Less than nine months ago, Robert Whittaker was UFC middleweight champion. That seems like a lifetime ago.
Even though he is No. 2 in ESPN’s divisional rankings, right behind champion Israel Adesanya, it feels as though the weight class has moved on without Whittaker. Last weekend news broke that Adesanya, who took the belt from Whittaker via a second-round KO last October, will make his second title defense on Sept. 19, facing Paulo Costa at UFC 253. After that, Jared Cannonier, riding a three-fight winning streak, will be looking for his shot. Where would that leave the Aussie ex-champ?
Prior to the Adesanya loss, Whittaker had not been inside the Octagon in 16 months, since his second bout with Yoel Romero — his only fight of 2018. The wear and tear of being locked in a cage with the tenaciously violent Romero for 10 rounds took its toll. And after the Adesanya fight, Whittaker said he felt burnt out and questioned if he still had the spark to fight. Whittaker has not been a fully active fighter since 2017. And this sport has a short memory.
However, Whittaker has an opportunity on Saturday to remind fans what they have in this 29-year-old out of Sydney. He faces former welterweight Darren Till in the main event of UFC Fight Night at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
It is the fourth and final event in the UFC’s two-week run on Yas Island, which the promotion has dubbed “Fight Island.” The fights will be on ESPN and ESPN+, with the main card starting at 8 p.m. ET, the prelims at 5 p.m.
A decisive victory by Whittaker (20-5, 11-3 in the UFC), along with some sustained good health, could reestablish him as a player not to be ignored among the 185-pound elite. After all, Whittaker went into that Adesanya fight having won nine in a row. He had not lost since he was a welterweight in 2014.
Till (18-2-1, 6-2-1 UFC) moved up from 170 pounds in November and made a big splash upon his arrival, defeating Kelvin Gastelum, who seven months earlier had competed for an interim title. That split-decision win earned Till a No. 6 ranking in his new weight class. The 27-year-old out of Liverpool, England, also used the victory to push further into the past the two straight losses that ended his welterweight run. The skid began with a submission loss in a 2018 challenge of then-champ Tyron Woodley.
So Saturday’s main event could establish either man as a middleweight title challenger. But while Till is the new kid on the block looking to assert his presence, Whittaker is the guy who has been there yet needs to make an authoritative statement proclaiming that “out of sight, out of mind” no longer applies.
By the numbers
7: Consecutive UFC main events in which the betting favorite has won, a streak extending back to Amanda Nunes’ victory over Felicia Spencer on June 6. That bodes well for Whittaker, who is a -125 favorite.
48: Leg kicks landed by Whittaker in his 2018 win over Yoel Romero, the most in a middleweight bout in UFC history.
18: Unbeaten run by Till (17-0-1) at the start of his MMA career.
7: Fight night bonuses earned by Whittaker, tying him for third most among active UFC middleweights. In 14 UFC appearances, he has cashed $50,000 checks for fight of the night four times, and for performance of the night three times. Anderson Silva leads the way with 12 bonuses.
10: Knockout victories for Till, among his career total of 18 wins.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Robert Whittaker’s most recent results
Loss: Israel Adesanya (KO2, Oct. 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Yoel Romero (SD, June 9, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Yoel Romero (UD, July 8, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ronaldo Souza (TKO2, April 15, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Derek Brunson (TKO1, Nov. 27, 2016)
Darren Till’s most recent results
Win: Kelvin Gastelum (SD, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Jorge Masvidal (KO2, March 16, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Tyron Woodley (SUB2, Sept. 8, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Stephen Thompson (UD, May 27, 2018)
Win: Donald Cerrone (TKO1, Oct. 21, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
And the winner is …
Till proved he belongs in this division with his win over a top-10 contender, Kelvin Gastelum, last November. Now he has an opportunity to show he really belongs, that he’s an upper-echelon 185-pounder. It won’t be easy against the ex-champ. Whittaker did not fare so well in his October loss to Adesanya, but prior to that he had not been defeated in five years. If he is finally healthy and has gotten over the setback mentally, Whittaker will be a lot for Till to handle, maybe a little too much. Whittaker by third-round TKO.
Saturday’s fight schedule
ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till | Middleweight
Mauricio Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira | Light heavyweight
Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson | Heavyweight
Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez | Strawweight
Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov | Light heavyweight
Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta | Welterweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET
Francisco Trinaldo vs. Jai Herbert | Lightweight
Nicolas Dalby vs. Jesse Ronson | Welterweight
Tom Aspinall vs. Jake Collier | Heavyweight
Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy | Men’s featherweight
Tanner Boser vs. Raphael Pessoa | Heavyweight
Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad | Women’s bantamweight
Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze | Welterweight
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee | Welterweight
Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castaneda | Men’s bantamweight
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What else to look for … beyond the main event
For an MMA history lesson, look to the co-main event
Back in 2005, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira met in a quarterfinal of the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. Rua was two months removed from a soccer-kick KO of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, while Nogueira was coming off an armbar submission of Dan Henderson. “Shogun” took the battle of Brazilians by unanimous decision, then went on to win the tournament. It was one of his crowning achievements.
Rua and Nogueira met again in 2015 in the UFC, by which time “Shogun” had had a brief reign as light heavyweight champion, cut short by the emergence of young Jon Jones. Rua won the second meeting with Nogueira, too, also by unanimous decision.
On Saturday, in the co-main event, they clash for a third time. Nogueira, known as “Little Nog” because he is the twin brother of former interim heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, is 44 now and has lost four of his past six. Rua, 38, has just one loss in his past six fights, a turnaround from a skid of his own.
Between these two fighters, they cover a lot of MMA history.
Notable conquests by Rua (in addition to “Rampage”): Lyoto Machida (2010), Chuck Liddell (2009), Mark Coleman (2009), Alistair Overeem (2005 and 2007) and Ricardo Arona (2005).
Notable conquests by Nogueira (aside from Henderson): Rashad Evans (2013), Tito Ortiz (2011), Overeem (2006 and 2005) and Kazushi Sakuraba (2003).
Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Khamzat Chimaev is fighting just 10 days after dominating John Phillips in his UFC debut. It’s the fastest turnaround in the UFC modern era (Chas Skelly: 13 days). Chimaev outstruck Phillips 124-2 in total strikes, and his 118 total strikes in the first round were the second most in a single round by a middleweight in the UFC modern era. This bout will be at welterweight.
2. Former UFC women’s bantamweight title challenger Bethe Correia faces Pannie Kianzad. Correia can tie Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann for the third-most wins in the history of the UFC weight class (6).
3. Jake Collier fights for the first time since 2017 after missing time due to injury and a USADA suspension. He is making his UFC heavyweight debut. With a win, Collier can become the 11th fighter to win in three different UFC weight classes (also middleweight and light heavyweight).