UFC Fight Island debate: Will Robert Whittaker-Darren Till winner get title shot?


The UFC certainly brought excitement to Fight Island, including a loaded UFC 251 lineup that featured three title fights and four championship bouts overall in an eight-day span. It’ll bid adieu to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday with another card that’s filled with intriguing storylines.

The main event features former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker and Darren Till, who is making his second appearance at 185 pounds. While middleweight titleholder Israel Adesanya is scheduled to face Paulo Costa in September, Saturday’s winner could be next in line for a shot at the belt.

Saturday’s Fight Night co-main event will be contested by two legendary natives of Brazil: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Rua is 38 years old; Nogueira is 44. Will this be the last fight for either veteran?

Meanwhile, making a comeback to the Octagon will be former light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson, who announced his retirement in June 2019. But he’s back and he’ll be fighting at heavyweight for the first time. Can he make an impact in the division? His first crack comes against former belt-holder Fabricio Werdum.

Speaking of impact, Khamzat Chimaev made one in his UFC debut last week, submitting John Phillips in the second round. Chimaev asked UFC president Dana White for a quick turnaround and he got one. Chimaev will face fellow prospect Rhys McKee on Saturday, but are two fights in a 10-day span too much?

ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy and Marc Raimondi discuss those topics and more.

Should the main-event winner fight for the title next?

Helwani: I believe that distinction should go to Jared Cannonier, but I also think if the popular Darren Till wins, he may get the nod. Cannonier is 3-0 at 185, while Till would be 2-0, however, Cannonier hasn’t fought since last September because he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in March and has lost momentum. Plus, a win over Whittaker for Till would be bigger than any of Cannonier’s three wins (David Branch, Anderson Silva, Jack Hermansson). Ideally, I liked the way Hermansson laid it out on Saturday: he gets the winner of Whittaker-Till, Cannonier gets the winner of Adesanya-Costa. Easy enough. But again, I think Till, if he looks impressive, might get it. If both Adesanya and Whittaker win, I don’t think Whittaker gets another crack at the champ, but a Costa win could give Whittaker some hope.

Murphy: The UFC rankings system is far from perfect. But if we’re going to have them, we might as well adhere to them.

Whittaker is one appearance removed from holding a belt. Before that knockout loss to Adesanya, “The Reaper” strung together nine consecutive wins, including back-to-back decisions over Yoel Romero. Whittaker is the No. 1 contender, per the rankings. With that résumé and that record, he’s next in line with a win.

Till’s case is not as simple, with just one middleweight win since his pro debut in 2013. That came in his last fight against high-caliber opponent Kelvin Gastelum, yes, but that followed back-to-back losses to close his welterweight account.

A win over Whittaker holds undeniable value but not enough to jump Cannonier in the queue. If the UFC decides Cannonier and Till can sort that out in the Octagon, great. But Whittaker is the only half of Saturday’s main event who should challenge for a belt next.

Raimondi: Maybe. It depends on the circumstances. We now know that Adesanya will defend his middleweight title against Costa at UFC 253 in September. If Whittaker beats Till, and Adesanya wins, I’m not sure an Adesanya vs. Whittaker rematch makes sense this early. Adesanya just finished him less than a year ago. If Costa is the champion, that changes everything. Whittaker or Till would be a fresh matchup for Costa — and either would be a great fight. And the other option could be if Adesanya and Till both win, which would set up a rivalry bout between the two frenemies. Let’s not discount Cannonier, though. He has won three straight, all by TKO, and owns a win over Jack Hermansson, who just stopped Gastelum in the first round last weekend. Cannonier is right there as well once he returns from pectoral surgery.

Will this be the last time we see Shogun and/or Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and if so, what memory stands out the most?

Helwani: I keep thinking they’re done, but then they come back for more. I don’t think this will be Rua’s last fight. His team tells me he doesn’t want to go out fighting in an empty arena. And it’s easy to forget he’s 4-1-1 in his past six fights because he’s been so inactive, though he has absorbed a lot of damage over the years. Still, I’d be surprised if this is it for the 38-year-old former UFC light heavyweight champ. A Nogueira retirement, on the other hand, wouldn’t surprise me as much. “Lil’ Nog” is 44 and got knocked out by Ryan Spann in his last fight, which happened in May 2019. He’s 2-2 in his last four fights, with all the wins and losses coming via TKO or KO. A win over his rival, Rua, would be a great way to go out, considering he’s 0-2 against him. As for great moments, Rua’s title victory win at UFC 113 in Montreal comes to mind, as well as his entire run in the 2005 Pride middleweight Grand Prix, which he won. Nogueira’s submission win over Dan Henderson in the same 2005 GP was amazing, as was his UFC debut victory over Luiz Cane in 2009, which he won via first-round knockout.

Murphy: An ugly knockout could change this entirely, a realistic result 15 years after these two first met. As it stands, Saturday’s co-main is more likely the curtain call for Antonio Rogerio Nogueira than it is for “Shogun” Rua.

That comes down to age — Little Nog is six years the elder — and recent form. Shogun’s last appearance was a split draw against Paul Craig that many people scored for the Brazilian. That was preceded by a knockout win over Tyson Pedro. The last time we saw Nogueira, meanwhile, was a hard-to-watch uppercut knockout loss to Spann at UFC 237 in Rio de Janeiro.

The memory that stands out among these fighters is easy: Shogun made history in a decision loss to Henderson at UFC 139, an all-time great bout. The UFC had only recently moved to five-round main events in non-title fights. That instant classic cemented the change of format for all main events, and the UFC is better for it.

Raimondi: Shogun is an all-time great. He was one of the best and most exciting fighters coming out of Pride, a true golden era in MMA. No one mastered the Pride rule set quite like Rua, who was known for his vicious soccer kicks and stomps to the head of grounded opponents. That sheer violence never completely transferred over to the UFC, but he was still great enough to knock out Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida. Rua’s first fight with Henderson in 2011 was one of the best in UFC history. I think Rua has more in him. He’s only lost once in his past six fights.

Nogueira is a different story. At 44, he’s six years older than the 38-year-old Rua. “Lil’ Nog” also has lost four of his past six. If he doesn’t beat Rua here, the writing could be on the wall.

Do you think Alexander Gustafsson can be a serious player at heavyweight?

Helwani: I do. He’s quick, he’s long and he’s athletic. My one concern is, sometimes when fighters move up in weight they don’t push themselves as much. They take it easy in training, and because the gap between heavyweight and light heavyweight is so big, I’m curious to see how much he weighs and how good his cardio is. We will find out relatively quickly whether he is taking this new chapter in his life seriously or not. If he is, I definitely think he can be a player at heavyweight. Also, I’m curious to see where his head is. Remember, he retired last year. Is he really back or is he back for a quick pay day? If it’s the latter, that won’t bode well for “The Mauler.”

Murphy: I want to believe this. Combat sports are best when there are compelling heavyweight fights. And the UFC heavyweight division, ironically, thins out once Daniel Cormier retires, whether or not he holds the belt.

Gustafsson, standing 6-foot-5 with a 79-inch reach, has the frame to compete with heavyweights. The question, though, is whether his power and chin can handle a jump in which opponents can weigh 60 pounds more.

Gus has only fought top-10 opponents at light heavyweight since 2012, most of whom were closer to the top five. He’s on the short list of greatest UFC fighters to never hold a belt. Still, he has not won since 2017 and retired after his most recent loss.

To prove he’s ready to make noise at heavyweight, Gus’ only option Saturday is to beat a former champ in Werdum.

Raimondi: I think so. The questions I have about Gustafsson are more related to how committed he is to elite-level MMA at this point in time. He was one of the best light heavyweight fighters in the world for the better part of the decade, but always played second fiddle to Jon Jones and Cormier, which is nothing to sneeze at. I don’t see heavyweight being a huge learning curve for him. He’s 6-5, taller than most in the weight class. And he hasn’t struggled with guys who have big power, with the one exception being Anthony Johnson — and “Rumble” could probably knock out a charging rhino with his right hand. Gustafsson should be a good addition to the division and Werdum is a good first challenge. That fight will tell us a lot about where both are right now.

How do you feel about the UFC booking Khamzat Chimaev 10 days after his debut?

Helwani: I love it. He’s been one of the stars of the Fight Island experience, he took zero damage whatsoever in his debut win over Phillips last week, he’s still there, and with the travel bans still in place, it’s good to capitalize on his momentum now, considering he lives in Sweden. Also, I love the fact that his debut fight was at 185 and this one is at 170. What a beast. The only thing I don’t like about this fight is that it is against Rhys McKee, who is a great European prospect. I don’t love the idea of McKee’s UFC debut coming against Chimaev on a week’s notice, but them’s the breaks, I guess. Kudos to McKee for taking the fight against one of MMA’s best prospects. I suspect there wasn’t a long line of people volunteering for this assignment.

Murphy: Under normal, non-global-pandemic circumstances, there would be no need to rebook Chimaev 10 days after his dazzling debut last Wednesday.

In these new-normal, global-pandemic circumstances, Chimaev’s next opportunity is unknown. International travel has become complex. And there’s no back-to-back full weight cut. He took last week’s fight up a weight class at middleweight; this weekend’s fight against Irish debutant McKee is back at welterweight, Chimaev’s natural division.

Chimaev absorbed one more significant strike last week than I did. Realistically, he’s as fresh as can be. It’s a unique set of circumstances that permits a unique approach: booking someone in two UFC fights 10 days apart.

A win would set a modern UFC record for fewest days between wins. Oddsmakers have Chimaev as a 10-to-1 favorite, too, so it seems those with vested interest in his performance trust his ability to make the historic turnaround — comfortably.

Raimondi: Well, it isn’t like he took much damage against Phillips. That was one of the more lopsided wins in recent UFC history. Chimaev is an absolute monster. One of the bigger questions could be how much does the weight cut down to 170 affect him. Chimaev was clearly fresh at 185 against Phillips. Does the cut change his cardio at all? It’ll be interesting to see. In my opinion, “The Wolf” is about go on and become one of the most intriguing prospects to come out of the pandemic era.

Which fight that is currently flying under the radar excites you most and why?

Helwani: Very hard to pick one because there is a lot to like on this card. You’ve got Till’s teammate, the 12-1 Mike Grundy going up against the undefeated Movsar Evloev. Nicolas Dalby vs. the returning Jesse Ronson is a fun one, and Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta in the latter’s first fight in over two years is intriguing, too. Paul Craig is always a good time, too. But in the end, I’ll go with my fellow Canadian Tanner Boser, who is very fun to watch and listen to, going up against the 10-1 Raphael Pessoa. This is Boser’s second fight in less than a month, and I’m curious to see if the pride of Bonnyville, Alberta, can make it two in a row.

Murphy: A record-tying 15-fight card offers a few under-the-radar options in Fight Island’s finale. My favorite of those is Oliviera vs Sobotta.

We forget about Sobotta, because we haven’t seen him in more than two years. He hasn’t won a fight since 2017. But with 15 finishes in 17 career wins, the Polish-German dual-citizen usually takes a viewer-friendly approach.

Cowboy Oliveira, meanwhile, won a razor-thin decision at UFC 248, snapping a three-fight losing streak. Like Sobotta, Oliveira has a tendency to render judges’ opinions moot: 15 of his 20 wins are inside the distance. His post-fight bonus rate of 50 percent over his past eight appearances is rarely bested.

Two guys with a track record of finishes needing to make a statement in a strong promotion spot — shortly after 8 p.m. ET Saturday night on ESPN — seems as likely as any pairing to deliver.

Raimondi: Without a doubt, Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez. This is excellent booking by UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard. Rodriguez is surging right now. She’s undefeated and unbeaten in four UFC fights (with two draws, oddly enough). Esparza, meanwhile, is the former strawweight champion — the first ever — who has been fighting hard to keep her spot in an ever-changing division. Esparza has won three in a row. Can she get herself back into the title picture after five years without the belt? Or can the up-and-coming Rodriguez knock off a divisional stalwart and earn the biggest win of her career. Very excited for this one.

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