Whittaker vs. Till: The Making of MW Legend?

Robert Whittaker
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 09: Robert Whittaker of Australia weighs in during the UFC 234 weigh-in at Rod Laver Arena on February 09, 2019 in the Melbourne Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Could one of the two main event combatants at Fight Night 174 emerge as a future middleweight contender and stay at the top? We examine various aspects of the fight and deliver our verdict!

Every sport is about the survival of the fittest, but Fight Night 174 is something of a spiritual ‘eliminator’, where an entire career may hinge on the result. This weekend, two men with great potential will clash in the octagon – Darren Till and Robert Whittaker.

Whoever emerges victorious at UFC Fight Night 174 will be immediately thrust forth as a real contender to scoop divisional honours. Meanwhile, many believe that the loser will face long-term obscurity, and the nagging belief that a big opportunity has been missed. It is a fascinating, high-stakes equation that will surely change the course of the UFC middleweight division’s future.

Tale of the tape

When it comes to determining who would gain more from victory, and who has more motivation, looking at the run up to the battle is an obvious starting point.

Despite having the better win-rate, via a record of 18-2-1 and ten knockout wins, Darren Till has much more to prove. His return to middleweight, in November 2019 after a five-year absence, resulted in a split-decision win over Kelvin Gastelum. While encouraging, it is not truly enough to convince anybody that he is truly back after successive welterweight defeats.

Eager to prove that he can mix it in the division, and go 2-0 up in his latest middleweight odyssey, Till may instinctively go for the jugular, rather than introduce hooks after several minutes of wearing the other guy out. Yet, with his last knockout victory coming back in October 2017, such a boisterous approach is likely to prove counter-productive.

As the slight favourite to prevail within respected moneyline markets, such as those found at Unikrn MMA betting, Robert Whittaker (20-5) has more to lose at face value. Being annihilated on the very first step of his road to redemption, after losing his middleweight title to Israel Adesanya in October, would mark a possible point of no return in the eyes of many. Even so, Whittaker is still just 29 years old, meaning that there is still room for recovery – but not much all the same.

Adding further the type of pressure that preceded Whittaker’s loss to Adesanya, various media outlets have described the Australian as ‘re-energised’, which translates to a defeat being disastrous for him. While he fits the profile of a middleweight more closely than Till, Whittaker’s last bout showed that he is still vulnerable to accurate counter-striking, and when facing Till’s expertise in Muay Thai, that is a weak spot in dire need of addressing.

When it comes to actually calling the fight, the most diplomatic prediction would be a split or majority decision win for Whittaker. He is ranked five places higher, and possesses the Ali-style intelligence needed to counteract Till’s Foreman-like striking power – as much as it is possible to emulate George Foreman in the UFC’s middleweight division.

Experts are split nonetheless, making it logical to explore the paths of both fighters in the event of their victory.

If Whittaker wins…

The path taken by Whittaker after beating Till depends much on the nature of the win, and the outcome of September’s clash between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa – respectively the middleweight champion and number two ranked contender. Assuming that the aforementioned ‘diplomatic’ prediction of a Whittaker decision comes to pass, his next bout could well be the completion of a trilogy with Yoel Romero.

If he was to make it 3-0 against the Cuban, he would be sufficiently warmed up to try and wrest back his title. Unlike his Fight Night 174 opponent, Whittaker has already proven his credentials at middleweight, with an 88.89% win rate since stepping up in November 2014.

As such, Whittaker’s life after a victory over Till would be a question of whether he can defend rather than merely contend. Anything other than a complete first-round thrashing of his Liverpool-born rival could even set a precedent for a rematch of Fight Night 174, such has been the difficulty of calling this one.

If Till wins…

While a victory for the marginal underdog would not create the same shockwaves as, say, Barao vs Dillashaw or Serra vs St Pierre, it would certainly make a mockery of the five-place gap between himself and Whittaker. Such a result could not fail to throw the system employed by the UFC – and its relationship with live odds markets – into question. In the longer term, however, it could also set a trend for bigger athletes in the middleweight division, thereby changing the nature of Till’s projected path, and the regularity with which fighters transfer between divisions.

As for Till himself, beating the number-one ranked contender automatically makes him a sure bet to face the winner of September’s title bout between Adesanya and Costa inside a year. If going by the rankings alone, Jared Cannonier (ranked #3 going into July 2020) stands as a good warm-up test for a title challenge.

Indeed, the Dallas-born Jiu-Jitsu practitioner would be much more than a ‘warm up’, providing a formidable physical challenge if he is suitably prepared after suffering a long-term injury earlier in 2020. He also has residual momentum from three TKO victories, which came vs Branch (punches), Silva (kick) and Hermansson (punches) between November 2018 and September 2019. If Till can overcome that test, he has every chance against the champ.

Becoming a MW contender is a unique challenge

Away from using the current rankings, and measuring them against a fighter’s age and winning/losing streak, predicting the path of any middleweight – particularly after a flashpoint bout such as this – becomes exceptionally difficult. Those at either end of the scale know exactly where they stand in the long term, but the gamble associated with moving up or down to middleweight is an additional burden on the conscience.

Winning titles in multiple divisions is a great honour, and one that Till in particular wants more than anything, given that his legacy at middleweight reeks of unfinished business. Till has now taken the gamble so common amongst welterweights and middleweights, and only a clear-cut victory over Whittaker can justify it in entirety.

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