This Sunday, Aussie fans will be treated to the much-anticipated return of Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker, when he makes the walk to the Octagon on Fight Island to face British superstar Darren “The Gorilla” Till.
The clash represents Whittaker’s first appearance in the UFC since October last year, when he dropped the middleweight strap to the current champion, Israel Adesanya. Since losing the title, Whittaker publicly stated that he was in dire need of some time away from the cage and the pressures that come with it. Now, just days away from his much-anticipated return, we take a look at the tale behind the upcoming battle with Darren Till.
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Let’s begin by observing the numerous similarities between the two competitors. Both combatants have previously spent considerable fight time as welterweights, one class below the middleweight division they currently share. In careers which have seen the pair accumulate thirty-eight victories collectively, only twelve of those have come via judge’s decision, with a dead even split of six each.
When it comes to their in-cage fight styles, the details differ, but their overall approaches are akin; both men are adored by fans for their exciting striking styles, both aggressively chase the finish inside the Octagon, and as a result they share multiple ‘fight of the night’ and ‘performance of the night’ bonuses.
During their respective professional mixed martial arts careers, both Darren Till and Robert Whittaker have succumbed to submission only one single time, each. The pair are comparably placed with regard to their home countries, with each man carrying much of the hopes of his respective nation upon his own shoulders. Granted, current featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski is currently Australia’s highest ranked MMA athlete, and there are other British stars in the MMA realm at the moment such as the extremely promising Leon Edwards, but I think most will agree, that both Whittaker and Till, maintain a particularly important position at the top of the pyramid for their respective tribes.
On the matter of nationality, it is important to note that both combatants played a critical role in their own home-grown history-making storylines. In 2018, Darren Till headlined the first and only UFC event to be hosted in his hometown of Liverpool, England, when he walked out to the roar of 8,520 Echo Arena fans singing “Sweet Caroline” before defeating Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson via unanimous decision. Robert Whittaker played an equally critical role in a monumentally historical event in Melbourne, Australia, when he headlined UFC 243 in front of 57,124 fans (I was one of them), in an event that broke worldwide UFC attendance records. The two also share another interesting parallel; age. While both men are well established in their respective mixed martial arts careers, neither is over thirty years old, and amazingly, they are arguably only now entering their fighting prime.
This pivotal clash is intriguing for a myriad of reasons. In Whittaker, we are presented with a former world champion, who’s dominant run at the top of the talent stacked middleweight division was truly something to behold. Whittaker’s UFC career began in ‘The Ultimate Fighter Smashes’ series, when he fought his way to a UFC contract, becoming the welterweight tournament champion. After the contract securing victory, he went 2-2 in the UFC’s welterweight division before making an all-important switch in weight class, jumping up 15 lbs (7kg) to make his middleweight debut against Clint Hester, in November of 2014. During the outing Whittaker reigned victorious with a 2nd round TKO and earned himself a ‘fight of the night’ bonus. The bout marked the birth of dominant middleweight force and from that point on, Whittaker enjoyed an eight-fight winning streak, while accumulating four stoppages. During the streak, ‘The Reaper’ defeated some of the greatest fighters of this epoch, conquering the likes of Yoel Romero (twice) and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, on his way to making history when he became the first Australian to capture the UFC gold.
Darren Till’s rise to UFC stardom began about six months after Robert Whittaker’s middleweight debut, when the Liverpool native burst into the UFC’s welterweight division, scoring a second round KO over Wendell de Oliveira Marques in May of 2015. That victory marked the first in a six fight UFC winning streak, which assisted in an incredible accumulative seventeen match unbeaten run overall. ‘The Gorilla’ suffered his first loss at the hands of the then welterweight king, Tyron Woodley, and a subsequent defeat at the hands of recent welterweight title challenger, Jorge Masvidal. Since the pair of losses to world class opponents, Till arrived into the UFC’s middleweight landscape with an impressive victory over former middleweight title challenger, Kelvin Gastelum; who (important to note) had previously provided the current UFC middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya, with his toughest test to date.
Finally. To fully grasp the full story of this bout, we must understand the overall middleweight title picture, and how this fight fits into it. Like many weight classes, the middleweight division’s title narrative could go in a number of interesting directions at present. This bout is an absolutely pivotal exchange that will perhaps provide a clearer path to the next instalment of the UFC middleweight championship picture. With the top five looking as follows:
Champion: Israel Adesanya
In this upcoming bout, we could be looking at a potential number one contenders fight, a notion that Darren Till has alluded to during his recent fight week interviews. The fifth ranked British combatant possess huge star power, both in and out of the cage, so a victory over the former champ could potentially cement his position as the next man in line for shot at the strap.
At number four we have Yoel Romero, who has previously faced both Adesanya and Whittaker, losing to both. In an interesting twist, Darren Till called out Romero publicly before later claiming he said it while drunk.
Sneaking in at number three is former heavyweight, Jared Cannonier, who has put together a three-bout winning streak over David Branch, Anderson Silva, and Jack Hermansson since making his middleweight debut in November of 2018. Sixth ranked Hermanson, (Cannoniers most recent opponent) also now finds himself to be a crucial piece of the middleweight puzzle, after recently defeating former title challenger Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum interestingly himself was once scheduled to have his chance at Whittaker’s middleweight strap at UFC 234 back in February of 2019, before Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the contest due to last minute emergency hernia surgery.
The second ranked middleweight is Paulo Costa, who is set to face Israel Adesanya for the title in September.
Of course, at number one, we have Robert Whittaker.
Depending on how the dice rolls, the winner of this pivotal clash on Sunday could well be the next man in line for a title shot.
The stage is set for this crucial showdown and many questions are about to be answered. Will fans be treated to a classic battle of exciting strikers? How will Robert Whittaker look in his first fight back? Has time away from the sport rejuvenated the former champion, or are his best fighting days behind him?
One thing is for sure, Aussie fans will be on the edge of their seats when they find out on July 26th.