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Darren Till in a relatively brief period of time has seemingly willed himself into a very prominent position in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Till went from fighting on the preliminary card of a UFC Fight Pass event against a nondescript Serbian opponent to headlining against Donald Cerrone and now fighting in his hometown against the top contender in the welterweight division. Till is a fighter whose ascent could have gone unnoticed by a more casual fan, and if that’s the case, his appearance opposite Stephen Thompson in the UFC Fight Night 130 main event on Sunday in Liverpool, England, is designed to change that.
In some ways, Till’s rise doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He has generally fought well in the UFC, but there are concerns here and there. There was the majority draw against a fighter who lost his next three. There was the time he missed weight by five pounds. There was the yearlong layoff as he dealt with injury and personal issues. Till shows promise, but that’s perhaps even more reason to pump the brakes a little bit to avoid allowing him to get ahead of himself when it comes to quality of opposition. Instead, he has worked himself into position for a potential title shot if he can win this weekend.
Fans tend to recall the stories of fast-rising stars who went on to become icons of the sport. Conor McGregor appears to be the clearest template for Till as another talkative European talent with a strong local fan base looking to fight the best as soon as possible. However, there are plenty of other examples. B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre likewise generated great attention early in their UFC runs and were top players from pretty much then on.
While those fighters tend to be remembered best, there are plenty of examples of fighters who dreamed of the world, only to fall far short. Houston Alexander captured a great deal of excitement with his knockouts over Alessio Sakara and Keith Jardine, landing Alexander a co-main event slot in his third UFC fight. Alexander was wiped out by Thiago Silva and never won again in the UFC. Todd Duffee famously begged UFC President Dana White to let him eat. He was put third from the top on the massive Quinton Jackson-Rashad Evans card next time out and was knocked out. Duffee’s career subsequently hasn’t developed as hoped.
A more recent example and one with perhaps the strongest lesson for Till is Francis Ngannou, who got a title shot after his first win over a top-ranked opponent. Ngannou was dangerous early against Stipe Miocic, but Miocic made him pay from then on and offered up a model for success against Ngannou that future opponents will be pursuing for years to come.
Till’s fight with Thompson is the sort of gamble that has historically forged reputations and also done in overambitious upstarts. Till has a couple key advantages over Thompson: He’s nearly a decade younger, and he’s fighting at home. However, Thompson has a whole lot else going for him. “Wonderboy” appears to still be at the top of his game, and he has fought a much higher level of competition than Till. In addition, for all of Till’s talk about his size, Thompson has a reach advantage.
Perhaps the biggest issue for Till is Thompson’s style. It’s not just that Thompson’s unique kickboxing style is tough to defeat; it’s that he has a tendency to make his opponents look hapless in the process. That’s a particularly big problem when you’re fighting in front of your home crowd in the biggest fight of your life.
The fact that Till is gung ho about this opportunity despite all those factors is an encouraging sign. As more money enters into the sport, fighters are becoming more selective than they used to be when it comes to opponents. However, at heart, this is still MMA and not boxing. The standard is not to carefully nurture an undefeated record and then to seek out opponents who are just dangerous enough but not too dangerous. Rather, the standard is to go out and prove just how good you are as quickly as you can.
Thompson is the sort of opponent a veteran boxing promoter might guide a rising young star like Till away from; in MMA the rising young star is lobbying the promoter for the fight. Whether or not that proves to be a wise move for Till remains to be seen, but it’s a fan-friendly state of affairs either way. You want fighters to try to get the fights fans want to see rather than explaining why those fights aren’t that desirable in the first place. Moreover, MMA has set up an incentive system to encourage risk-taking by emphasizing accomplishment and downplaying setback.
The success or failure of Till in Liverpool won’t change the trajectory of fights like this one moving forward. However, it will certainly alter the trajectory of Till’s career, either in a positive or a negative manner. Till sought out a particularly sizeable challenge, and he sought it out in front of a group of people most likely to remember what happened for years to come. It’s hard to imagine the consequences of Till’s gamble not being great.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.