When you hear combat sports media groaning about the UFC’s lack of stars, it’s an indictment of some of the champions who currently hold belts. One of those who doesn’t bill as a star is welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, despite being among the longest-tenured titleholders on roster, and who headlines UFC 228 on Saturday night against the Englishman Darren Till. Lest you think that just mouthing off will get you over in MMA, Woodley defies that assumption too. He’s traditionally been one of the more vocal champions, yet much of what he has to say either rubs fans the wrong way (like when he won the belt and called out dormant MMA star Nick Diaz) or royally pisses off the UFC (like when he said a fight with Nate Diaz was being made, and Dana White cleared up the misunderstanding by calling him “full of shit.”).
Woodley’s fights haven’t exactly been a saving grace of late, either. In his last title defense, against Demian Maia at UFC 214, he threw a record-low number of strikes (57) over a 25-minute title bout, which induced more than a few yawns. White said afterward, “when you get booed out of an arena, [it means] people don’t want to watch you fight,” which wasn’t exactly sugarcoating anything. On the bright side, Woodley impressively thwarted Maia’s takedown attempts regularly and often — stuffing all 21 shots — so that futility became the dominant theme of the bout.
So what does that mean for his fight against the undefeated Scouser, Till, who missed weight his last time out and has drawn his own criticism? UFC 228 will not be a monster pay-per-view event, but there are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind seeing the welterweight belt take a trip to Liverpool when it’s all said and done. The UFC can’t outright say it, but you know there is a desire to return the welterweight class into a glamour division, like it was when Georges St-Pierre and Robbie Lawler ruled the roost.
Starting with that fight at the top, let’s take a look at UFC 228.
Round 1: Darren Till and the Weight of Expectations
Fight-week dropouts have been the scourge of 2018, so the UFC took the precautionary step of bringing a second contender to Dallas for this PPV: Kamaru Usman. Usman is the hard-hitting Plan B, standing just offstage like an understudy in the event that Till came in overweight (or fell out of the fight for injury or some other reason). The one thing the UFC didn’t want is for UFC 228 to be headlined by Nicco Montaño and Valentina Shevchenko, a women’s flyweight title fight which is set up as the cofeature for Saturday night. A Montaño-Shevchenko main event would likely yield one of the worst PPV buyrates of all time.
But Usman was more than just a back-up plan. He was a not-so-subtle way of motivating Till to come in on weight —a bluff by the UFC to ensure that an event would actually happen. If Woodley would have fallen out, then a non-title fight between Till and Usman would have taken place. Yet even with all the UFC’s planning, Woodley made it clear he had no intention of fighting Usman on short notice, and vowed early on to face Till no matter what weight he showed up at. (If he had come in over, the belt wouldn’t have been on the line.)
There are weight issues at every UFC show, so why all the focus on it here? Other than the development of Logan Paul’s hypothetical fight with Sage Northcutt, it’s been the biggest topic heading into UFC 228. Till missed weight in his last fight against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, and it’s become the go-to knock on Till’s worthiness as a challenger--so much that he’s carrying a pretty sizable chip on his shoulder for his title bid. It’s not just Woodley that Till wants to smash; it’s the perception that, at 25 years old, he’s a middleweight masquerading at 170 pounds.
Make no mistake, though, Till is a massive welterweight. When he fought former lightweight Donald Cerrone last October, Till looked so gargantuan that it had the feel of an old UFC fight — back before things like weight divisions and sanctioning got introduced. He’ll have the size advantage on Woodley, too, and will need it. Woodley, a former collegiate wrestler at the University of Missouri, likes to dictate the action once the cage door latches. He was able to impose his will on Maia by simply turning into an immovable object. He won’t be able to do that as much with Till, who is strong in all areas of a fight.
Till’s no. 1 priority is to drag the defensive-minded Woodley into a gunfight — even momentarily — so that he can try to put a glove on his chin. Heatseekers always get the fans’ attention in a way that methodical wrestlers can’t, and this is why Till has the feel of a hero in waiting. He wants to knock out Woodley as a kind of favor to all those who’ve lost interest in the division. He wants to return it to the glamour spot it was back when Georges St-Pierre was the king.
Not that Woodley is unfamiliar with using his hands and flashing his power. His knockout of Robbie Lawler at UFC 201 to win the title remains one of the most explosive of 2016. He did the same thing against Dong Hyun Kim two years earlier in Macau. The ability to knock Till out is there, especially if Till gets a little overzealous in an exchange.
Realistically, the UFC just wants a good fight. If there is even a moment of danger, in which Till knocks Woodley down or vice versa, it will at least scrub the Maia fight from the memory banks. If Woodley surprises everybody and comes out swinging for the fences? Maybe there’s some star potential still to be tapped in “The Chosen One.” (Don’t count on it.)
Round 2: Valentina Shevchenko Ready for Flyweight
Editor’s note: Nicco Montaño was taken to the hospital Friday morning before weigh-ins, so this fight was canceled.
The UFC used the Ultimate Fighter vehicle to determine its inaugural 125-pound women’s champion, and that ended up being Nicco Montaño. She navigated a 16-person field to win the title, besting Roxanne Modafferi via unanimous decision back in December. It wasn’t a thunderous, declarative run through the ranks. She took out Lauren Murphy, Montana Stewart, and Barb Honchak in exhibition bouts to get there — solid vets, all of them — yet she hasn’t been able to shake a peculiar feeling among MMA fans that she’s merely holding the flyweight title until Valentina Shevchenko can beat her up and take it.
Let’s face it, there has never been a bigger betting underdog for a champion holding a UFC title. Montaño is coming in at +700, which feels somewhat generous. Montaño has exactly one official UFC fight, and Shevchenko — who as an undersize bantamweight lost only to current champion Amanda Nunes during her run — is a beast. She submitted Julianna Peña spectacularly, and scored one of the most lopsided victories of all time in her first flyweight debut against Priscila Cachoeira, out-landing the Brazilian 87-2 in significant strikes. It didn’t even seem that close.
Shevchenko’s title shot feels like a coronation, a chance to get a new, lively division kickstarted the right way--and potentially set up a clash with former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (who feels she is a natural flyweight as well). She has every possible advantage heading into the bout, from striking and grappling on down to experience and swagger. If Shevchenko were to lose this fight that she’s tailor-made to win, it would be the single greatest shock since Matt Serra upended St-Pierre at UFC 69 in Houston.
The Shevchenko era begins in the co-main event spot Saturday.
Round 3: Can Zabit Magomedsharipov Take the Next Step?
One of the buzzier names in the UFC over the past year is a mouthful: Zabit Magomedsharipov, a featherweight better known as “ZaBeast.” He is 15-1 as a pro fighter, with his only loss coming back in 2013. Since debuting in the UFC last September, he’s gone 3-0 with two submission victories. In his big “step up in competition” fight against Kyle Bochniak at UFC 223 in April, he dominated the action from horn to horn. At 6-foot-1 and wearing a freedom fighter beard, he carries his 145-pound frame like a beatnik mantis — yet his demeanor is just as cold as his Russian counterpart, Khabib Nurmagomedov. There is a lot to love about his upside.
Magomedsharipov was supposed to face Yair Rodriguez on Saturday night, a fight that had many fascinations to it from a stylistic standpoint. But Rodriguez was forced to withdraw from the bout in late August, giving way to Brandon Davis, a decent enough prospect who came up on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Just like with Shevchenko, there is really no reason to think that Magomedsharipov is any danger against Davis, who is coming off a loss against Enrique Barzola. Davis isn’t exactly steak being slid under the door here to feed the lion, but his prospects of getting out of this fight in one piece aren’t too good. Not unless Magomedsharipov takes him lightly, and gets caught up in his own hype. Every now and then that happens in the UFC. It happened to Rodriguez after he beat B.J. Penn to a pulp. He came in riding on the shoulders of his faithful against Frankie Edgar, and ended up getting taken apart for 10 straight minutes before the cageside doctors had seen enough.
The chances of that happening here are nil. Magomedsharipov has looked better and better each time out, and it’s clear he is extremely comfortable ladling out punishment for as long as the man standing opposite him is willing to take it. If anything, this fight will end up being the last in Phase 1 of his slow build. This time next year, there’s a very real chance that Magomedsharipov will be fighting for UFC gold.
Round 4: Watch out for Tatiana Suarez
As far as backstories go, there aren’t too many that can rival Tatiana Suarez’s. She began wrestling at 3-and-a-half years old in California’s Inland Empire, dedicating her life to the mats. She traveled the globe competing into her late teens, twice picking up bronze medals in freestyle wrestling in the Worlds. In 2011, while preparing herself for the Olympic Games — and to realize her lifelong dream — she learned that she had thyroid cancer. She was told that her wrestling career was over. After undergoing surgery to remove her thyroid and some lymph nodes — as well as subsequent bouts of radiation and iodine — she got better. She was clear of cancer by 2013.
Not long thereafter she began training at Millennia in Rancho Cucamonga, at first in jiu-jitsu, in which she won some tournaments. Then she segued to mixed martial arts, winning a couple of regional fights. That led to her appearing on The Ultimate Fighter in 2016, which — as she is wont to do — she also won. She beat Viviane Pereira in her second UFC fight, setting up a bout against the young Mexican phenom Alexa Grasso. Suarez tapped Grasso out in the first round with a rear-naked choke.
So now Suarez is on the verge of making big waves in the UFC, using her wrestling base and her instinctive submission skills. She is facing former strawweight champion Carla Esparza, herself a former Southern California wrestling standout from Redondo Beach. What’s great about this fight, which airs on Fox Sports 1 as the last prelim before the PPV kicks off, is that Suarez and Esparza are such dogged wrestlers that neither is willing to give an inch. What happens when stubbornness clashes in the middle of a cage? There’s a big chance that whatever it is, it’ll be memorable.
In the dictation of wills, it’s hard not to favor the 27-year-old Suarez. She’s on the verge of busting through, and the UFC loves her potential to one day challenge for the title. This fight with Esparza will fill in a lot of blanks as to whether that shot comes sooner rather than later.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Jessica Andrade vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz — The third women’s fight actually has potential to be the most ridiculous banger of the three. Over the last two years, Andrade has been a special kind of hell for anybody she’s faced. She busted open Jessica Penne back in 2016 to kick off a 5-1 run, and has scored impressive wins over Claudia Gadelha and Tecia Torres since. Her only loss during that time was against then-strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. You can practically parallel those accomplishments with what Kowalkiewicz has done. The “Polish Princess” distinguishes herself as the last to score a victory over current champion Rose Namajunas. Should she beat Andrade, the rematch practically books itself.
Jimmie Rivera vs. John Dodson – bantamweight fights are almost always frenetic affairs, but there’s something about this one that promises crazy action. Rivera is coming off his first loss in a decade, after having got caught with a head kick against Marlon Moraes in June. How does he respond to a knockout loss? Does he get gun shy? Or does he show up ready to take out his frustrations on somebody as hittable as John Dodson, who has traded wins and losses since 2015? One thing is certain: For a littler guy, Dodson throws with ferocious power. If Rivera is hungover from that Moraes fight, he could end up with smelling salts flaring up his nostrils pretty quick.
Diego Sanchez vs. Craig White – Of the iconic original class of fighters to appear on The Ultimate Fighter, Sanchez is the last one still competing (unless you count Chuck Liddell, who was a coach on the show and has a fight with Tito Ortiz planned for November). It’s not just that Sanchez is still there so much as it is that Sanchez is still Sanchez. This is a guy who tried to harness energy from a thunderstorm while on TUF, who shouting “yus!” like Tony Robbins en route to fight Jake Ellenberger, who has made any fan fall in love with his ever-shifting levels of kookiness for a decade. With two losses in a row, the 36-year-old Sanchez’s back is against the wall. After 27 fights in the UFC, a loss against White would likely mark the end to his time in the promotion that made him.