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The UFC Fight Night 191 main event between Derek Brunson and Darren Till on Saturday in Las Vegas was emblematic of their broader careers, particularly recently. Going into the bout, Till was the clear A-side, the fighter around which the promotion for the card was most built. He was the betting favorite, with fans and bettors getting behind the loquacious Liverpudlian. Till not only started as the favorite, but the odds moved in his direction as the fight got closer.
In spite of that, Brunson won the fight handily. The longtime middleweight contender dominated the bout by using his wrestling, with the exception of a brief scare in Round 3. That earned Brunson his fifth win in a row; Till has now lost four of five, with his only win in that stretch coming in a split decision over the struggling Kelvin Gastelum. Most telling of all, even after the bout went the way it did, post-fight discussions were squarely focused on Till rather than Brunson. Should Till move down in weight? What role might an injury have played in Till’s performance? How good—or bad—is Till, really?
In some ways, this sequence of events doesn’t make a lot of sense. You would think the fighter with momentum would get more credit than the one in a slump. It would seem a fighter firmly in the championship picture would be of more interest than the fighter who’s a long way away from that status. There is of course the caveat that we expect the spotlight to shine on great fighters even after they struggle. It was no surprise that Anderson Silva was the more discussed fighter when he took on Brunson, despite Silva having gone nearly five years without a win. However, this is Till, not Silva. He had buzz early in his career but doesn’t have much in the way of impressive wins over high-caliber opponents on which to hang his hat.
On the other side of the equation, it’s been a perpetual battle to get respect for Brunson. He has main evented six UFC shows—against Till, Robert Whittaker, Lyoto Machida, Ronaldo Souza, Edmen Shahbazyan and Kevin Holland—and hasn’t been the primary story in a single one of them. Time and again, he has been selected as the respected veteran opponent to take on either a legend or an up-and-comer. Whether he wins or loses, he’s still largely perceived as the opponent the next time out.
Just recently, he was the underdog against Ian Heinisch, who sported a glowing 13-1 record and had impressively won on Dana White’s Contender Series. When he dispatched Heinisch, he was an even bigger underdog against Shahbazyan, who was perceived to be an elite prospect. Beating Shahbazyan didn’t change perceptions, so Brunson was again the underdog against Holland, who was coming off of a spectacular 2020 campaign in which he had gone 5-0. That, of course, led to Till at UFC Fight Night 191, where he was overlooked one more time. It seems unlikely things will be much different next time out.
While strange on the surface, that’s just the nature of MMA. Fans and promoters gravitate towards certain fighters, and once they are perceived as special in some way, it can take a long time to overcome that perception. On the flipside, once a fighter is viewed as uninteresting or dull, win after win can do little to change the public view.
Of course, there are exceptions. Newer fans may not realize there was a significant time period during which Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell were considered talented but unmarketable. Fans and promoters also sometimes give up on once-intriguing fighters quicker than you would think. It would have seemed improbable when Houston Alexander knocked out Alessio Sakara and Keith Jardine in breathtaking fashion that he would only have four more fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. On balance, though, perceptions linger.
This general tendency has only increased in recent years as the UFC has run such a frenetic schedule. There’s always a need for another suitable TV main event, and thus, fighters with notoriety are given chance after chance. The days where three losses in a row meant an almost certain release are long gone. With the splash Paddy Pimblett made in his Octagon debut at UFC Fight Night 191, he’s likely to get plenty of opportunities in the coming years, even if he has some significant setbacks. It’s not yet clear just how good Sean O'Malley will end up being, but he’s going to get more than his fair share of showcase fights either way.
It’s even harder for fighters trying to overcome the assumption that they’re just not that interesting. The UFC will stick those fighters in preliminary fights even if they keep winning, and any single loss becomes so much more damaging. Fans, meanwhile, only tend to remember the most spectacular of performances. Solid wins over quality opponents just don’t move the needle like they once did, simply because they’re so much more common now.
That leaves fighters like Brunson and Till repeating the same patterns. Brunson proves time and again to be better than he’s given credit for, only for this to be forgotten by the time the next hyped opponent arrives. Lackluster performances from Till are overlooked because the idea of Till dating back to his early UFC days is more attractive than the reality. Fortunately for Brunson and unfortunately for Till, there is eventually a breaking point. It’s just not clear how far either man is away from it.