For the first time the UFC Octagon planted roots in Liverpool, England, the organization came with a very simple plan: put forth its young and talented local southpaw—Darren Till—in a showcase, and let the money tree germinate. On paper, the idea made plenty of sense; it was the same path they followed with Irishman Conor McGregor, and that seemed to work out far beyond their wildest dreams.
Till may still have a brilliant future ahead of him as a draw, a headliner, perhaps even a champion, but UFC Liverpool didn’t quite function in the way in which it was intended. It likely won’t vault him toward global superstar status, it certainly won’t make him a household name, and if we’re being honest, many didn’t even think he won. So a home run it was not. But it worked in one sense—one big meaningful way. It was a showcase for the locals. And that is a thing with meaning. Waves must have an origin point, after all, and Till will bring this energy with him wherever he goes next.
And what an energy it was. The Scousers made the show, drinking, dancing and celebrating well before Till ever stepped into the cage. They cheered him through an often slow-paced tactical battle with Stephen Thompson. They exploded when he finally landed his clean left for a knockdown. They erupted in joy when he was handed a close but unanimous decision that left the rest of the world crying “controversy.”
It was a poetically strange ending to a bizarre odyssey for Till, who was offered this starring role not against a fellow prospect or a fading star, but against the top-ranked “Wonderboy,” perhaps the most frustrating stylistic specialist in the division. Till started the weekend by missing weight, then had to re-weigh at less than 188 pounds on fight day to make the bout official. Then he got into the cage and partook in a technical engagement that was short on any drama aside from a Till straight left that dropped Thompson deep into the final frame. While at the time, it would have been fair to wonder whether the momentum-shifter had clinched him the fight, it turned out he was ahead far enough in the scorecards to cruise out the fifth. This despite low-output performances from both men that left the result in doubt.
While the locals predictably celebrated, the result took fire from many critics who thought Thompson deserved the nod.
“It’s a close fight, it was,” Till said in the post-fight press conference. “People are going to want to say he won or I won, but I couldn’t care less. I got the decision. It was a very, very close fight. He’s the trickiest fighter I ever fought. I think he was shocked because he thought I was an aggressive fighter, and I am. But I knew against him, I had to be very different and use all my smarts. It was hard but very close.”
Whether you think Till won or lost, his ability to be a near-equal with Thompson is relevant. Over the last half-decade, Thompson has been one of the best welterweights in the world, losing only to current champion Tyron Woodley while boasting wins over current middleweight champ Robert Whittaker, former 170-pound champ Johny Hendricks and current Bellator welterweight champ Rory MacDonald, among others.
Thompson has done it with a style that is among the most unique in the game. He fights out of a karate stance, often standing completely perpendicular to his opponents as a means of reducing himself as a target. He has great lateral movement and speed, aiding his defensive abilities, has a mastery of distance and is an excellent counter-striker, making opponent on-rushes an eternal risk. For all these reasons, he can make foes look bad, as they often swing at air, if they even bother to swing at all.
Till wasn’t immune to it. According to FightMetric numbers, Till only landed 40 strikes out of the 129 he threw, 31 percent.
But the thing about Wonderboy is that this feature of his game has intent. He designed his defense to produce offensive opportunities. As opponents continually fall short, they often relax their approach and their entries, and discipline gives way to fits of wildness and over-aggression. Then, he strikes. Till gave no quarter. He took the center of the cage and pushed Thompson backward, but never let recklessness sneak into his approach. Fighting before your countrymen as they anticipate and expect a big moment, that requires incredible poise and concentration, and even if it’s not a highlight reel knockout, it is an achievement all its own. And if Till’s 40 landed strikes looked bad on paper, Thompson’s 31 look even worse, or at least not good enough to claim a convincing victory.
So what we’re left with is essentially two results. The British market sees Till as a star and a legitimate championship contender while the rest of the world still has some questions they’d like to see answered. In other words, we all need to see more, to wait Till next time.