Darren Till was once tipped as the next great British title hope. He was seen as the man to follow in Michael Bisping’s footsteps and become the second UFC champion from these shores.
He dismantled Donald Cerrone, outstruck Stephen Thompson on a wonderful homecoming in Liverpool and had the talk to back it up.
But since those landmark wins, Till has lost four of his last five and Saturday night’s defeat by Derek Brunson was a brutal reality check.
Darren Till suffered a hugely disappointing defeat by Derek Brunson in Las Vegas
Brunson showed his superior grappling ability and revealed holes in Till’s game
Among those willing Till to win in Las Vegas was the middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya. Adesanya has made no secret of the fact that he wants to face Till and the ‘Gorilla’ was primed to be next in line for a title shot but those dreams have been dashed for now.
Till is a brilliant salesman and utterly convinced in his own ability, he’s spoken about not only becoming a champion, but going down in history as one of the greats.
He previously told ESPN: ‘I don’t think it’s a matter of how long it takes. I don’t know, I have no goal. I think when the time’s ready – I know what I was put on this earth for, no one can convince me otherwise.
‘I was put on this earth to be a champion in the UFC and be a future GOAT, so when it happens, it’s going to happen.
‘I just want to fight, I just want to be the best,’ he continued. ‘I can’t do anything else.
‘I will not be able to retire if I don’t become one of the best.… I have to do it, I’ve got to do it, and I’m so determined and convinced. I’m going to train harder, and I’m going to be more vicious and violent as ever.’
Till went into the Brunson fight as a slight favourite and landed some crisp, clean shots on the 37-year-old American.
But it soon became clear that Brunson’s advantage in the wrestling department was significant.
Israel Adesanya’s middleweight title remains the ultimate aim for Till
He is undoubtedly the strongest fighter in the grappling department that Till has ever faced but it was still a surprise to see him fail the examination so severely.
After 90 seconds of the first round, Brunson lunged for a double-leg takedown and secured it like a hot knife through butter.
There’s no shame in being taken down by such a decorated wrestler but Till’s work on the ground off his back will have disappointed him. Brunson was able to pin him down and land some heavy artillery.
One elbow in particular caused Till’s eye to swell up and almost close. To his credit, he was able to kick Brunson off him and stand up with just under a minute to go in the first.
Two minutes into the second, he was taken down again and then crucially when enjoying his best spell of the fight in the third, he was taken down and Brunson ended up in mount, finding the finish soon after.
The concern is now that there is a clear blueprint to beat Till. He can go toe-to-toe with the very best on the feet and lost a narrow decision against Robert Whittaker, one of the best around.
Till posted this picture of Michael Bisping winning his middleweight championship
Till was in touching distance of a title shot but came up short against Brunson
But when it comes to his defensive wrestling, improvements must be made. Bisping made the point on commentary that British fighters are not exposed to top level wrestling as much as those in American gyms.
Till has been ferociously loyal to his long-time coach Colin Heron, who has a brilliant reputation but questions will inevitably be asked about his wrestling preparation.
Perhaps greater exposure to top level sparring partners in the wrestling department will be something to consider, whether they are flown in to Team Kaobon for a camp or sought out by Till at one of the larger American teams will be an interesting plot line to follow.
Till is still just 28 and could have at least another decade to make the improvements he needs.
So where does he go from here? Till is a vibrant character and loves the back-and-forth on social media but he is clearly devastated by this setback.
Jorge Masvidal beat Till and there could be some unfinished business at welterweight
He left the cage quickly on Saturday night and took a while before he raised his head above the parapet online.
When he did, the message was clear. He shared two images, one of Bisping winning the title and another of Charles Oliveira doing the same.
Both of those fighters have overcome significant losses and rollercoaster careers before touching UFC gold. Till understands the path to glory will not be smooth but he has not given up hope.
Bisping went through years of inconsistency and near misses before going on a winning run and taking a fight with the champion Luke Rockhold on short notice which he won in sensational fashion.
His route to the top was by no means arrow straight and the same fate could lie in wait for Till.
There is unfinished business at middleweight and even though the Brunson defeat was a massive setback, he may still only be two wins from a title shot.
Adesanya has such a stranglehold on the division and Till is such a marketable opponent that the fall might not be as far as many believe.
Till is likely to slide down the rankings from his spot at No 7 but the likes of Jared Cannonier, Marvin Vettori and Jack Hermansson should not be considered out of his league.
Uriah Hall (centre) recently lost to Sean Strickland and could be the next option for Till
Uriah Hall, ranked No 10 at the moment, would be an exciting match-up and could make sense next.
Hall is a flashy striker and on paper, it is one to appeal to the UFC matchmakers. Kevin Holland is also a man with a weakness in his defensive wrestling game who would guarantee a stand-up battle.
So should Till try to get back on track with a fight against a fellow striker or try to improve the fragilities in his game against a wrestler?
Ultimately, there’s little chance of the Liverpool fighter winning a title without either making himself far more difficult to take down or tough to keep on his back.
That’s where the temptation might come in to return to 170-pounds. Till looked enormous at welterweight and bullied Cerrone.
He fell short against Woodley and was knocked out by Jorge Masvidal before stepping up a division.
Till remains one of the best strikers in the division but will want to improve his wrestling
Welterweight might be a cut too far now as Till has bulked up but there are a number of high profile fights he could take.
A Masvidal rematch or domestic clash with Leon Edwards could appeal but Till may well have to get back in the win column before either of those could be a possibility.
Aside from the damage to his eye, the British fan favourite should be cleared to fight again soon and rather than stew on this defeat, a swift return to the cage in front of fans would be a sensible option.
It will be interesting to hear what Till’s take on the Brunson fight is once he has had the chance to properly reflect on the defeat.
He is a resilient character and even though this one will hurt like hell, those who backed Till to be the next British UFC champion still have time on their side.