Expert Analysis

Jorge Masvidal vs Darren Till: Tactical Brilliance

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Jorge Masvidal has long been known as much for a lack of urgency as for his brilliant striking repertoire. Although Masvidal’s fights are mostly skillful, tactical striking affairs, he has been criticized for a habit of refusing to push his advantage, leading to a string of controversial split-decision losses. While the criticism can be overblown, Masvidal does often seem to take his foot off the gas pedal at key moments.

UFC London

Masvidal was anything but lackadaisical at UFC London, however, as it took him just over a round and a half to pick up the biggest win of his career over No. 3-ranked welterweight, Darren Till.  While Till started off strong, dropping Masvidal in the opening minute, Masvidal soon battled back. By the second round, Masvidal’s output was picking up and Till was having a much harder time connecting clean.

Just after halfway through the second round, Masvidal switched to a southpaw stance and landed a devastating blitz that turned Till’s lights off and rattled his head off the canvas, providing what is likely to be a contender for Knockout of the Year.

While Till looked sharp in the early frame and repeatedly put Masvidal in trouble, the fight should not be remembered as a low-percentage finish in which Till was “winning until he lost.” Instead, it should be looked at as a brilliant tactical and strategic performance from Jorge Masvidal, who made key adjustments to take Till’s successes away from him and force the fight into areas that tilted the balance in Masvidal’s favor.

Jorge Masvidal vs Darren Till: Tactical Brilliance

The big question coming into this fight was whether or not Masvidal could deal with Till’s pressure. Till is a fighter in the McGregor mold, although the exact details of their skillsets differ; he looks to force his opponents to the fence and feint at them to expose the straight left, while maintaining a distance longer than his opponent’s punching range.

If opponents consent to the pressure, they get picked apart, tagged with straight punches at range, and flurried on when their back hits the cage. If they lash out and try to take back ground, Till will look to give ground and land his straight as a counter.

Till had a lot of success early feinting Masvidal back toward the cage with his lead hand and landing the straight. Note the short hop-steps Till takes with his feet to close distance on his straight and track Masvidal’s movement while remaining in position to hit.  Masvidal would look to parry the straight with his head on the center-line, but had little success with this and mostly ended up eating the punch.

Masvidal’s defense has historically been a mixed bag. On one hand, he is an incredibly crafty veteran with a wealth of experience, possessing an unusual poise and comfort under fire. On the other, he often seems to lack a cohesive defensive system complete with carefully-crafted reactions to each threat. This means that, while he is excellent at avoiding putting himself in positions to be hit through distance control and footwork, he can often be surprised by attacks when close enough to be hit. For evidence of this, look no further than his fight with Stephen Thompson in which he tried repeatedly to force a static high guard while eating straight punches up the middle.

Despite his vulnerability early, Masvidal was able to adjust and start slipping outside the straight, taking his head off-line rather than relying on his hands to impede the strike.

Till had an answer for Masvidal’s head movement, however:

When Masvidal began taking his head off-line in response to the straight, Till started changing the trajectory of his punches. Till would probe with his lead hand to encourage Masvidal to move his head and look to take advantage of his reaction with a wide left hook or an uppercut to the chest.

While the exchanges early in the fight proved dangerous for Masvidal, he did an excellent job defusing Till’s pressure.  Opportunities for Till to trap Masvidal against the fence and land his devastating straight were kept to a minimum.

Masvidal started feinting early and often to keep Till on his toes.  The feints forced Till to be mindful of what was coming back at him. If the opponent is thinking about your offense, they aren’t pressuring, and Masvidal was able to buy time in open space by forcing Till to react.

The feints also helped Masvidal take his back off the cage when faced with Till’s pressure, forcing Till to give ground. Furthermore, the constant level changes and entry feints established a pattern that disguised Masvidal’s attacks later in the fight when he went on the offensive.

Masvidal is known mostly for his boxing, but he’s always had a highly effective and underrated kicking game. Masvidal tends to integrate his kicks well with his boxing, punching off his kicks as soon as his kicking foot touches down, but due to Till’s range he was unable to follow up on them.

Masvidal’s body and leg kicks allowed him to score at range and take back ground when pressured without putting himself in danger. Till had little to no success countering Masvidal’s kicks and this is largely due to Masvidal’s effective use of feints. Till didn’t know when a forward step preceded a real attack. Whenever Masvidal stepped forward, he had a split second to determine whether it was worth giving ground, and having to make that choice repeatedly is bound to result in many missteps.

Till attempted to return the kicks a few times, but each time Masvidal would catch it and counter, eventually putting Till off kicking altogether. This is illustrative of a larger issue in Till’s game – whenever Masvidal kicked, he needed to give ground in response, but Masvidal was comfortable standing in place, defending, and countering.

Pressure fighters often rely on the ability to keep their opponents on the back-foot. When a fighter who has built his game around pressure is forced to fight going backwards, he tends to be less effective. With the nature of a pressure fighter being to continually force exchanges, it’s crucially important that they develop a defensive system suited to their style. Fighters who look to force and capitalize on exchanges need to be able to keep themselves safe in those exchanges while remaining in position to do damage.

Till’s defense is somewhat incongruous with his style. Rather than defending punches in range and remaining in position to continue the pressure, Till’s only consistent response to strikes is to create distance by giving ground or pulling his head back. This means that when he is defending, he isn’t pressuring and opponents can find reprieve by making him go on the defensive. Till’s counter left makes attacking a dangerous proposition, but as Masvidal showed, his limited arsenal of counters can be largely taken away through feints and disciplined attacks.

Most of Masvidal’s attacks early in the fight came through his kicks, as he was having trouble boxing effectively due to the range disparity. When he did put hands on Till, he largely did it through letting Till make his way into range and countering.

Here Till pressures by feinting with his hands and using hop-steps to cover distance. Masvidal initially gives ground, encouraging Till to pressure further. When Till bounces in again, Masvidal bounces back only slightly and plants his feet to throw a counter combination. Caught almost in mid-air, Till is unprepared to counter and has to bail on the exchange.

Another smart tactic Masvidal used to defuse Till’s pressure was jabbing on the counter. In an orthodox vs southpaw matchup, the lead hands clash which makes jabs trickier to land clean. Most MMA fighters tend to abandon them in such matchups rather than work around it, and as such you rarely see effective jabs (or lead hands in general) in open-stance matchups. The jab is no less useful when fighting a southpaw, however.

Masvidal’s jab didn’t play a huge role in the fight, but several times he was able to halt Till’s advance and create space by landing it on the counter. He’d either give ground and flick it out while retreating to prevent Till from following or stand in the pocket and use it to break the rhythm of Till’s combination.

Masvidal was forced to cover a large distance to reach Till as a result of Till’s long reach and bladed stance, as well as the nature of open-stance matchups putting more distance between fighters.  While Masvidal had a lot of trouble closing distance to land punches on the lead, watching him try to figure out how to close the gap is a real testament to the depth of his striking.

Masvidal tried jabbing his way inside, doubling up on the rear hand, and shifting forward, all to little avail. While he wasn’t able to connect clean, the sheer variance of his offense and his impressive use of feints and rhythm prevented Till from being able to time and counter him effectively.

After a close first round that saw Masvidal put in some good work but take heavy damage in return, he made key adjustments that took away Till’s successful offense. Masvidal was already starting to time and slip the straight left by the end of the first, forcing Till to respond with wide left hooks and uppercuts. In the second round, Masvidal denied Till the pressure and layered exchanges that allowed him to land these hooks and uppercuts.

Till pressures Masvidal to the cage and looks for the straight left, but Masvidal slips it and lands a three punch combination. Rather than keep pushing forward and risk eating more counters, Till backs off and gives Masvidal space. Masvidal then immediately pushes for even more ground with a kick.

Once his straight started missing, Till looked to catch Masvidal slipping into his left hook, but during the only instance he got in deep enough to throw it after the first round, Masvidal anticipated it and ducked underneath.

Masvidal had been playing with switching stances the whole fight – squaring up to circle off the cage, briefly switching to southpaw to show different looks, and shifting forward with combos.  Halfway through the second round, his stance-switching paid off as he finished Till with a devastating blitz from southpaw.

Masvidal uses a low-line side kick to create distance and follows up in a southpaw stance. As he continues advancing, he throws out a jab (that turns into a hand-trap) while closing distance with a stutter-step and smashes Till straight in the jaw with an overhand.

The decision to go southpaw was a brilliant one given how much Masvidal struggled with Till’s distance when leading with punches.  When they were in opposite stances, Till’s head was pulled back from the rear hand, while his lead hand was free to frame off and disrupt Masvidal’s own. With both fighters in southpaw, the distance was lessened and Till was unable to give ground quickly enough to avoid the blitz. Masvidal’s jab forced Till to pull his head over his rear leg, and the overhand landed before he could step backwards.

Till’s own jab continued to be frustratingly inconsistent.  His jab exists mostly as a setup punch for his big left hand, but on the few occasions he commits to it as its own punch, it looks very effective.

Till was able to do good work with the jab when he did throw it, but the quality of his jab warrants a much more active approach. He seems uncomfortable jabbing against an orthodox opponent, but committed to it more when Masvidal switched to southpaw. But even when he threw it against an orthodox Masvidal, it messed with his timing and opened up opportunities that Till largely failed to capitalize on.

There’s so much room to build off an effective jab that it’s a wonder Till’s offense is still so limited. A committed lead hook paired with the jab would do a lot to draw attention away from his left and create openings to land it, while the kicks he failed to land on Masvidal could be made effective by first using the jab to advance and distract. Simply throwing his jab out more often would create an additional threat for opponents to worry about and allow him to play with rhythm and more effectively feint it to land the left. Likewise, while he was put off kicking the body due to Masvidal’s counters, kicking the head would have provided the threat of a double attack and opened up the straight left down the middle.

In contrast, Masvidal made incredible use of his wide tactical arsenal. His attacks never fell into stale, predictable patterns. Till was never able to figure out Masvidal’s offense, to really get a read on what he was going to do. The disparity in versatility was clear during the second round, when Masvidal had adjusted to take away the weapons Till had most success with in the first round, while Till consistently found himself surprised by Masvidal’s attacks.

What’s next?

While Masvidal entered this fight coming off two straight losses, a win over the #3 welterweight shoots him up into a contender spot.  It’s too early for the title shot now, but it makes sense to start thinking about him as a potential contender. A post-fight scuffle between Masvidal and Leon Edwards seems like a nice lead-in for a fight between the two, but Masvidal should be fighting higher-ranked contenders. A fight with former champion, Tyron Woodley, or a contender like Rafael dos Anjos would make the most sense.

For Till, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. After being dropped in his last two outings and showing persistent defensive flaws as well as a lack of offensive variety, he could use a couple development fights to improve his skills before taking on the elite again. While his A-game is very effective when he’s able to enforce it, his lack of variety means that he has trouble adjusting when opponents can nullify his primary game.

A step back against someone like Ben Askren, Santiago Ponzinibbio, or even a fringe top 15 fighter like Anthony Rocco Martin or Vicente Luque would make sense.

Although it remains to be seen whether Masvidal can replicate the brilliance of his performance against the elite at Welterweight, he’ll undoubtedly continue putting on fun, tactical fights that any striking nerd can get behind.

If you’re itching for more Jorge Masvidal analysis, I’ll leave you with this:

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Ryan discovered the sport of MMA in 2009 and quickly rushed out to join the first gym he could find. That discovery soon blossomed into a life-long passion. His aim is to spread the love and knowledge for the sport he's acquired along the way.

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