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.
All fights from UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Till will be available to watch on ESPN+.
• Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till
• Mauricio Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
• Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson
• Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez
• Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov
• Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta
• Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee
• Francisco Trinaldo vs. Jai Herbert
• Nicolas Dalby vs. Jesse Ronson
• Tom Aspinall vs. Jake Collier
• Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy
• Tanner Boser vs. Raphael Pessoa
• Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad
• Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze
• Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castaneda
Watch the complete card on ESPN+
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.
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Fight in progress:
Welterweight: Nicolas Dalby (18-3-1, 2-2-1 UFC, -250) vs. Jesse Ronson (21-10, 0-2 UFC, +210)
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 Englishman. All eight of his professional victories have come by knockout, most in the first minute.
Keep your eyes on this kid!! #UFCFightIsland3
— Alex Volkanovski (@alexvolkanovski) July 25, 2020
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.
Men’s featherweight: Movsar Evloev (13-0, 3-0 UFC) vs. 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.
Crazy escape!! https://t.co/3SQRGE9VBj
— Belal Muhammad (@bullyb170) July 25, 2020
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.
I took this punch inside the eyebefore as well, it hurts a lot but Come on you cannot give up cause this 🤦🏾♂️🤷🏾♂️ #UFCFightIsland3
— GILBERT BURNS DURINHO (@GilbertDurinho) July 25, 2020
The 28-year-old out of Edmonton, Alberta, who needed barely 2½ minutes to take out Philippe 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 last five fights. Pessoa, a 31-year-old out of Rio de Janeiro, lost for the second time in his last 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 out 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 standup.
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 only has 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.
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.
Solid performance here from @TheProspectMMA Nice showcase of his striking against a tough opponent.
— michael (@bisping) July 25, 2020
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)
Strawweight: Carla Esparza (17-6, 7-4 UFC, +160) vs. Marina Rodriguez (12-0-2, 3-0-2 UFC, -180)
Light heavyweight: Paul Craig (12-4-1, 4-4-1 UFC, -130) vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov (20-6, 2-2 UFC, +110)
Welterweight: Alex Oliveira (20-8-1, -170) vs. Peter Sobotta (17-6-1, 4-2 UFC, 10-6-1 UFC, +150)
Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev (7-0, 1-0 UFC, -1400) vs. Rhys McKee (10-2-1, 0-0 UFC, +800)
Lightweight: Francisco Trinaldo (25-7, 15-6 UFC, -145) vs. Jai Herbert (10-1, 0-0 UFC, +125)