Robert Whittaker and Darren Till have been enjoying friendly back-and-forth exchanges on social media for the better part of the year.
It started with Till’s repeated question of “Rob?” on Instagram and Twitter. Then the two joked about the kind of junk food they were eating during their respective pandemic-related quarantines. In April, the two agreed to a catchweight of 195 pounds — rather than a 185-pound middleweight bout — so neither had to diet.
The two genuinely like each other, but there’s no doubt the time for quips will be over when they enter the Octagon for the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.
ESPN has Whittaker ranked No. 2 and Till ranked No. 6 in the world at middleweight.
Whittaker (20-5) has not fought since dropping the middleweight title to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 last October. The New Zealand-born Australia resident was on a nine-fight winning streak prior to that and had held gold since 2017. Whittaker, 29, was the first Aussie to win a UFC title.
Till (18-2-1) moved up to middleweight from welterweight and beat Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 244 last November. The England native had lost two straight before that, to Jorge Masvidal and Tyron Woodley in a welterweight title bout. Till, 27, was undefeated before falling to Woodley.
In the co-main event, Brazilian legends will meet in a trilogy bout. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua takes on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in a light heavyweight battle. Rua (26-11-1) has defeated Nogueira twice and has just one loss in his past six fights. Nogueira (23-9), a 44-year-old veteran of 19 years in MMA, has said he will retire after this bout.
Also on the card, former light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson comes out of retirement and moves up to heavyweight to take on former champion Fabricio Werdum. Plus, former strawweight champion Carla Esparza meets up-and-comer Marina Rodriguez, and top prospect Khamzat Chimaev returns after an excellent debut two weeks ago to face Rhys McKee.
Fight in progress:
Strawweight: Carla Esparza (17-6, 7-4 UFC, +160) vs. Marina Rodriguez (12-0-2, 3-0-2 UFC, -180)
Light heavyweight: Paul Craig (13-4-1, 5-4-1 UFC) defeats Gadzhimurad Antigulov (20-7, 2-3 UFC) by first-round triangle
Recap to come.
Welterweight: Alex Oliveira (21-8-1) defeats Peter Sobotta (17-7-1, 4-3 UFC, 10-6-1 UFC) by unanimous decision
Oliveira has been known to fight like a wildman at times, but not this time. He put on a poised performance from long range, using body kicks to keep Sobotta out of boxing distance and even hurt him a few times.
The 32-year-old from Rio de Janeiro is back on track, winning his second straight fight after dropping three in a row. He was in command the whole way, with the biggest threat to his three 30-27 scorecards being his own fouls. The bout was paused twice — after Oliveira landed a low blow, then poked the Polish-born German in the eye — but no point was deducted.
Sobotta, 33, lost for the second straight time. But the other loss came back in 2018. He had a fight canceled last year because of injury.
Oliveira kept the fight at long range for the most part, absorbing some body kicks but landing far more than he took. When Sobotta attempted takedowns, Oliveira defended well and landed elbows to the side of the head. That enabled him to break away and keep the fight standing, and his footwork remained effective and at times was even playful.
Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev (8-0, 2-0 UFC) defeats Rhys McKee (10-3-1, 0-1 UFC) by first-round TKO
Fight Island? How about Chimaev Island?
The hottest new prospect in the UFC absolutely ran through McKee with a TKO at 3:09 of the first round. Chimaev had the quickest turnaround victory in UFC history (10 days) after beating John Phillips on the July 15 card. The Swedish supernova has been one of the stars of the UFC’s 14-day stretch in Abu Dhabi.
On Saturday, Chimaev ran across the cage, picked McKee up and took him down easily. He then got into top control and rained down strikes until referee Rich Mitchell pulled him off. It was total domination — like it was against Phillips.
After beating Phillips, Chimaev told UFC president Dana White that he wanted to stay on Fight Island and compete again. White got him a fight for this event. Chimaev said he’d be willing to fight again later on the card.
What’s the limit to his potential? Chimaev said there was none.
“It doesn’t matter,” Chimaev said. “I can smash everybody. How many fighters in the welterweight division? I can smash all of them.”
In just two-plus weeks, Chimaev, 26, has emerged as one of the top prospects on the entire UFC roster. “The Wolf” trains out of AllStars Training Center in Sweden with the likes of Alexander Gustafsson, and his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, has compared him to current MMA pound-for-pound king Khabib Nurmagomedov. “Khabib 2.0,” Abdelaziz calls him.
McKee, a 24-year-old from Northern Ireland, was making his UFC debut. He had a three-fight winning streak snapped.
Lightweight: Francisco Trinaldo (26-7, 16-6 UFC) defeats Jai Herbert (10-2, 0-1 UFC) by third-round TKO
As the fight wore on, Trinaldo was getting lit up. Then, the veteran from Brazil turned out the lights.
The finish was sudden — and yet not sudden enough. Trinaldo, who had been pieced up in the standup for much of the first two rounds, threw a strong left hand early in Round 3 that connected to the temple and sent Herbert crashing backward onto the mat, stiffened. As Trinaldo moved in, Herbert did not move. So Trinaldo held back, but referee Herb Dean stood there motionless, as well, not stopping the fight. A couple of seconds ticked off the clock, with no one moving, so Trinaldo threw a punch at his fallen opponent, who did not defend. Then, Trinaldo threw another punch. He paused again. Finally, Dean jumped in to end it at 1:30 of Round 3.
Trinaldo, a 41-year-old Brazilian, had missed the lightweight limit by four pounds at Friday’s weigh-in, and his energy appeared to wane before the first round was done. He came out aggressively and quickly closed the distance on the slick English striker, scoring a takedown, moving into half guard and threatening a couple of submissions.
But Herbert, a former Cage Warriors champion who was making his UFC debut while riding a six-fight winning streak, defended well on the ground, and when he got the fight back to standing, he took advantage of his fast hands and constant movement. The 32-year-old Englishman even mixed in some grappling work, nearly securing a rear-naked choke in the second round.
But Herbert’s best work was in the standup, and Trinaldo was wearing the effects of that more and more as the fight continued. And yet Trinaldo, who owns victories over the likes of Paul Felder and Jim Miller, kept coming forward, and his resilience paid off when he landed the big punch that ended it. Or should have ended it.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Welterweight: Jesse Ronson (22-10, 1-2 UFC) defeats Nicolas Dalby (18-4-1, 2-3-1 UFC) by first round submission
Welcome back, “Body Snatcher.”
After a six-year absence from the UFC, Ronson stopped Dalby via submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:48 of the first round of a welterweight bout. Ronson dropped a pressuring Dalby with a beautiful left hand, got into mount, took the back and choked Dalby until he tapped. An all-but-flawless performance from the veteran.
“I climbed tooth and nail to get back in there,” Ronson told Dan Hardy afterward. “… To hell and back. That’s all it is. And here I am — I’m back.”
He added that he’ll drop down to lightweight after this bout. Ronson called out Luis Pena and Jalin Turner for later in the year — because of their heights. Both are above 6-foot, which is tall for the division.
“If you’re 6-foot-3, you need to eat something other than lettuce and ice cubes, [you shouldn’t be a lightweight],” Ronson said. “… I love fighting tall guys, and I love crushing their guts.”
Ronson, 34, had not fought in the UFC since a split decision loss to Kevin Lee on July 6, 2014. The Canada native has bounced around, winning a title in the TKO promotion and having lost twice in PFL last year. Dalby, a 35-year-old from Denmark, had been unbeaten in his past five fights coming in.
Watch this on ESPN+.
Heavyweight: Tom Aspinall (8-2, 1-0 UFC) defeats Jake Collier (11-5, 3-4 UFC) by first-round KO
Aspinall did not waste any time in making an impact in his UFC debut, knocking out Collier with a straight right hand just 45 seconds into their heavyweight bout.
This was a familiar result for the 27-year-old from England. All eight of his professional victories have come by knockout, most in the first minute.
Collier, who had not fought since 2017 because of injury, a PED suspension and bout cancellations, was making his heavyweight debut after competing at middleweight and light heavyweight. Despite having come from those lighter divisions, though, he was a step slow right from the start. He absorbed a straight right in the opening seconds, and Aspinall immediately measured him for another, setting it up with a left hook.
The right hand that followed sent Collier face-first to the canvas, where Aspinall pounced, adding a few more shots on his immobilized opponent before the referee jumped in.
For Aspinall, it was his fourth straight victory. Collier has alternated victories and defeats going back to 2014.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Men’s featherweight: Movsar Evloev (13-0, 3-0 UFC) defeats Mike Grundy (12-2, 1-1 UFC) by unanimous decision
Evloev doesn’t have a nickname. Maybe it should be “Houdini.”
Time and time again, Evloev was able to escape Grundy’s takedowns and submission attempts, including an incredibly tight D’arce choke in the first round. When back on the feet, Evloev dominated with his striking en route to a unanimous-decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) win.
Grundy took early control with his superior wrestling. He got Evloev down in a precarious position up against the cage and looked for a choke. He nearly cinched it in, but Evloev pulled off an incredible escape.
From there, Evloev had all the momentum. He split open Grundy’s left cheek with a hard right hand in the first and landed smooth combinations throughout the fight. Evloev’s jab in particular was very impressive.
Evloev, 26, has won three straight in the UFC and remains undefeated. The Russia native, a former M-1 champion, appears to be a legitimate prospect in the featherweight division. Grundy, a 33-year-old England native, had his nine-fight winning streak snapped. This was the British wrestler’s first loss since 2015.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Heavyweight: Tanner Boser (19-6-1, 3-1 UFC) defeats Raphael Pessoa (10-2, 1-2 UFC) by second-round KO
Twenty-eight days earlier, Boser scored a first-round knockout in Las Vegas. Then he traveled to Fight Island and had to work a bit longer, but the result was another big knockout victory.
After spending all of the first round and much of the second using footwork to stay out of range of the heavy-fisted Pessoa, and also landing leg kicks that reddened the big Brazilian, Boser began engaging in punching exchanges midway through Round 2 and clipped Pessoa with a counter left hand that immediately sent Pessoa into retreat, squinting out of a compromised right eye. Boser went on the attack as his opponent slumped on the canvas and punched away until the referee stepped in at 2:36 of the round.
The 28-year-old out of Edmonton, Alberta, who needed barely 2½ minutes to take out Philipe Lins on June 27, put in his work right from the start but this time that work was mostly in the form of movement. He moves well for a heavyweight, and his array of kicks and punches were difficult to counter. Pessoa kept his right hand cocked, ready to unleash, but it simply could not find its target.
This was the fourth win in Boser’s past five fights. Pessoa, a 31-year-old out of Rio de Janeiro, lost for the second time in his past three bouts.
Women’s bantamweight: Pannie Kianzad (14-5, 2-2 UFC) defeats Bethe Correia (11-5-1, 5-5-1 UFC) vs. by unanimous decision
Kianzad has started putting together somewhat of a run in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division with two straight wins and three of four.
After years of bouncing around promotions and struggling with her weight cut, Kianzad now has her first UFC winning streak, courtesy of a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) victory over Correia, the former UFC title challenger.
Kianzad looked solid the whole fight with her boxing and knees in the Thai clinch. She did solid damage at the end of the first when Correia thought the clacking sound that signifies there are 10 seconds left in the round meant that the round was over. Kianzad landed a hard combination when Correia let her guard down.
Kianzad was the more accurate, powerful striker throughout. Correia had moments, including solid ground-and-pound striking in the second round. But Kianzad showed off the better stand-up.
Kianzad, the Iran-born Sweden native, had a crack at the Invicta FC bantamweight title in 2015, but missed weight. She moved up to featherweight and went to the finals of the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter women’s 145-pound tournament in 2018, falling to Macy Chiasson. Kianzad, 28, has looked solid back at 135 pounds now.
Correia (11-5-1) has dropped three of four and has only one victory since 2016. The 37-year-old Brazilian famously fought Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 190 in 2015. That remains Rousey’s last win.
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Welterweight: Ramazan Emeev (19-4, 4-1 UFC) defeats Niklas Stolze (12-4, 0-1 UFC) by unanimous decision
Emeev used four takedowns and several spells of forward pressure to control the fight for all but a few moments and take the decision.
The 33-year-old Dagestani, who lost in November to Anthony Rocco Martin to end a seven-fight winning streak, started strong and secured a submission attempt within the first half of Round 1, but Stolze, making his UFC debut on a four-fight winning streak, defended well and hurt his opponent seconds before the horn, dropping Emeev with a knee to the face.
But Emeev seized back control of what turned into a slow fight at the start of Round 2, and other than absorbing the occasional low kick, jab or knee, kept the German on the defensive.
Two judges scored the bout 30-27 and the other had it 29-28.
“I felt very confident that I could finish him couple of times,” Emeev said. “But because of the two failed submission attempts, my hands were very heavy. I wasn’t rocked from his knee in the first round and I felt that I dominated the fight. Next time I will get a finish for sure. I feel completely healthy and want to get back to the Octagon as soon as possible.”
Watch this fight on ESPN+.
Men’s bantamweight: Nathaniel Wood (17-4, 4-1 UFC) defeats John Castaneda (17-5, 0-1 UFC) by unanimous decision
Coming off a momentum-killing defeat earlier this year, Wood got himself right back into the flow with a poised and relentless attack.
The 26-year-old out of London, who saw an eight-fight winning streak ended by a John Dodson left hook in February, did not have it easy against Castaneda, but his fluid movement and array of punches and kicks from all angles got him back on the winning track. All three judges scored the fight 30-27.
Castaneda, 28 and out of Minnesota, put on a strong performance in his UFC debut. He got hit a lot, bloodied in the second round, but never stopped coming forward and clipped Wood on many occasions. He just could not string together the kind of combinations that kept Wood a step ahead.
“The fight was fun,” Wood said. “It was nice to actually have a decision for a change. It was nice to actually go through the three, five minutes and actually do what I’m doing in the gym. There’s nothing better than going in and getting a quick knockout, picking up a bonus, those sort of fights, but it’s nice to actually go in and have a fight, as such.
“Everything my coaches wanted me to do was not brawl. Let’s not give him that chance of let’s trade shots. I know it’s fun for the fans to watch, don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to be doing it and I still try to have a little bit of a go in there, but I knew I was up in the rounds, I knew I was the better fighter and I knew I would outscore him. So for me to have a fifty-fifty exchange with him, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and coming off a loss, I couldn’t afford to do that. My coaches said, be the sniper, pick the shots, don’t get here and that’s what I’ve done.”
Watch this on ESPN+.
Still to come:
Middleweight: Robert Whittaker (21-5, 11-3 UFC, -125) vs. Darren Till (18-2-1, 6-2-1 UFC, +105)
Light heavyweight: Mauricio Rua (26-11-1, 11-8-1 UFC, -185) vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (23-9, 6-6 UFC, +165)
Heavyweight: Fabricio Werdum (23-9-1, 9-4 UFC, +285) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (18-6, 12-4 UFC, -350)