UFC 228 is upon us and Darren Till has the chance to become just the second Brit to win UFC gold if he gets the better of Tyron Woodley in Dallas on Saturday. This is just the main event of a stacked card that will be unmissable for MMA fans.
We spoke to three highly respected MMA journalists in the UK, Simon Head, Jim Edwards and Nick Peet to get their thoughts and picks ahead of Saturday’s action.
Can Darren Till upset Tyron Woodley and become the new UFC welterweight champion in Dallas?
Simon: He can, but he may have to showcase plenty of patience to get it done. Woodley has been incredibly cagey in recent outings and isn’t going to give Till any easy openings. If Till can strike and land at range while staying wise to Woodley’s explosive hands and level changes, he has an excellent chance. He has all the physical gifts he needs to beat Woodley, but the most important aspect of his performance will be his mental approach. If he keeps cool and sticks to his gameplan, he has an excellent chance.
Jim: He can absolutely do it, 100%. We will have a much better idea after the weigh-in on Friday when Darren has made the weight. I’ve been told that he is as light as he has ever been at this stage of a camp, even the Donald Cerrone fight which was easy money for him in the end. You have to respect Tyron, but he hasn’t fought anyone like Darren, who is potentially a special fighter.
Nick: For me, this is Darren’s fight to lose. He’s the younger, stronger, more ambitious fighter and will be more aggressive than previous Woodley opponents. Tyron has been inactive and if Darren steps it up early, I think Tyron will be lucky to hear that final bell. Tyron has flattered to deceive during his title reign. The first fight with “Wonderboy” Thompson was one for the purists, whilst the rematch between the two was a damp squib, as was the Demian Maia fight which was fought at an almost unbearably slow pace. Tyron was explosive on the way through, but he has done that thing we all hate as fight fans where he is more interested in protecting the belt around his waist. The UFC have fast tracked Darren Till, as they would prefer an entertaining, vocal champion not a veteran champion with a chip on his shoulder. Tyron will not know what has hit him on Saturday.
Does Nicco Montano have any chance in defending her title against the highly favoured Valentina Shevchenko?
Simon: Montano’s reign as champion has been devalued by some because of the manner in which she won the belt. She won the belt by winning The Ultimate Fighter, but there were better 125-pounders not in that tournament, and as a result her position as champion still needs cementing in the eyes of many observers. However, I do believe Shevchenko is a class above Montano. In my opinion, ‘Bullet’ did enough to beat Amanda Nunes at UFC 215 and should therefore be the women’s bantamweight champion right now. But flyweight looks like the optimal weight class for Shevchenko, and I’m expecting to see her dominate proceedings and claim the title with a strong performance.
Jim: It’s so hard to make a case for Nicco in this fight. Valentina is so well rounded. Her striking is on a different level, whilst she now adding submissions to her game. I will be absolutely stunned if the result is anything other than a Valentina Shevchenko win. I think back to when Matt Serra earned his title shot a similar way by winning a season of the Ultimate Fighter and we all expecting the fight he had with Georges St Pierre to be one-sided. However, Serra pulled it off and got the TKO victory, so it’s possible. But with Nicco coming back from injuries as well, she is well and truly in deep with this fight.
Nick: Nicco has very little hope in this one. All credit to her for winning the Ultimate Fighter and the title, but the standard is that tournament was still way below than Valentina Shevchenko, who is a monster. She was close to winning the belt at bantamweight, where she was smaller than most of the girls she was fighting, so when flyweight came about it was made for her. It was a good idea to introduce the flyweight division, but after the tournament when the established names that were already in the UFC and between weights came in, the gulf in class between them and the girls in the tournament was huge. Nicco might take a real hiding in this fight and I’m confident the belt will be around Valentina’s waist for a long time.
How good can be Zabit Magomedsharipov end up being?
Simon: He’s clearly already a world-class talent, but he’ll have to run the gauntlet in arguably the UFC’s toughest weight class if he wants to hold the belt. He has a significant size and reach advantages over most of his rivals outside the Top 15. But if he’s successful at UFC 228, it will be time for him to be thrown in with one of the ranked fighters above him in the featherweight division. Only then will we get to find out just how good Magomedsharipov really is.
Jim: Zabit is a ridiculously good fighter. He’s one of those fighters who one day people will be telling you about when they saw him back in the day. Well, I have, as I have covered a lot of ACB events, where he was the champion for a while and it is always a pleasure to watch him. It’s a grappling based area he comes from, but he is so exciting to watch and can go on to do big things in the UFC, as he has already been doing in Europe. It’s a shame the fight between him and Yair Rodriguez isn’t happening, so hopefully it can be rescheduled. This will be a showcase for Zabit and you can’t miss it.
Nick: This kid is special. He is the first of the next generation of fighters coming through. We thought we’d seen the first specialist MMA fighters with Jon Jones and Rory McDonald, before we got a lot of show-ponies like Sage Northcutt, but Zabit is something else. He is seamless in his transitions and you name it, this kid can do it. He looks comfortable in any environment in the cage, despite looking like the most unassuming bloke you could imagine. He is the potentially the most talented fighter we have seen in the UFC and I can’t wait to see him up close and personal on Saturday.
What other fights on the card will catch the eye?
Simon: There’s a host of interesting bouts I’m looking forward to on the night. As a Brit, I’ll have a close eye on Craig White’s second UFC bout as he faces UFC legend Diego Sanchez in a great test against a big-name opponent. And another Brit, Darren Stewart, is back on form and looking for a win against Charles Byrd.
Elsewhere on the card, the Abdul Razak Alhassan vs Niko Price fight has fireworks written all over it, while the bantamweight bout between Aljamain Sterling and Cody Stamann has a fair bit of bad blood involved. That’ll be one to watch.
The two women’s strawweight bouts on the main card are interesting for different reasons, too. I think a big win for Tatiana Suarez in her bout against former strawweight champ Carla Esparza could propel her towards the top contenders in the women’s 115lb division, while the other strawweight clash between Jessica Andrade and Karolina Kowalkiewicz may well be the best pure matchup on the card outside of the main event.
Jim: Keep an eye out for “The Thundercat” Craig White who goes in with a legendary fighter in Diego Sanchez. Sanchez won the very first season of the Ultimate Fighter and is the longest active fighter on the UFC roster, so this is massive for Craig. He’s such a good guy, who has had to take time off work from his office job to go over to Dallas and he’s earned a good name in Cage Warriors. This is his reward for stepping in at short notice in Liverpool earlier this year when he lost to Neil Magny on a few days notice, so I’m made up for him that he has got this chance.
Nick: Obviously for Brit’s there is the Craig White fight, when he faces Diego Sanchez, but the card on the whole is great. Abdul Razak Alhassan is a knockout merchant, who just looks to punch holes in people and his fight with Niko Price won’t go the distance whichever way it goes, whilst the Jimmie Rivera-John Dodson will be excellent. The first fight of the night with Frank Camacho will be worth watching, as Camacho is always in good fights, however I really like the look of Jessica Andrade and Karolina Kowalciewicz on the main card, which could be brilliant. Karolina is a goddess and potential star and she certainly won’t have to go looking for Andrade, who will not go into hiding. That’s my pick.
Who are your early picks for bonuses?
Simon: Alhassan has nine wins, with all nine coming by knockout, so if he gets the W against the dangerous Niko Price, there’s a fair chance he’ll get it done by KO. That bout could also challenge for fight of the night honours, as could Andrade vs Kowalkiewicz. If there’s a finish in the main event, it’s often one that will win a bonus, so that’s a possibility, too.
Jim: Darren Till will win a bonus after he has stopped Tyron in either the first or second round to win the title, becoming just the second Brit after Michael Bisping to win a UFC title. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time with him in Vegas and just watching him on the pads, which you can’t always take much from with his coach Colin Heron was enough. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and occasionally you just get that feeling you’re going to witness something special. He’s taking the fight on reasonably short notice, which can sometimes be a good thing and I believe he’s going to be leaving Dallas with that gold around his waist.
Nick: It’s hard to look past anyone on the main card. If Darren does it then it’s for huge for MMA in the UK and could herald a new wave of fighters and most importantly, more shows. Zabit and Valentina can earn one with convincing wins, whilst Alhassan is always in with a shout. Diego Sanchez has earned more bonuses in his career than nearly everyone, whilst the other Brit on the card Darren Stewart simply knocks people out, so if he catches Charles Byrd clean then he has a chance. It’s all about the main card for me and I can’t wait.