is the fight-game, of course, and there will always be that traditional (and some might say outdated) sense of bravado that pushes guys to fight the very best as often as they can.
As much their overall structure is flawed, the boxing model – one that adopts a near polar-opposite approach – is one that often gets things right in this regard.
The attitude towards tune-up fights in MMA is one that deprives us of seeing the best fight the best when they’re actually at their very best.
I still think that Darren Till has a very bright future in mixed martial arts and who knows, he could prove his doubters wrong and take to his new home at middleweight with a real flair.
That’s not the issue here.
The UFC’s management of Till is perhaps a consequence of the McGregor-era and the idea that a rise to superstardom can happen in the blink of an eye.
But not everyone is Conor McGregor and in the case of Darren Till, I genuinely believe that they need to slow themselves down to a certain extent – especially after his back-to-back defeats.
When even Till’s coach Colin Heron is speaking about the mismanagement of his star-pupil, it really does beg the question over where exactly these decisions are coming from.
Either way, I can’t help but stress my disappointment at today’s fight announcement because win, lose, or draw, it says a lot about the modern state of the UFC’s matchmaking and prospect management.
I just hope that the story of Darren Till isn’t one that is affected by the quite frankly tremendous missteps that have been taken in nurturing his clear talent so far.
Only time will tell, of course, but I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t a worrying piece of news to receive when it broke this morning.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena