Note: the following is a crosspost in collaboration with The Combat Hub
Normally in the fight game when a promoter has to defend its own matchmaking, it is either because a bout has been arranged as a clear easy meal for one fighter, or because a fighter has been gifted a high-profile opportunity while a deaf ear is turned to more logical, and thus deserving, contenders.
In the so-called “money era” of MMA (mixed martial arts), this latter practice has become such a regularity that most of the time these bookings are now met with resignation, even indifference, rather than protest. This is particularly the case with the UFC, not only because they still hold a monopoly of the sport’s mainstream mindshare, especially in the west, but because they are a company which has demonstrated a consistent disinterest in outside opinion—often against their own interests. Protest, in other words, is not usually worth the squeeze.
This past week, however, provided a notable exception—and window into the UFC’s bizarre thought processes—when the promotion announced a middleweight tilt (185lbs) between American Kelvin Gastelum and Liverpudlian Darren Till for their upcoming UFC 244 card at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, this November.
At a media scrum following the conclusion of season three of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, reporters asked White, the company’s president, not to justify the booking in the usual terms of contenders and rankings, but to, in essence, explain it on its face. Scores of sports outlets wasted no time penning concerns over the booking, and the concern, across the board, proved one-sided. Little attention was paid to the implications of the fight for Gastelum, not because he stands little to gain or lose, but because his opponent stands to lose everything.
While the pair shares a common history competing at welterweight (170lbs), as well as struggling to make said weight limit, their paths to middleweight contention could not be more divergent. Whereas Gastelum has been treading the 185lb waters off and on since 2013 where he was a contestant on, and eventual winner of, The Ultimate Fighter 17, Till’s entire tenure with the UFC has been fought at welterweight, except on the numerous occasions he missed the mark and the bouts were moved—on the condition his opponent consented—to a catchweight.
Nevertheless, Till maintained a perfect professional record of seventeen victories and no defeats (plus one draw) when the UFC materialized their obvious shine for the cocksure and articulate knockout artist by thrusting him into a title shot against then-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 228 amid soured negotiations with then-interim welterweight champion (whose unification bout with Woodley was therefore ostensibly guaranteed) Colby Covington.
To the surprise perhaps of some, but the shock of no one plugged in, Woodley defeated Till (second round D’Arce choke) and did so without absorbing a single significant strike. Make no mistake: this was, from many angles, an embarrassment not only for the English prospect but the UFC’s marketing machine and, more importantly, any presumed auspice of impartiality. Woodley, one of the most successful welterweights in the promotion’s history, remains one of the most maligned athletes ever to be under contract with White and his outfit. As such the fight was marketed not as a conqueror’s return, but as an almost fateful opening for his fire-eating usurper.
Till was even presented, dare I say, as a future “needle mover” in the vein of Conor McGregor. Remember, not only do they share much of the same appeal, but UFC 228 was only one fiscal quarter fresh off McGregor’s now infamous “dolly” incident, in which the Irishman and his goons for hire attacked a UFC transport bus carrying now-lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov as well as several other fighters, some of whom filed lawsuits citing physical as well as psychological trauma, the immediate result of which were drastic alterations to UFC 223, namely New Yorker Al Iaquinta being bumped up from his three-rounder opposite Paul Felder to a five-round title fight against Nurmagomedov on less than twenty-four hours notice.
The point is, McGregor—the biggest star by far in the sport’s history—brought about a lot of optic headache for the UFC in 2018, and without any guarantee he would ever compete again, the promotion therefore had a patent eagerness to find his successor, and so with a characteristic dearth of imagination turned their star-making aspirations toward “The Gorilla” whom teasers for the fight presented, in no uncertain terms, as his welterweight dead ringer.
Following Till’s lopsided loss on the biggest stage of his career, it fell to White and matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard to decide next steps. Rather than ease their fighter back into competition with a lower pressure scenario, as seemed the obvious path, they stuck to their typical M.O. of acknowledging an outcome but not its implications, as if every fight and fighter exists in a vacuum.
They do not, and this writer would like to propose that there is scarce ethical difference in this respect between booking (and neglecting to cancel) an emeritus BJ Penn who hasn’t tasted victory in nine years against a still-active demonstrable danger in Nik Lentz, and doing what the UFC did with Till post-UFC 228, which was to foist him once again into a main event slot but this time with his entire homeland on his shoulders. The result of which remains, despite stiff competition, one of the scariest knockouts of 2019.
Juxtapose this with Gastelum, who will also enter Madison Square Garden in November off a loss, but under completely different circumstances. First, as mentioned, Gastelum is now well accustomed to the 185lb climate where the median punch and kick has longer reach and greater power. He has also proven his viability and sustainability in the weight class with wins over division staples such as multiple-time Brazilian Jiu-jitsu world champion Jacaré Souza and former middleweight champion Michael Bisping.
While Gastelum is, like Till, returning from defeat and one wherein he took appreciable damage, it was also a five-round championship in which only the final round split the difference on what was, going into the fifth, more or less dead even. In other words, whereas Till’s most recent opponent and victor was not even ranked in the top ten of his division before their encounter, Gastelum’s is now wearing UFC gold around his waist and is set to fill a 60,000 seat stadium on pay-per-view.
Were UFC 244 not hosted by “the world’s most famous arena”, and Darren Till not a household name among enthusiasts, it is reasonable to assume the American would have declined to sign the bout agreement altogether and have instead opted for an opponent in the middleweight top three (he currently sits at four) such as Cuban Olympian Yoel Romero, a win over whom would reestablish Gastelum’s stake for another crack at the belt—be it against interim champion Israel Adesanya with whom Gastelum has already shared the cage or undisputed champion Robert Whittaker whom Gastelum was originally scheduled to face prior, at UFC 234, before Whittaker’s sudden withdrawal.
Yet because the UFC frequently doesn’t honour its own rankings system, or acknowledge the roulette of insanity its fighters put themselves through, and match-makes even undercard bouts in a naive bid to generate pay-per-view buys (the general public does not tend to recognize, let alone pay to watch, any but the few legitimately famous MMA fighters), Gastelum’s management may be banking on the above-average visibility of the event as well as that of his opponent to make his case in lieu of rankings, which are organized in a manner both incoherent and subject to the bipolar whims of the promotion, and as such matter only in the loosest sense.
When new UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang was first booked to face now-former champion Jéssica Andrade, White cited the injuries of seemingly more obvious contenders, among them previous champion Rose Namajunas, as the reason for booking the sixth-ranked Zhang. White dismissed the notion of any overt strategy by the company to potentially crown its first-ever Chinese champion, in China, a mere two months after opening its Shanghai performance institute built with the express intent of cultivating future talent in the region, and it is at least possible he was correct and sincere in stating this. It may simply have been, as White claimed, “right fight, right place, right time.”
Gastelum versus Till is, at least in one fighter’s case, none of these. The man who shares the distinction alongside Adesanya of being the most recent to challenge for gold in the division is not the “right fight” for a divisional debutante. Madison Square Garden, which since 2016 has become one of the UFC’s biggest annual shows alongside July’s International Fight Week, is not the “right place” for a twenty-six year old fresh off two losses, the latter of which saw his skull bounce off the canvas after he was already unconscious, followed by a full-power hook to the chin. And given that Kelvin Gastelum is not only a striker by preference but knockout artist himself, who is both more accomplished in the octagon and more elite by the UFC’s own metrics, however apocryphal, this is not the “right time.”
Another knockout loss, which despite Till’s talent and skill is by no means far-fetched, would prove devastating not just for his career but, potentially, his long-term physical and psychological wellbeing. While a win here would restore Till’s former status as a marquee prospect, a third-consecutive defeat could also undue all of the UFC’s hitherto investment in him financial and otherwise. Gastelum, for his part, will be hungrier, more driven, and more dangerous than ever before having just come within a hair of realizing his career-long dream.
When it comes to the health of a fighter, both in the short and long term, it is up to his or her team, as well as the promotion itself, to protect them from themselves. Without these checks in place, an ambitious fighter will more often than not choose the highest risk for the highest reward, meaning the quickest advancement, over lower risk, lower yield—however wiser and more manageable.
So how did White respond when asked for the rationale behind this particular bout?
“That’s the fight he wants,” White said of Till. “We went to him and said, are you sure this is the fight you want? ‘That’s the fight I want’, he said.”
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