This weekend’s UFC Fight Night 118 main-event pairing of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Darren Till is a perfect piece of matchmaking and the kind of fight the UFC needs to make with much more regularity going forward if it hopes to unearth new stars and inject new life into stale championship chases.
Sporting an undefeated record and an abundance of confidence, Till lobbied for a top-10 opponent following his unanimous-decision victory over tough-but-unheralded Bojan Velickovic on the main card of the September event in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Certain that he is the best striker in the division, the 24-year-old Liverpudlian specifically mentioned a showdown with powerful Argentine Santiago Ponzinibbio, who pushed his own winning streak to five with a first-round knockout of Gunnar Nelson two months earlier while headlining in Glasgow, Scotland.
The call to face Till went out to Cerrone instead, and while the veteran gunslinger admittedly knew nothing about the man he’ll face this weekend in Gdansk, Poland, “Cowboy” signed up to ship across the Atlantic and give the Merseyside man the toughest test of his career.
From a stylistic perspective, this should be an entertaining, action-packed fight.
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A Muay Thai practitioner, Till likes to come forward behind heavy kicks and punches, occasionally leading with cutting elbows when he catches someone napping, while Cerrone has slick kickboxing of his own with an underrated submission game and sneaky-good wrestling in his arsenal, as well. After three straight fights largely contested on the feet, this should be the bout where we learn a little more about Till’s takedown defense and ability on the ground, two variables that remain undefined through his first four UFC appearances.
Beyond the guaranteed electricity this bout will bring to close out Saturday’s midday event on Fight Pass (the first fight starts at 11:30 a.m. ET), what makes it truly perfect from a matchmaking standpoint is that it has thrust Till into the spotlight and presented him with an opportunity to establish himself as a contender without doing so at the expense of another up-and-coming talent.
There is this idea that positioning surging newcomers and emerging threats with championship aspirations on the undercard of events headlined by massive names is the best way to introduce them to a wider audience; that having a potential future star competing in the prelims or early in the main card of a colossal pay-per-view or UFC on FOX event ensures people will tune in to see what all the hype is about before the marquee main event hits the Octagon.
I don’t think that’s entirely true.
While there are some fight fans who will make a point of checking out the intriguing prospect who has quietly been climbing the ranks and earning strong reviews from the critical masses, giving those types of fighters main event assignments is a far more effective promotional strategy.
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Bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt has already racked up three UFC wins and plenty of “future champ” buzz, but it wasn’t until he headlined opposite Thomas Almeida and halted the unbeaten Brazilian’s winning streak with a blistering first-round knockout on FS1 that viewers beyond the hardcore set started to really invest in the tattooed Team Alpha Male standout.
At this point last year, Max Holloway had been a critical darling for a couple years and rattled off nine straight victories to emerge as one of the most dangerous contenders in the featherweight division, but he needed his main-event mauling of Anthony Pettis at UFC 206 in order to really resonate with the wider audience. His third-round finish of Jose Aldo six months later at UFC 212 has only reinforced the point.
Giving an up-and-coming fighter like Till a main-event assignment forces fans and media to pay attention to him and catch up on whatever they’ve missed over the course of his first four fights. If this same matchup took place two weeks later as part of the massive UFC 217 pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden in New York, there would be passing mention and a couple pieces written about the pairing, but it would be swept aside by the tidal wave of coverage focused on the three championship fights taking place that evening.
Instead, his name is on the marquee. He’s been getting hyped up in promotional trailers for Saturday’s fight during UFC broadcasts for the last couple weeks. He’s one of the lead stories heading into Fight Week, and he has a golden opportunity to enter the final two months of 2017 as an intriguing addition to the welterweight title chase — if he’s able to get his hand raised against Cerrone on Saturday.
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The fact he’s facing a veteran with an established ceiling like Cerrone is the other piece that makes this matchup perfect.
Everyone knows where “Cowboy” stands in the welterweight division. After collecting four straight wins to start his ride in the 170-pound ranks, the proprietor of the BMF Ranch has suffered back-to-back losses at the hands of Jorge Masvidal and Robbie Lawler and enters Saturday’s contest No. 6 in the latest UFC rankings.
There are no “But how good is he, really?” questions with Cerrone; he’s a proven commodity and has only lost to outstanding fighters over the course of a 42-fight career that has spanned almost 12 years. If Till comes away with a win, you can confidently say that he’s a top-10 talent in the welterweight division and someone to pay attention to going forward.
If Till loses, then he simply came up short against a wily veteran who was a significant step up in competition, but there are still the residual benefits of his having been in the main event. Till has received a tremendous amount of exposure as a result of this contest and no matter the outcome, there are going to be fans who are keen on tuning in to see him compete again.
I’m not sure that happens with a main-card fight on a massive pay-per-view. The fight is framed and discussed in the preamble to all the face-punching differently because the bout doesn’t carry as much weight. Main events, on the other hand, still mean something, and Till beating Cerrone will be a much larger story if it happens Saturday than if it were to transpire two weeks later.
In addition to Cerrone being an unassailable litmus test for Till, this pairing also works because it’s a veteran taking on a prospect, not a pair of veteran talents or unproven upstarts squaring off in a fight where the outcome doesn’t provide any new information or really move anyone ahead all that much.
It’s why next month’s bout between Masvidal and Stephen Thompson makes so little sense to me.
As much as I know it has the potential to be an explosive, entertaining clash, the result doesn’t deliver any new information. Both men are established contenders and a win over the other doesn’t change that, which means all you’re left with coming out of UFC 217 is either Masvidal is on a two-fight losing streak and Thompson is back in the win column, but still unable to challenge for the belt as long as Tyron Woodley is on top, or Masvidal is no further ahead while “Wonderboy” is mired in a three-fight winless streak but still viewed as an elite welterweight.
Bringing it back to this weekend’s main event, if Till were facing Santiago Ponzinibbio or Mike Perry or another “on the rise” welterweight, we’d still have questions about how he would do sharing the cage against a more seasoned, craftier foe.
Sticking him in the cage opposite “Cowboy” answers those questions and creates a situation where, regardless of the outcome, there is something fresh to work with going forward.
Either Till collects the biggest win of his career and emerges as a potential new star, or Cerrone proves he’s still got it and hits the reset button after consecutive setbacks, allowing him to maintain his place as a consistently entertaining force in the middle of the welterweight division.
Either way, this is a perfect bit of matchmaking and the kind of pairing the UFC should put together with greater frequency in the future.