As UFC Fight Night 174 drew to a close, you felt it was a shame that Whittaker and Till couldn’t both win. Other than the usual mutual promises to annihilate each other and break each other’s faces, it was one of the most amicable and banter-filled build-ups to a fight I can remember – both men full of good humour and respect for each other’s skill-sets. After a period of cockiness on his rise through the promotion that did not age well, Till seems to have gotten over himself admirably. With this new-found emotional maturity (inspired, he says, by Tyson Fury) he has stopped claiming to be the best in the world, and has now taken over from Ben Askren as the UFC’s premier meme-lord. Till has spent lockdown creating updates about his gummy bear army and shooting the breeze with Whittaker about the correct salsa to go with doritos (hot).
The Reaper, meanwhile, continues to vye with Wonderboy Thompson for the Nicest Mother Fucker belt, but has perhaps fallen behind in that race after his face lit up with joy on learning that Till will need knee surgery after Whittaker stomped it in round two.
The fight itself was not quite the barn-stormer of Poirier VS Hooker earlier in the year, but was perhaps one of the most excitingly technical fights of the year so far. Both men described it as a chess match, full of feints and counter-fighting, each trying to set traps and bait the other. The head movement of both fighters was Matrix-like, both using incredible economy of motion to lean just out of range from punches that would have turned the lights off. Till got the best of this in round one, dropping Whittaker to the canvas, and the Reaper returned the favour in round two. From there on out Whittaker just had the edge in control and staying busy, capitalising on the knee injury that took away Till’s feints. Till landed a vicious elbow in the final round, sending blood pouring all over Whittaker’s head immediately – for a brief, mad moment I thought Herb Dean was stopping the fight on account of the cut – but Whittaker used two late takedowns to get it securely in the books. Both men’s stock could rise here, although many commentators have noted that Till may need to diversify his game. While Whittaker landed a whole plethora of different strikes, Till remains a master of quite a narrow part of MMA, even a somewhat narrow part of striking. It is difficult to see him beating Adesanya or Costa without adding new weapons.
Elsewhere on the night Fabricio Werdum pulled off a huge upset against fan-favourite Alexander Gustaffson. After looking horrendous in his previous fight, Werdum came in as a huge underdog – but this is a man who has beaten Cain Velasquez and Fedor Emalianenko. You can never write him off. A wily veteran of the Octagon, Werdum’s jiu-jitsu hangs like the Sword of Damocles even as he is being outclassed in every other aspect of a fight. In his legendary fight with Emalianenko, the Russian charged forward and looked on his way to an utterly dominant first round win. Werdum effectively faked being knocked down, baited Emalianenko into trying to seize a finish, sunk in a triangle choke and that was all she wrote. In some ways this fight was an after-echo of that past glory, as he arm-barred Gustaffson to a tap in the first round after looking for all the world like he’d be outclassed.