Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till: Roundtable
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On a night filled with intriguing match-ups from the very first fight (a cracker between Dawodu and Arce) to the last, UFC 244: Masvidal vs. Diaz features a co-main event that may prove to be the most consequential; while a bit baffling from a matchmaking perspective, Gastelum vs. Till is a bout between potent and high-action strikers desperate for relevancy. In a division with the next title bout all but set, the winner isn’t guaranteed a shot at the belt without another bout in between, but the loser is likely kicked from contendership for the foreseeable future.
For the 17-2 Darren Till, the move to 185 can accurately be described as a last-ditch effort; off two losses at 170 and an absolutely murderous cut, Till hasn’t been able to fulfill the potential that shined in his destruction of Donald Cerrone in 2017, and a move up for his health could also prove fairly helpful competitively. On the other side, the 15-4 Kelvin Gastelum is off a loss that elevated his profile considerably, but he’ll need a bit more to get a rematch; while his performance against now-champion Israel Adesanya was strong, Gastelum needs a decisive and relevant win (the next will be his first) to avoid a legacy as a middleweight Alexander Gustafsson.
With such a fight on the horizon, a roundtable seems appropriate; here’s the opinion of the MMA analysts of The Fight Site on the dynamic of such a pivotal bout.
Gastelum vs. Till Discussion
Danny: This is a strange fight. For the first time in years, it finally seems like the holes in Gastelum’s game are going to start tearing wide open. His performance against Adesanya showed a few new wrinkles in his fairly singular approach. When he committed to pressure, he was able to catch Adesanya in the middle of stance switching and finally threw away the left straight to load up the right hook. Kelvin’s biggest issue offensively is his lack of variance. For a fighter lauded for his boxing skill, Gastelum’s rhythm, shot selection, and entries are all extremely limited. When Gastelum isn’t on offense, his head movement is serviceable, but not particularly layered and there were long stretches against Adesanya where he was just soaking up damage from range. By the time the fight concluded, Gastelum was utterly destroyed.
So, where does Till fit into this equation?
Sriram: Well, what makes the bout more interesting is that it’s a bit of a mirror match; Till is also a forward-moving southpaw boxer whose weaknesses are almost as monumental as his strengths, and the biggest difference in public perception might be that Till’s weaknesses have simply been exploited earlier and more violently. Even those weaknesses aren’t all that dissimilar to Gastelum’s; if Till’s few tools are taken away, he doesn’t have a whole lot else to fall back on, and his defense when in range is probably worse than Gastelum’s.
That said, Till has a few differences as a technician over Gastelum; he’s a sounder and more careful pressurer, he’s more defined a counterpuncher who can manage distance well enough to where his defensive problems aren’t as immediately apparent, and he’s offensively more variable than Kelvin. Granted, Till’s game only opens up in variety against the fence (where he can use the threat of the straights to herd his opponent into uppercuts and overhands), he’s mostly one-handed and looking to draw his opponent’s charges into the backstepping-straight, but it’s something. The question is more whether these differences are all that actionable against Gastelum, in a southpaw-southpaw clash that seems to take away many of both his favored options and his opponent’s.
Ryan: This is a strange fight between two powerful but very limited strikers. Gastelum, however, seems to be the one better primed to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses. Gastelum is a strong puncher with a very potent pocket game, while Till’s pocket defense is troubling. The only consistent method of defense in Till’s arsenal is giving ground, but Gastelum is adept at close distance using tight footwork and a sharp jab to set up his dangerous rear hand. Till has some skill on the counter, but not a ton of it; he’s able to hit simple inside-angle counters when opponents overcommitt, but against elite competition, his counters have been fairly inert. Till needs to have Gastelum on the fence to do his best work, but Gastelum can comfortably operate in the center of the cage. The southpaw/southpaw matchup lessens the distance between the two and likely favors Gastelum, who does the better work on the inside. Although Till could frustrate Gastelum on the outside if he plays an active kicking game, Gastelum should be able to close distance and get his left hand on Till consistently. Gastelum via (T)KO
Sriram: I feel similarly, even though I think I have a higher estimation of Till than you do. Fundamentally, the advantage for a fighter moving up in weight tends to be speed, which makes matching Till up in his debut with one of the faster (of hand and foot) middleweights a dangerous way to look to revive his career. That said, Till might still be the faster man, and he has the larger frame, and he has a marginally bigger toolbox; the problem is he’s facing someone terrifically potent offensively, and who has historically been able to take a good deal of damage on his way in. On the inside, Till likely gets beaten up badly (Gastelum’s head movement is greatly overrated but it leaves him in better position to fight in the pocket than Till being bolt-upright nearly all the time), and in a fight where neither can find straights through an open side with ease, Till likely struggles to keep Gastelum away with his usual counters.
There are spots of hope for Till; his lead hand has shown flashes of effectiveness (even against a better boxer than Gastelum in his last fight), Gastelum likely isn’t crafty enough to close the distance if Till figures him out (the way Masvidal was able to cycle through a variety of tactics to close down the bigger man), and Gastelum’s durability is in severe question after the catastrophic Adesanya bout. It also isn’t impossible that Till looks better than ever; he looked in phenomenal form in his last fight, and the move to middleweight could easily be a career-defining decision. It’s a close fight, and Till is likely better at what Gastelum tries to do. That said, the matchup seems a bit too perilous given what we’ve actually seen to pick him. Gastelum via knockout, first two rounds.
Ed: I was very low on Gastelum in my Whittaker-Adesanya roundtable contribution, and as we all know, my arrogance was the direct reason for Whittaker’s loss. Following that logic, it would make both Izzy and Robert Whittaker look better if Kelvin won in dominant fashion. To rub salt in the wound, I believe that means Gastelum will look awful and lose, meaning Whittaker was knocked out by a guy who was deeply troubled by someone who can’t beat Darren Till (who is fine, but not great.)
In seriousness, I’ve done no research into this fight and can’t make a prediction based on actual analysis. Gut feeling does say Darren Till via Unanimous Decision.
Philippe : When the fight was made official, my original pick was Darren Till by TKO. Despite looking good on the scale this morning while weighing at 186 lbs I am still concerned about Darren arriving on Thursday in New York. It’s a five hour jet lag that you can’t shake out this easy. What might save Darren is that it’s a three rounds fight. I expect a banger, Kelvin is a good puncher and showed improvements lately. I don’t want to see Darren let Kelvin move forward. To win this fight Darren needs to start fast and pressure Gastelum with feints to make him throw and counter him while he gets out of position. I believe in Till’s capacity to end the show quickly, because I believe he’s athletic and strong enough to stop Kelvin’s wrestling in the two first rounds. If this fight goes longer than seven-eight minutes I’d lean toward Kelvin to come back strong and edge a decision but I will pick Darren Till by Knockout in the first round.
Tommy: I tend to favor Gastelum in this fight for a few reasons. The first is that Till really likes to come forward. I don’t think of him as a counterpuncher so much as a pressure distance kickboxer. He wants you walking backwards but at the end of his range so he can land his straight shots and left kick. I don’t think Gastelum is likely to move back, rather he’ll be coming forward looking to land over the top. When Till is himself forced back, it doesn’t usually go well for him. He doesn’t show much in the way of angular footwork on the retreat, rather he has a really bad habit of pulling straight back pawing with both hands with his chin high. Is was during an exchange like this that Masvidal caught him coming over the top with a left overhand from southpaw. In addition, because he stands so high and doesn’t tuck his chin well, Till has a tendency to get knocked down when he’s hit with stiff shots even if they don’t put him out. Gastelum has quite a nose for the back and the RNC, and Till hasn’t shown much depth in his defensive grappling. Darren does hit like a truck, his left hand is precise, versatile, and stiff, but given the chin on Kelvin I think he’ll be able to withstand early damage from Till, eventually find his chin, and finish him on the ground late. Kelvin by RNC in the 3rd.
Ben: I do think a big question mark for me is simply if Kelvin’s chin was totally cracked by Izzy. If not, I think this is his fight to lose. Till suffers from “tall-man” defensive reactions in a big way, and Gastelum is quite used to fighting bigger men by now as well, and better big men too. A few other physical factors here comparing the two. Gastelum is faster, likely more durable (assuming his chin isn’t done), and hits just as hard as well. Gastelum does his best work moving forward, has the ability to use defensive head movement when he chooses too, and has actually developed a jab (albeit a mediocre one at best) that served him well against Izzy. Couple that with Till not being an especially skilled counter-puncher, if Gastelum can get past Till’s reach, which isn’t actually that long at 74 1/2 inches, I don’t see Till surviving to the bell, let alone winning. So a slower, less durable, and defensively irresponsible fighter facing off against a faster, more explosive, blitzing power-puncher who’s, we assume, more durable. Till could make a fight of this if Gastelum cedes to pressure, as Gastelum’s pressure footwork and defense in general are NOT his strong suits by any means. All that being said, I don’t see Till being able to consistently force Kelvin back, and keeping him their long enough to win a rounds. A big finish for Till is absolutely possible, but I’m going with Gastelum by KO round 2 with his classic 1-2 blitz.