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It’s no secret the Ultimate Fighting Championship doesn’t exactly pull out all the stops for UFC Fight Night events, let alone those that take place in Poland. If you opted to skip UFC Fight Night 118 on Saturday to spend your afternoon doing something else, I don’t blame you. Yet despite the general dearth of name value on display, by the end of the card, it felt like a new star had been born.
Darren Till, an undefeated 24 year-old prospect, put on a clinic against longtime veteran and fan favorite Donald Cerrone in the main event. Till was dominant. He stuffed the first takedown with little effort, scrambled out of the second attempt with ease and then proceeded to land big shots without taking any real damage. He stalked Cerrone around the cage, and after a beautiful standing elbow and a barrage of hard left hands, the TKO was called with under a minute left in the first round. It was a big upset, even if the betting odds weren’t terribly steep: Cerrone was the -160 favorite and Till a +130 underdog by fight time. From a distance, however, the matchup couldn’t have been more lopsided.
In the prefight promo, Cerrone mentioned that he has more “Fight of the Night” bonuses than Till had fights. That was just the tip of the iceberg. By the time Till made his professional debut in 2013, Cerrone was 19-5-1 with 18 fights in World Extreme Cagefighting or the UFC. With 19 UFC wins, Cerrone is currently tied with George St. Pierre and Demian Maia for the second most ever. He has won 13 post-fight bonuses and shares the record for most fights in a 12-month period. While he entered the fight on a two-fight skid, both of those losses were against two top-five welterweights in Robbie Lawler and Jorge Masvidal. Prior to this fight, he was reportedly scheduled for a spot on the UFC 219 card in December, albeit not officially. He had fought and defeated champions, contenders and prospects alike.
Then there was Till. If you’ve ever listened to his interviews, you know he’s not lacking in confidence, yet it remained to be seen whether that was bluster, youthful delusion or grounded in the real thing. Coming into the bout he was 3-0-1 in the UFC with only one finish. In his four fights with the promotion, his opponents have a combined UFC record of 4-7-2 and none of them have a winning record inside the Octagon. He was untested and unranked. Stylistically, it promised to be exciting and on that front it delivered, but in terms of rankings and divisional relevance, there was a case to be made before the fight that this was bad matchmaking. In the post-fight interview, Till himself understood the dynamic: “Big respect to ‘Cowboy.’ He gave me the opportunity. I was an unknown before this fight. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, and ‘Cowboy’ gave me the opportunity.”
It was a noble risk that Cerrone, No. 6 in the UFC welterweight rankings, accepted a fight with a young prospect outside of the top 15. There is little upside for a fighter in Cerrone’s position to accept a bout with a fighter like Till. While it’s true that, as “Cowboy” noted in the buildup to the fight, rankings don’t seem to matter, Cerrone is still very much competitive in the division. Fighting an established name-value guy like him is a rare opportunity for young up-and-comers.
Look at other divisions. Robert Whittaker had to win six straight against tough competition before getting a crack at an established veteran in Ronaldo Souza. Even after winning Season 13 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Tony Ferguson had to win eight in a row before he fought former champion Rafael dos Anjos. Though Max Holloway did fight Conor McGregor, it was in the Irishman’s second UFC fight, long before he became who he is now. After that, “Blessed” won five straight before he fought veteran Cub Swanson. With a win over Cerrone, Till legitimized his name alongside those three champions. A win against someone in the 11-15 ranks, even a spectacular and dominant one, wouldn’t have done nearly as much to put Till on the map -- and not just because of the number. “Cowboy” is a known commodity; in the current UFC climate, broad recognizability is hard currency of utmost value. Most fighters are not so lucky so soon.
That’s exactly what it is, too: luck. In all aspects of life, success requires a combination of talent, effort and luck. The first two factors tend to get the most attention, since the idea of lucking oneself into success doesn’t sit right with a lot of people -- especially successful people. However, there are a lot of talented, hard-working folks in the world who simply don’t catch the lucky breaks that others do. To be sure, one has to be talented and/or put in the work in order to capitalize on lucky opportunities, but getting a good bounce is an undeniable component of success.
Till got lucky. Not in terms of winning the fight; that was all talent plus the hard work it took to cultivate his talent. No, he was lucky to have someone of Cerrone’s name and stature who was willing to fight him. Beating Cerrone likely saved Till a handful of fights against opponents in roughly the same tier as himself. In accepting the fight, “Cowboy” allowed himself to potentially become the centerpiece of a highlight reel for someone who otherwise didn’t really have one.
Where does that leave Cerrone? More or less the same spot, actually. Cerrone is a rare fighter who has built a name and a fan base almost completely outside the title picture. He’s contended for titles -- once in the UFC and three times in the WEC -- and has come up short each time, but his popularity has remained buoyant regardless. His fighting style, his persona and perhaps most importantly, the frequency with which he fights has endeared “Cowboy” to fans. His window to become champion has probably already closed, but he’ll still be an exciting addition to any fight card he’s on, as well as serve the increasingly important role of gatekeeper.
At a time in the UFC where champions are cherry-picking fights and worthy contenders are picking off each other while trying to climb the ranks before getting a shot to prove themselves, it was refreshing to see Cerrone let himself become a roll of the dice. His standing likely hasn’t taken a hit, and Till’s stock has grown significantly. It was an exciting fight to watch, and the aftermath is a win-win for fans, who now have another legitimate rising star to watch.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.