Going the Distance: Till in Middleweight no-man’s land after loss to Brunson

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

On a card originally supposed to take place in London, England, and filled with international talent — particularly from the United Kingdom — the European half of the UFC Vegas 36 main event was not able to make it a clean sweep for U.K. fighters, as Derek Brunson (23-7, 14-5 UFC) defeated Darren “The Gorilla” Till (18-4-1, 6-4-1 UFC) by third-round submission. 

Till, a much stronger striker, was expected to have a huge advantage so long as he could neutralize Brunson’s wrestling and prevent takedowns. That proved too tough a challenge for the Liverpool native, who was taken down early in the first round and a bit later in the second, both times unable to do much off of his back while Brunson rained down punches from half-guard. Round 3 started in very promising fashion for Till, who connected on some heavy strikes while stuffing half-hearted takedown attempts from a more-fatigued Brunson. Right when the momentum started to shift, Brunson shot for a last-ditch takedown and was able to secure it, landing in full mount and ultimately taking Till’s back, where he forced him to tap out to a rear-naked choke. 

To be clear, Brunson deserves credit for this performance. He more or less dominated Till in the first two rounds, and persevered to get the finish after that. But this was Till’s fight to win, or in this case, lose. If Till stuffs those takedowns, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have eventually finished Brunson. Now, Brunson will have earned himself either a title shot or a No. 1 contender fight with Jared Cannonier, getting himself one step closer to a rematch with Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya. On the other hand, this may be the worst loss in what was initially an extremely promising career for Till, whose four career losses have now come in his last five fights. A win here probably would have made Till next in line for a title shot or at least lined him up for a No. 1 contender fight against Cannonier. Instead, Till now finds himself going in the wrong direction. Let’s play matchmaker for the rest of the division’s elite.

Middleweight Landscape

Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (C) vs. Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (No. 1): (From June): “A rematch of the 2019 unification bout between these two men is the only fight to make at the top of the division, and Dana White has already said as much. Since taking his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243, Whittaker has rebounded impressively, winning unanimous decisions over some of the division’s best in Till, Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum. Whittaker is the true No. 1 contender, and of all the top fighters in the division, he poses the biggest threat to Adesanya. While the champ may not have anything to prove, a second win over Whittaker, who is currently listed as No. 12 in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings, would go a long way towards cementing Stylebender as one of the best middleweights to ever do it. We should expect to see this bout headline a PPV event in late 2021.” 

Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa (No. 2) vs. Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (No. 4):

(From July): “Having called out Costa after his loss to Adesanya at UFC 263, Marvin Vettori is looking to reverse his downward momentum and make a big statement by being the only man other than Adesanya to defeat Costa. Stylistically, I’d be excited to watch this bout: Both men will look to come forward and exert a pressure-heavy approach. Costa has the more impressive resumé, but Vettori is likely the more technical striker. There’s also some intrigue here because we don’t really know what Vettori is capable of. Sure, he lost to Adesanya, as has every other middleweight. But a win over Costa, as opposed to the Karl Roberson’s, Kevin Holland’s, and even the Jack Hermansson’s of the world, would show us that Vettori does belong in the top tier of the division. For Costa, who hasn’t fought since his dreadful performance against Adesanya at UFC 253 last September, a win over Vettori will get him back on the right track, although I’m not sure how much else he stands to gain here.” 

Jared “Killa Gorilla” Cannonier (No. 3) vs. Derek Brunson (No. 5): With Whittaker vs. Adesanya II still unannounced, I would be very surprised if the UFC doesn’t make Brunson fight again before earning a title shot. Cannonier is the only fight to make in that case, as these two men are clearly the most deserving after Whittaker. If Adesanya retains his belt, he will surely want the winner of this fight; Stylebender has long wanted to fight Cannonier, calling him the division’s “darkhorse”, but if Brunson were to win and add to his current five-fight win streak, his shot at UFC gold would be undeniable. Plus, surely Adesanya — the fighter who last beat Brunson and did so via first round TKO — would oblige. If Whittaker does somehow manage to win the belt and a trilogy isn’t immediately made with Adesanya, the UFC can sell either Whittaker-Cannonier or Whittaker-Brunson as rematches in which the title challenger has previously lost to the champion and is seeking redemption a second time around. 

Jack “The Joker” Hermansson (No. 6) vs. Darren “The Gorilla” Till (No. 7): This is one of those “process of elimination” matchups, as both of these fighters are in some kind of Middleweight no-man’s-land right now. Hermansson was tough in an ultimately decisive loss to Vettori in late 2020, and rebounded with an equally tough victory against Edmen Shahbazyan in his next fight. Till is 1-2 as a UFC Middleweight, his only victory coming in a decision over Kelvin Gastelum in 2019. While a loss to Whittaker in his next fight was nothing to be ashamed of, he was extremely disappointing in this bout against Brunson, who many thought would be completely outmatched on the feet, if only Till could keep the fight standing. I still believe that Till is capable of special moments in the Octagon, and of being one of the UFC’s top U.K. fighters. But in order to do that, he needs to drastically improve his takedown defense, as well as his defensive grappling. A fight against Hermansson will force him to do absolutely that — Hermansson is a great wrestler and a beast on the ground. Yes, we just saw Till get outclassed by a superior wrestler/grappler, but he should be tested again, to see if he can rise to the occasion.

Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (No. 8) vs. Luke Rockhold: This fight was announced in early August, and is scheduled to be on UFC 268’s main card in November at Madison Square Garden. From the matchmaker’s perspective, this fight makes sense. Rockhold, a former champion and still a big name, is making his return to the Octagon after more than two years off. Strickland’s stock is surging, as he’s won five straight fights, with the last four taking place at Middleweight. If Strickland beats (and especially if he finishes) Rockhold, he will have announced himself as the next big title contender in a division that appears to be lacking exciting storylines. You can say the same for Rockhold, who would probably only need one more fight after a convincing victory over Strickland before earning a shot at the belt. 

Kelvin Gastelum (No. 9) vs. Andre “Sergipano” Muniz (No. 15): While Gastelum is always in close fights, he doesn’t seem to have enough to get over the hump against elite competition, and that remained the case against Jared Cannonier in their main event bout a few weeks ago. Gastelum looked great against Ian Heinisch, but that victory hasn’t aged well recently, with Heinisch getting knocked out by Nassourdine Imavov in late July. Now a loser in five of his last six fights, it’s clear that Gastelum needs to take a step down. In my mind, Andre Muniz is a good test to see where Gastelum is really at. Muniz hasn’t lost in five years, and is coming off of back to back impressive first-round submissions of Bartosz Fabinski and Jacare Souza. Gastelum has only been finished twice in his career, but both came via submission. Gastelum likely has an advantage in the stand-up, making this an even matchup that also gives the UFC another opportunity to see how much of a contender Muniz really is.

Uriah “Prime Time” Hall (No. 10) vs. Brad Tavares (No. 13): (From July): “It’s tough to predict what’s next for Hall. His last three fights (a win over a past-his-prime Anderson Silva, a “win” over Chris Weidman, and this loss to Strickland) have done little to nothing for his stock. He is now 37 years old, and I’m not sure how many more exciting moments he has left to provide in the Octagon. That being said, I’d like to see him take on Tavares. Tavares recently grinded out a tough split-decision victory over Omari Akhmedov, making it two straight wins after two straight losses to Adesanya and Edmen Shahbazyan. Both of these men are primarily strikers with not the highest level of output, but at the very least it could be an interesting chess match on the feet. Tavares is 33, so it’s not too late for him to make another run, and a win over Hall would get him into the top 10.”

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