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Liverpool, England, is without a doubt one of the most passionate sporting cities in the world. Everton and Liverpool FC, the city’s two professional football clubs, are known for having some of the most raucous and loyal supporters of any teams from any sport in any country. Thankfully, that passion is spilling over into mixed martial arts.
As luck would have it, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has decided to visit Liverpool on perhaps the biggest sporting weekend the city has enjoyed in the last 20 years. After years in the doldrums, Liverpool FC has made the European Cup final and will face Real Madrid on Saturday -- the day before the Octagon is erected inside the Echo Arena for UFC Fight Night 130. This is a true golden era for Liverpool FC, with world-class players like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Saido Mane setting the world on fire. Liverpool-based fighters want to find a similar drive to succeed.
Over the last few years, Liverpool MMA has made huge strides. Led by European promotion Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, high-quality mixed martial arts has visited Merseyside on a regular basis. A team of fighters has shown growth on the regional scene and beyond. Terry Etim, Paul Sass and Paul Kelly were among the first to reach the UFC, but it seems as though the production line is becoming more consistent.
Darren Till stands at the forefront of that movement. Though he has impressed from Day 1 in the UFC, it was his win over Donald Cerrone that raised his profile with the promotion and the public. Till will headline UFC Fight Night 130 against two-time title contender Stephen Thompson, knowing a victory could put him a short list of potential challengers for the welterweight championship.
Despite forgoing the Cage Warriors route and living and training in Brazil, Till has grown his fanbase through and entertaining style and the kind of smack talk you’d expect out of someone from Liverpool -- a city known for telling it like it is. Now back training and fighting out of his hometown, Till figures to continue that trend. However, he isn’t the biggest star on the Liverpool MMA scene at the moment. That honor belongs to Paddy Pimblett, a 23-year-old prospect with a 14-2 record.
UFC Fight Night 130 appears to have come at the wrong time for Pimblett. He continues to rebuild his profile after a controversial five-round victory over Julian Erosa in November 2016 and a unanimous decision loss to Nad Narimani that cost him the Cage Warriors featherweight title some five months later. While Pimblett’s performance in those two bouts dimmed some of the hype around him, he nevertheless retains passionate support; and considering his youth and developing skills, many thought he would be signed for the UFC’s debut event in Liverpool. For one reason or another, a deal never materialized.
Pimblett’s absence, along with that of teammate and Cage Warriors lightweight champion Chris Fishgold, dealt a blow to the card. However, the fact that the event sold out almost instantly highlights the strength of MMA fandom in Liverpool. Some of that can be attributed to Molly McCann.
With Till and Pimblett locking down support on the Liverpool FC side of the city, McCann has developed a huge following as a proud Evertonian. In her most recent appearance, the 28-year-old headlined Cage Warriors 90 in Liverpool -- the show also featured Pimblett -- and captured the promotion’s inaugural women’s flyweight title. Like Pimblett before her, McCann was greeted by a huge pop from the crowd and delivered a second-round technical knockout. Still relatively new to the sport, “Meatball” has been fast-tracked to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s fledgling flyweight division and aims to continue her development against Gillian Robertson on the UFC Fight Night 130 prelims. McCann told SevereMMA she sees it at the most significant test of her career.
That seems to be a theme for the city of Liverpool in the weekend ahead, with Robertson, Thompson and Real Madrid posing serious challenges. In every case, the opponents will be met by a mass of fans rooting against them. When you take on someone from Liverpool, you don’t just take on one person; you take on an entire people. After all, the city loves to sing, “You’ll never walk alone.”