The Octagon touches down in Poland for the second time on Saturday with UFC Fight Night 118 at the Ergo Arena in Gdansk, headlined by a welterweight main event between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Darren Till. Talk about a sign of the times.
No, “sign of the times” in this case does not just mean “How is this an Ultimate Fighting Championship main event in Poland of all places?” It is more complicated than that. First of all, in addition to four bouts being altered in the last two weeks due to injury, this was not the UFC’s plan. The promotion tried to sign away Polish star and former Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki middleweight champ Michal Materla to have him main event against Thiago “Marreta” Santos, despite the fact Materla is still out on bail after being arrested in December for alleged ties to organized crime. Again, signs of the times.
Motivations run even deeper. KSW in May put nearly 58,000 people into Warsaw’s PGE Narodowy Stadium for “Colosseum,” breaking the UFC’s all-time attendance mark of 56,214, set at UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia. On the same weekend the UFC rolls onto KSW’s turf, Poland's top promotion is bound for McGregorland, staging KSW 40 on Sunday at 3Arena in Dublin. Earlier this week, KSW officials claimed that 80 to 85 percent of tickets had already been sold; the company hopes to outdraw the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s visit to the venue two years ago for UFC Fight Night 76.
This is late 2017, and we are in a brave new world when it comes to international MMA promotion. Still, the UFC’s got a 12-fight card on a Saturday afternoon, and since it airs live on Fight Pass, we do not even need to worry about the horrific Fox Sports 1 television pacing. That is a victory for all us. Now, the time has come to figure out the other 12 winners.
WelterweightsDonald Cerrone (32-9) vs. Darren Till (15-0-1)
ODDS: Cerrone (-150), Till (+130)
ANALYSIS: As stated above, the UFC tried to get a headliner more appropriate for the Polish market here, but alas, it did not work out. The expectations for a UFC Fight Pass main event continue to drop, but at the end of the day, having Cerrone, one of the most calculably exciting fighters in the sport, face an undefeated prospect with size and striking acumen is still a recipe for serious entertainment, even if it is not exactly akin to Rafael dos Anjos-Robbie Lawler.
There is a lot like about Till. He is an undefeated southpaw with knockout power and submission skills, and he knows how to talk trash. Better still, while speaking it, he sounds hilarious, seeing as though he is a native Liverpudlian who spent years living in Brazil -- a fact which gives him a bizarre Scouse-and-Southern-Brazilian accent. At just 24 years old, he is taking on a man 10 years his senior; plus, this will be “Cowboy’s” eighth fight in under two years and 42nd of a violent, nearly 12-year pro career. It is no surprise Till is just a modest underdog here, given the easy hot-prospect-versus-old-lion narrative.
Another part of the equation: Anecdotally, many people underrate or misunderstand Cerrone’s game because of his reputation for losing his most critical, legacy-defining bouts. That dynamic is exacerbated now because of the damage he has taken during his hyperactive career, as well as his back-to-back losses to the aforementioned Lawler and Jorge Masvidal, who knocked him out twice in six minutes flat.
In fairness, Till has some obvious traits that bode well for him against Cerrone. He is roughly 6-foot-1, like Cerrone, and will enjoy an inch of reach over him. He has striking versatility, power and is a competent grappler, so there is no obvious and overwhelming way for the offensively gifted American to easily style on him. Perhaps most compelling is that Till is a nasty left-hander, and southpaws have traditionally been a problem for Cerrone: Think Dos Anjos, Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis. Most recently in July, Lawler -- who is naturally right-handed but one of MMA’s most effective southpaw fighters in history -- followed the perfect blueprint to beat “Cowboy,” storming him early with heavy lefts and kicks to the liver, taking off Round 2 and then attacking with the same pressure and volume in the final round to take the clear 29-28 verdict.
However, Till has a major disadvantage compared to all of the lefties that foiled Cerrone in the past: He does not control the pace. In fact, this is probably the biggest problem with Till's game, despite the fact he has never been defeated in 16 pro bouts. He is a brilliant offense fighter but prefers to counter and tends not to fight much beyond the countering opportunities his opponents give him. Cerrone is at his worst when opponents get in his face quickly, do not give him time to think and set up his full striking arsenal, start hitting him to the body and give him things to worry about. This is how a faded Matt Brown was giving Cerrone early fits less than a year ago.
Witness Till’s one-sided decision wins over Jessin Ayari and Bojan Velickovic. Yes, he scored clean and hard with every decent countering opportunity, hurting both repeatedly with his left hands, yet he never pressed the action, always content to react, cruise and showboat in his flagging foe’s face. This is simply not the recipe to beat Cerrone. Between the way Velickovic tore into his lead leg with low kicks -- a Cerrone specialty, especially when given time to establish his range and rhythm -- and the way Nicolas Dalby salvaged a draw with his late, desperate offense, this seems like exactly the sort of fight in which Cerrone can thrive.
Till may put a few left hands, perhaps even a body kick or two on Cerrone early while he is warming up, but once “Cowboy” finds his groove, establishes his leg kicks, the punches behind them and perhaps even his underrated takedown game, it will go downhill for Till, as he is taken into deep waters, gets hurt standing then polished off on the ground in the middle of the five-round affair.
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