It may not have been the barnburner that we were all hoping for, but Stephen Thompson vs. Darren Till was certainly intriguing to any striking obsessed fan. It had some of those palpable, energetic spaces that made you feel like something big was going to happen. Overall, there were no devastating shots landed by either man, unless you count the Darren Till knockdown, which made scoring tricky for this one.
Right off the bat, we saw Till try to take the Octagon and pressure Thompson with fakes and feints. He tried to bully Thompson with his superior size as was necessary, but at times failed to cut off the cage as effectively as he could. Had Till added in some round kicks to the body and legs while Thompson was against the cage he would have won rounds more clearly. At the same time he could have been countered by a “Wonderboy” blitz as well, so hindsight is 20/20.
Despite Till’s pressure, however, Thompson seemed fairly comfortable throughout the opening frame. He was fairly accurate and landed the cleaner shots in the first round, although there were no concussive blows landed. He did have a bit of a tendency to headhunt in the first few rounds of the fight, but later mixed things up to the body far more than Till. While praise should be given to Till’s pressure and low kicks, Thompson fought in the style that we’re accustomed to, dodging many punches and blitzing in with strikes whenever possible.
The interesting thing about a fight like this is that the crowd really does have an impact. I had to watch the fight twice to analyze everything that was going on, and I muted the audio on the second viewing. The crowd clamored every time Till threw a punch that nearly met the mark. There was even an interesting moment when Till pushed Thompson away and the masses went wild. It’s not to say “The Gorilla” didn’t have clear points of effective offense, but as poor as some judges are, a cheer from the crowd can influence what they see.
Thompson’s lead leg kicks were shut down, for the most part, forcing him to lean heavily on a punching approach. He did land his side kick from time to time, but not nearly in the same frequency as he usually does. Till’s pressure put Thompson on the back foot, but he still had a great deal of success countering while moving backward.
Where Thompson had success with peppering strikes, the two biggest moments for Till were ones that affected the fight in a major way. For one, the low line side kicks that the karate fighter should have used was instead employed by Till, jamming up Thompson’s left knee badly in the second. As a fellow karate practitioner, it was easy to see that Thompson’s movement was somewhat compromised after that moment. He even went so far as to acknowledge the strike, something that was perhaps a big mistake. Don’t let your opponent know you’re hurt or what they’re doing has any effect whatsoever. Till shook his head when shots landed which plays to the crowd and the judges. It was a rare case of Thompson showing his hand to an opponent.
The knockdown in the last round that everyone is talking about was impressive on Till’s part but the damage was perhaps a bit overstated. Thompson was back on his feet not long after and even outworked Till for the rest of the round which leads to a major point for this match and Thompson in particular.
Why no takedown attempts?
At this point of the game, it’s imperative for fighters to understand that using a complete game only works in their favor. Thompson, who is not known for explosive takedowns, blasted forward with a double-leg takedown and floored Till briefly in the fifth round. People will call it a desperation takedown. They’ll say, “See, Till was getting the better of him, that’s why he tried to wrestle.” But in mixed martial arts, it should simply be called fair game. Stephen Thompson has trained with Chris Weidman and a host of high-level wrestlers for a long enough time that shooting for takedowns should be a part of his game. It would only make his blitzing style more dangerous to read. An opponent would struggle to determine whether Thompson is rushing with a blitz of punches or a takedown, for example. “Is he blitzing with punches or for a takedown?” That’s what Thompson should want his opponents to think. Moving forward he should consider the fact that he can indeed wrestle and that doing so plays to his strengths more than he realizes.
A big win, but Darren Till has to make weight
As for Darren Till, this was a big win. Despite the fact that I had the fight for “Wonderboy” (as did most media scoring), it shows that Till has a great deal of nuance in his striking game. But we shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate the young man and give him a jovial slap on the back. The fact that he missed weight is no small issue. That size difference was staggering on multiple viewings.
Granted, Till went on record stating that he thinks Thompson deserves a fair shake and a shot at the Rafael dos Anjos versus Colby Covington winner. That level of humble self-deprecation will carry Till far in his career. But if he wants to be remembered as the greatest, he really does need to get his weight under control as this is the second time he has missed weight, the first being in his third UFC appearance. As much praise as he is still receiving for this performance, Stephen Thompson still deserves all the credit for taking this fight despite so many things playing in his opponent’s favor.
Overall, if we had to put a numbered score on this main event, a 6.5 would be the best fit. While it was above average due to the skillful nuance and offensive set-ups throughout, it wasn’t a match filled with explosive or exciting moments. Depending on where both men end up, it would be interesting to see a rematch. Until then, Till should mind his weight and Thompson should update his tactics.