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My colleague Todd Martin presented a compelling piece regarding the main event of Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 130. Prospect welterweight Darren Till’s rise to prominence has been interesting to watch. His dramatic knockout of veteran fan favorite Donald Cerrone in a headlining bout certainly put an exclamation point on his ascension in an otherwise mixed bag of performances. Fighting in another main event, in his own country, versus another fan favorite in Stephen Thompson is a big ask for such a young contender. Undoubtedly, Till has a tough task ahead of him and that should not be lost in translation. However, I’d like to offer the counterpoint: It’s “Wonderboy” who is taking the real risk in this fight.
The Simpsonville, South Carolina, native has made quite a name for himself in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He has been one of the few in the modern era of the sport to successfully translate traditional martial arts to MMA. His expertise in karate has served him quite well over the years. Since debuting to a decent amount of hype following an insane unbeaten streak that spanned 99 fights between his professional and amateur careers in kickboxing and MMA, “Wonderboy” has stunned onlookers repeatedly. Whether it was knocking out Dan Stittgen in his first UFC outing, shutting down current Bellator MMA welterweight champion Rory MacDonald over the distance, finishing current UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker or destroying former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, Thompson has continued to do spectacular things in spectacular fashion.
Unfortunately for “Wonderboy,” his career has hit a Tyron Woodley-sized bump on the road. While Thompson has returned to the win column with a decision win over Jorge Masvidal since his two unsuccessful attempts to dethrone the welterweight division’s current king, the shadow of those fights still looms over him in two ways. One, he’s in the dreaded John Dodson/Joseph Benavidez realm where two losses to the reigning champion bump him out of immediate title contention. Two, despite the first of those contests winning UFC 205’s Fight of the Night Award, the second was heavily criticized as boring and slow-paced. The combination of the two make it unlikely that Thompson will be granted the Ken Shamrock exception and see his former foe for a third time, especially if Woodley remains at the top of the mountain.
This puts the former title challenger in an uncomfortable position: Go from high profile fights where he has everything to gain against established marquee names to potentially serving as a stepping stone for fresh faces in the division. This is simply not an enviable place to be. For the sake of any further ambitions for a UFC title, this the definition of a must-win fight. For evidence, let’s look at the career path of Till’s last conquest, Donald Cerrone. Cerrone entered last October’s main event on the heels of a two fight losing streak. However, those two losses were not without their respective excusable asterisks.
The decision loss to former champion Robbie Lawler was a closely-contested, action-packed fight which saw both competitors get the best of one another at various points throughout the fifteen minutes. The second round TKO loss to Masvidal was on the heels of an improbable four fight finish streak upon entering the UFC’s 170 pound weight class. It was also the tail end of a dangerously busy five fights within less than a calendar year. Cerrone was still mentioned on the short list of fighters deserving of No. 1 contender bouts and was seen as simply having hit a streak of misfortune due to his patented “anyone, anytime” workhorse mentality. However, after being soundly handled by the young Englishman, Cerrone is no longer mentioned among the welterweight elite. Heading into that fight, the UFC ranked him at No. 6 in the division. The loss dropped him to No. 11. While the UFC rankings are much deserving of the criticism they receive, most independent rankings placed “Cowboy” around No. 10 among the promotions roster. Sherdog’s divisional rankings saw him exit the top 15 with the loss.
Similarly, “Wonderboy” enjoys a high ranking among his welterweight counterparts. He currently sits as the No. 1 contender in the UFC rankings (which haven’t been updated to reflect Usman winning over Maia as of this writing) and No. 4 on Sherdog. A loss to Till, who was unranked leading into the Cerrone fight and now sits at No. 8, would do significant damage to his already flawed case for a title shot.
Perhaps Thompson would've been better suited to take on a more established contender like Rafael dos Anjos, Colby Covington, or Usman. A win over any of those three would make a better case for the karateka. Similar to his victory against Masvidal, eliminating a viable contender who hasn't yet been matched up against Woodley could give him a much needed boost in the title hierarchy. However, the aforementioned three had other obligations and were not put in Thompson's path.
Instead, Wonderboy will look across the Octagon at an unbeaten power striker, who is very large for the weight class, on his home soil. If Thompson falls to a similar fate as Cerrone, his title dreams will be replaced by being another highlight reel moment as “Face the Pain” blasts in the background. Of course, a win will reaffirm his status as perhaps the best welterweight this side of Woodley. With a stroke of luck regarding the champion and the upcoming interim title fight, he could find himself right back in prime position. As the savvy veteran, it wouldn't be very shocking if Thompson schooled the youngster. Juxtaposing the positions of the two opponents reveals what's really at stake for both. Losing to Thompson would be a setback, but it could also serve as a much needed learning lesson for the prospect. At 35 years old, this is a high-risk proposition. Thompson stands to lose a lot this Sunday.