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UFC 228 main event breakdown: Tyron Woodley vs. Darren Till

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When it comes to momentum, Darren Till is a runaway train. The 25-year-old Brit is undefeated, huge and — somewhat surprisingly — favored to beat current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in Saturday’s UFC 228 main event. It’s easy to see how this preference transpired; because many fans use past athletes as reference points, Till basically fits the Conor McGregor mold. He’s young and brash; he’s a southpaw with power; he preaches his championship destiny at every turn. In doing so, he’s certainly found his share of converts.

Till, currently ranked as the No. 2 welterweight, is clearly one of the division’s best, but he’s stepping into a different kind of matchup here. To date, he has never faced a combination knockdown/takedown threat like Woodley. And while he has tools that can combat and counteract Woodley’s powerful skillset, he will have to be brilliant in their usage to win.

Till’s success in the UFC has been alomst exclusively predicated upon his striking. A longtime Muay Thai practitioner, Till (17-0-1) has become adept at using his size (6 feet tall) and length (74-inch reach) to his advantage. While he has full confidence in his power, he emphasizes discipline and accuracy over sheer aggression. Fighting out of a southpaw stance, Till has a wide variety of setups to mask his power strikes. From feints to circling to a good, old-fashioned jab, he takes his time to either soften up his opponent or loosen his guard before letting fly with his thunderous left hand, a strike he throws with sharp technique and little wind-up. That punch is his moneymaker, but most opponents are aware of it and emphasize circling away. That’s caused Till to go to other, similarly competent options.

The weapon that may prove the most useful, or that may play the key role in the fight is his kicks. Because he’s a lefty and Woodley fights orthodox, the champ’s body will be open to Till’s power-side kicks.

A lot will hinge on who can win this fight within the fight. Till can use his kicks to batter Woodley’s inside leg, his body, his arms, his head. There are many targets in play, made all the better for him because Woodley tends to block kicks with his arms. With Woodley coming off injuries to both of his shoulders, he certainly runs a risk of re-injury by continuing to block in that style. That’s a bad scenario for him; another is that Till’s kicks connect with his arms so much that it affects his power.

While Till has many opportunities to score there—as he did in his first-round KO of Donald Cerrone last October — it’s not without the threat of risk. Woodley is a former two-time All-American wrestler who may key on Till’s kicks to initiate takedown attempts. While Till has a career takedown defense rate of 83 percent, according to FightMetric, he has yet to share the cage with someone who can even remotely boast of a wrestling resume close to Woodley’s. Till has only been taken down three times in his UFC career — once by Cerrone, and twice by Nicolas Dalby.

Those two latter takedowns may bring with them concern, as Dalby completed both with power doubles against the cage — a Woodley specialty.

In addition, both of those Dalby takedowns occurred in the third round, with Till fighting off exhaustion. While it’s true that fight was three years ago and that Till has looked better in late moments in his more recent fights, the fact that this marks just his second UFC five-rounder cannot be discounted, particularly when Woodley is fond of playing the long game.

Since Woodley (18-3-1) won the belt in the summer of 2016, he has clearly espoused the approach that “defending” the belt means just that. He is content in his skillset, power, patience and speed, so much so that he often lets his opponent lead and create the pace while he focuses on countering.

Obviously, this has gone well for him on a macro level; he’s successfully defended the belt three times. But on a micro level, he’s faced significant criticism for a conservative approach. Ultimately, Woodley has (correctly) argued that result matters more than method, making it unlikely that he will be goaded into some chaotic struggle against Till. In fact, the way Woodley fights, he basically invites his opponents to follow him to the fence by consistently backing up against it. He does this because of his total confidence in his bursts. Woodley counters with timing and speed as well as anyone in the game, a tactic that has resulted in knockdowns in five of his last six fights. He has a crushing right hand, power kicks and a dominant clinch. And just as Till has Woodley’s side open to kicks, the same holds true for Woodley. In a battle of kicks though, Till has a slight edge, if only because he uses them more regularly.

If the fight goes to the ground, however, the advantage goes to Woodley. Not only is he the more likely of the two to put the fight there. But in addition, he’s a brown belt with excellent top control and damaging ground-and-pound. Till won’t want to be under there, especially late.

So how will this thing play out? It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that this fight will feature long periods of relative inaction. Woodley will not be taunted into straying from his plan, while Till has also illustrated self-discipline. Given Till’s reach and youth though, you have to imagine he’ll blink first. Like everyone, he’s watched Woodley’s most recent fights and understands that at some point, he will have to boldly attack in order to win the belt. He’s certainly capable of performing well this way; his jab and his tight left hand will probably even land at times. But it will be difficult to trust Till to win over five rounds. He’s never had to do it before, he’s obviously impacted by his massive weight cut, and he has shown conditioning issues in the past.

Don’t be surprised to see Till win a round or two early, only to see the champ roar back late. Woodley rarely receives credit for his intelligence, but he forces you to play his game, and that’s no accident. He’ll pull Till into more of the same. He’ll start landing the overhand right, tiring Till down in the clinch, putting him on the mat late. The most likely result is the champ wearing him down late for a decision victory.