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There are two approaches to building mixed martial artists into stars: You bring them along slowly or you throw them into the fire. Bellator MMA often chooses the former, feeding its prospects opponents who are signed to one-fight deals, often with losing or .500 records. Bellator’s approach has yielded mixed results. When it works, it’s called developing the fighter. See A.J. McKee. When it doesn’t, it’s protecting the fighter and stunts his or her growth. This approach can kill the hype surrounding a fighter. See Michael Page, who didn’t become MMA’s next sensation after going viral with his skull-crushing flying knee on Evangelista Santos. As it turns out, inactive fighters who have largely fought questionable opposition throughout their careers don’t move the needle.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship usually chooses the complete opposite approach, throwing its prospects to the wolves rather quickly. This has also yielded mixed results, most recently shown with Eryk Anders and Volkan Oezdemir. Anders was 10-0 and coming off of impressive wins over Rafael Natal and Markus Perez when he called out Lyoto Machida. In a surprise to everyone, he actually got the fight and subsequently headlined UFC Fight Night 125. All hype surrounding Anders fizzled, though, as Machida reminded him that there are levels to MMA and outpointed him to a split decision. Conversely, Oezdemir showed he was ready for the big stage from the moment he entered the Octagon. He debuted as a short-notice fighter against a Top 10 light heavyweight in Ovince St. Preux, then quickly moved up the rankings with knockout wins over Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa. The hype faded some after champion Daniel Cormier dominated him at UFC 220, but “No Time” has shown he can be a 205-pound staple for years to come.
The UFC aims for more success in mining prospects with Darren Till, who faces Steven Thompson in the UFC Fight Night 130 main event this Sunday in Liverpool, England. There’s a lot to like about Till, starting with the fact that he’s young, charismatic and has no apparent skeletons in his closet. He’s also 16-0-1 striker with an exciting style, having gone the distance in only five of his 17 fights.
Till enters his showdown with “Wonderboy” on the heels of a dominant technical knockout win against Donald Cerrone in October. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but it’s apparent that Cerrone was the perfect opponent to buoy Till’s resume. “Cowboy” is one of the smaller welterweights on the roster and has a history of folding under pressure. He stood in contrast to Till, a self-proclaimed light heavyweight who competes at 170 pounds and excels at forward pressure.
Thompson operates on a higher level than Cerrone. In fact, a strong case can be made that the South Carolina native is the second-best fighter in the division behind champion Tyron Woodley, a man against whom he has gone 0-1-1. Thomson is not only a capable fighter but poses a unique puzzle for Till to solve. He is one of the few karate-based specialists in MMA.
Since Matt Brown’s 2012 decision win over “Wonderboy,” the only person to enjoy much success against Thompson has been Woodley. Unfortunately for Till, he does not have Woodley’s explosive power or wrestling prowess at his disposal. Till’s size advantage does not figure to be much of a factor, either, as Thompson excels at distance control. Till’s best hope will probably be to use leg kicks -- a feature he has used sparingly -- to chew up Thompson’s lead leg and relentless forward pressure to make it difficult for “Wonderboy” to set up his counterattacks. Even with an effective game plan, Thompson may still have the answers, as his ability to snap side kicks from seemingly any foot position is difficult to stop. If Till manages to beat Thompson, he will have earned any resulting rise in the welterweight rankings.
Till has been compared to a young Conor McGregor, and he can enhance those comparisons here. UFC Fight Night 130 takes place in Till’s hometown, and there are few recognizable names on the card to support him. Essentially, this is his event, stirring echoes from when McGregor squared off with Diego Brandao in Ireland in 2014. A win over Thompson, particularly a convincing one, and Till becomes a big deal.
A loss, however, could cost Till his preferred prospect status. While a Yair Rodriguez scenario seems unlikely, an undefeated record can be a powerful promotional tool. Losing that in front of a hometown crowd might severely dampen the outlook on Till’s immediate future. While he can gain much from winning, a lopsided loss has the potential to have the opposite effect. It’s a gamble the UFC appears willing to take.
Pressley Nietering is a third-year student at Clemson University.