Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till co-headlines UFC 244 this November 2, 2019 at the Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
One sentence summary
David: Halloween: H20
Phil: Big left hands, big egos and big limitations
Record: Kelvin Gastelum 15-4-1 NC | Darren Till 17-2-1 Draw
Odds: Kelvin Gastelum -240 | Darren Till +220
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Gastelum is an unlikely contender, all things considered. Nothing about his style screamed ‘delicious evil power’ and superhero toughness. He was a modern wrestle-boxer, and like with most wrestle-boxers, they lead stable careers without ever becoming all that interesting. Gastelum has been an awesome exception. And he’s also been a hot mess. I’m not sure where he’s headed. Having a war with Israel Adesanya would theoretically keep his stock skyhigh given where Adesanya is right now, but his career is just strange enough that he could end up a Jake Ellenberger redux (I’m not counting on it; just saying).
Phil: Slight disagree: from the beginning I think Gastelum was marked as someone who could be more than a wrestleboxer. Just on pure physical gifts and an innate knack for fighting, you could tell that this guy had the potential to be something special. Back when he first came out of TUF, he was basically just back-take to RNC but he still did it with enough regularity that you could tell that this tubby dude was something a bit out of the ordinary. When the freakish toughness and punching power did raise their respective heads, the question was less “how much potential does he have” and more “can he realize it?” That seems to be the question today as well. I maintain that he still wouldn’t make a particularly large welterweight. That he’s struggling to make 185 is downright unprofessional.
David: Who is Till? Is he secretly Ross Pearson? Michael Bisping? At worst, he’s better than Che Mills: the most hyped-up non threat to ever exist. Maybe that’s not really a dig at Mills. After all, it’s Rogan who was drowning in power sauce that night. Che was just drowning in Rory. Darren is a quality fighter who won two tough fights, and then lost two tough fights. I don’t think there’s much to be gleaned from Till’s recent past other than that the strength of competition has caught up to him. This is the perfect fight to find out if Till can rebound. Or not.
Phil: Till is at a precarious point in his career. As has been mentioned before, the UFC’s promotional model is basically a diamond-mining operation designed to pick up people who can be the next Conor McGregor. Till presented enough similarities to McGregor that the machine happily picked him up off the conveyor. Approximate geographical location, check, confident, check, left hand, check, comically large for the weight class, check. Unfortunately the problems for both the UFC and Till are twofold: firstly, he’s no Conor McGregor. Secondly, there was a healthy dollop of luck involved in McGregor making his way to the top- even if he himself ran his UFC gauntlet again, there’s no guarantee it would have the same outcome. Till has (in retrospect, rather predictably) run into some major stumbling blocks, and the UFC machine is not programmed to offer steps backward.
What’s at stake?
David: This is a tough spot for both fighters. Gastelum is erratic enough with all of the extracurricular activity, and weight issues that a loss and another “bad” decision could earn him something more than just daggers across the table from Dana White. Till is in a metaphysically dangerous spot himself. He’s the current face of British contendership. Three losses in the hole, and suddenly that image is gone. Granted, the idea of cutting these guys is dumb. But the UFC has done dumber, and so I’m hoping the pressure’s on in small doses.
Phil: This genuinely does have some stakes, doesn’t it? Either man is fairly precariously balanced between “next big thing” and “bust”. Of the two, Gastelum has picked up enough faded name scalps, and has that tremendous fight against Adesanya, and such can survive a loss more.
Where do they want it?
David: Gastelum has done a great job in recent years of honing his strengths into active threats. Before he might pump a strong jab, but forget about combination-punching. Or he might throw some natural-born killer left hands, and ignore his wrestling. And so forth. Now he’s fully committed to the revolving beatdown door of heavy striking as Plan A, Plan B, and then meaningful grappling as Plan C. Gastelum has always a steady string of gifts. His power is a little overstated, not because it’s “overrated” but because he doesn’t exploit it as often as he should. That’s where good footwork, and movement can help alleviate missing the strike zone. Gastelum, for his part, doesn’t have that in his arsenal. But he does a good job of covering space quickly when he needs to.
Phil: Gastelum seemed like he was going to be that guy who was just going to wait around for the right fight to be delivered to him. With a granite chin, tremendous speed and shockingly good cardio, he had a distinct tendency to just hang about until his opponent either exhausted themselves grappling with him, or until they conceded to trading, where he could deck them with some variant of the one-two. His footwork was broadly limited to a bounce into sudden explosive dash, with his sheer linearity making him easy meat for lateral movement. The Adesanya fight wasn’t a transformation, but it was a huge improvement. He jabbed more, punched in combination, attacked the body, and most importantly moved his head. It was good to see. He still also took a lot of time off and ended up as a punching bag, but you know. Baby steps.
David: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Till is a one-note fighter in a dynamic way. He has a fairly limited toolset. But the thing about Till is that his skillset isn’t naturally limited. It’s just a little limited by design. He’s comfortable, quick, and powerful when it comes to pressuring with his straight left. Maybe he’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Whatever it is, Till has a lightning quick straight left that he unleashes with remarkable accuracy. But it’s not just about accuracy. It’s about comfort, and positioning. He’s always in great position to unleash his main attack. It helps that he’s adept throwing strikes backing up, or moving forward. So he’s never not a threat to re-chamber attacks. Most of Till’s problems are defensive. Just not in the traditional ‘can’t block’ manner. For Till, he backs straight up, and gets cranked.
Phil: On paper Till should be a great candidate for moving up in a division. He’s a young striker who has clearly outgrown welterweight, so moving up should allow him to be that bit faster, that bit more durable. I’m not sure that it is actually going to work that well, though. One thing about moving up is that it is also a question of trade-offs, and if there’s one thing which those who move up tend to have in common, it is basic footspeed and distance covering ability. Till is no longer going to be way bigger and taller than everyone he fights, and he’s both quite plodding someone who simply covered a lot of issues with pure bigness. Grappling and wrestling defense? He was huge. Striking defense? Retreating behind a giant frame. Ironically, I feel this is actually somewhat similar to the McGregor dynamic, who was an incredible featherweight and merely seems to be a very good lightweight: his primary weapon is and remains an extremely accurate left hand, and having a wide huge bubble of space for opponents to wade through to get past it carried him through a lot of matchups.
Insight from past fights
David: Both fighters are prone to defensive breakdowns. The insight from past fights helps double as an x-factor. Gastelum clearly has the better chin, which should be the difference.
Phil: On the one hand, Till has been badly hurt by people zipping across space and decking him as he retreats backwards on a straight line twice. Gastelum can do that! He did it to Adesanya and Adesanya is a much better defensive fighter than Till! On the other hand, though, Till is also a blazingly fast starter who has hurt or dropped pretty much everyone he’s fought, including Masvidal. Gastelum has improved his head movement on his entries, but if he gets pressured his defense is still atrocious.
David: Visa issues. Proper hydration. Everything you think would be x-factors for these men but never are.
Phil: I would obviously say the weight-leaning thing, but Gastelum has had weight issues many times before and it’s rarely affected his performance too badly (apart from perhaps the Woodley fight).
Phil: Till knows where he wants this fight. He is in some ways a more subtle fighter, one capable of changing up his timing and approach with a few tools. He has a good chance of hurting Gastelum early. However, he’s also more limited. He takes a shot less well than the borderline-immortal Gastelum, cannot maintain Gastelum’s output, has comparably bad defense, and has shown a weakness for exactly the approach that Gastelum loves. Kelvin Gastelum by TKO, round 2.
David: Where’s the British solidarity, Phil? You seem a little more caustic than usual in pronouncing a fighter’s flaws. Not that I don’t agree. I do. A lot. I do believe that Till has enough length, and power to keep Gastelum at bay for longer than we think. Let’s keep in mind that Gastelum was nearly killed in that Adesanya fight. He took flush right hand after flush right hand, and if that fight had been ten seconds later, it would have been a TKO. I always worry more about fighter durability when they’re coming off a sustained, prolonged war than when they’re quick KO’ed the way Till was against Masvidal. As such, Gastelum won’t suddenly ditch what makes him so effective, but I do believe he’ll hesitate more than you’d think. I’m predicting weirdness. Kelvin Gastelum by Decision.
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