Darren Till silenced his critics and was reborn as a legitimate UFC title contender on the same night Jorge Masvidal lifted the BMF title on top of one of the best cards in UFC history at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Till put the darkest six months of his fighting life officially behind him with a tactical decision victory over Kelvin Gastelum, and confessed afterwards he almost faked an injury to remove himself from the fight, such was the pressure he felt walking to the Octagon.
The 26-year-old belatedly arrived in New York after suffering back-to-back defeats, including a dizzying knockout loss at London’s O2 in April. But he jumped straight back into the lion’s den here by signing to face leading middleweight contender Gastelum.
The three scoring judges were split, with 30-27 and 29-28 cards in favour of Till and one bizarre 30-27 for Gastelum. But, in reality, the Merseysider dominated a chess match of a fight with accurate controlled bursts of pressure and outstanding takedown defence.
The result means Till, who failed in a welterweight title fight last year, is now a leading contender for the belt up at 185lb. An astounding career turnaround for the European UFC headliner who was heavily criticised by fight fans because of his meteoric rise and subsequent fall.
Not lost on Till, he dedicated his victory inside the Octagon to all those who have attacked him on social media while he was down. “That was for all the doubters. Where are you now? Message me now!” he screamed.
From the moment he walked out to Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’, Till was all business. Not even an eye poke in the second round upset his momentum, as he patiently bounced on the back foot before routinely picking off Gastelum with slick southpaw counters. Twice he caught Gastelum body kicks and made him pay.
Till’s performance was all the more remarkable given that he arrived in New York four days later than scheduled because of visa issues, and only had two days to acclimatise to the jet lag.
“I nearly pulled out. I nearly faked an injury,” he said. “I was so scared. I didn’t want to lose again and the fear of losing almost made me pull out. But I didn’t. I manned up and I took the fight. And now I’m back!”
Masvidal v Nate Diaz controversially stopped
Meanwhile, the NYSAC (New York State Athletic Commission) doctor working the Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz main event ensured it was him and not US President Donald Trump (after he was jeered at a World Series baseball game last month) who received the biggest jeers of the night after he halted the BMF title fight after three rounds because of a cut sustained by the Californian.
Despite Diaz stating he was good to continue before the start of the fourth round, the doctor waved off the action just as the 34-year-old was coming back into the fight – much to the dismay of both fighters, their corners and the 20,143 sell-out MSG crowd.
Speaking after receiving the BMF belt from Hollywood action hero Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Masvidal said they would “run the fight back” as he too was frustrated by the outcome from a fight he was clearly winning.
The former Miami boat yard scrapper drew first blood, catching Diaz with a left hook and right head kick in the opening minute which dropped Nate and opened the fight-ending cut over his right eye. The Cuban-American was free-flowing and relaxed as he dominated the first two rounds and half the third, before typically Diaz started to have some success late in the third.
Masvidal, who after stopping Till in London recorded the fastest knockout in UFC history with his five-second flying knee KO of Ben Askren in July, looked better than ever. But the enforced stoppage left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth and the rematch will be another huge pay-per-view opportunity for the promotion early in 2020.
Other highlights on a night stacked with highlight reel moments included seventh-ranked light heavyweight Corey Anderson halting the Johnny Walker hype train with a vicious first-round TKO before Kevin Lee knocked out previously unbeaten lightweight Gregor Gillespie inside three minutes with a perfect left high kick of his own.