LAS VEGAS — Darren Till spent most of the first two rounds in his main event bout Saturday at Apex against Derek Brunson flat on his back, trying to fend off fists and elbows from a very determined opponent.
Before the fight, Till had boasted that Brunson wouldn’t be able to take him down and would tire himself out badly in the effort. He’d also promised to use his punching power to change the course of the fight.
After two-plus rounds of being pummeled, the moment that Till had waited for arrived. Till is nicknamed “The Gorilla” because of his punching power, and he landed a straight left that rocked Brunson.
He was backed against the cage and threw a jab and the left that clearly hurt Brunson and finally got a rise out of the heavily pro-Till crowd.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Brunson said, smiling, at the post-fight news conference. “I was like, ‘Can everybody shut up and Darren Till, could you stop swarming me right now? I'm not really that hurt.' But whenever a guy thinks he’s got you really, really hurt, they’re going to go strong, but at the same time, I was trying to bob and weave.”
But that punch turned the momentum for the first time in the fight. Till pursued him across the cage, only for a seemingly wobbly Brunson to grab him around the waist and deposit him on his back. He came down into mount, and when Till rolled over and gave up his back, Brunson sank in a rear naked choke. Till quickly tapped at 2:13 of the third, giving Brunson his fifth consecutive win.
It was the best the 37-year-old Brunson had looked in his lengthy MMA career and he immediately ran over to a camera and called out champion Israel Adesanya.
He’s also 3-0 with his hair dyed blonde and he’s not about to make a change.
“'Blonde Brunson' is not mythical character,” he said. “It’s here to stay and we’re performing well.”
He fought the kind of fight against Till that would be the perfect plan against Adesanya: He was more than competitive on his feet, he wrestled exceptionally, his ground-and-pound was vicious and his grappling was first-rate.
Everyone who fights Adesanya wants to take him down to negate his striking, and it’s not so easy to do, as Marvin Vettori found the last time out.
But Brunson, who said he nearly pulled out of the fight with injured ribs when he was kicked hard by a heavyweight in sparring, wasn’t thrilled with his striking on Saturday. But he believes he can be significantly better with it and threaten Adesanya not just with his wrestling but with his striking.
Adesanya dominated Brunson at UFC 230 on Nov. 3, 2018, and stopped him late in the first. Brunson has reeled off five in a row since then and believes with some time to continue working with coach Henri Hooft on his striking, he’ll be able to close the ground.
“With time to spar and really prepare, my stand-up is looking good and I can pose a threat to Izzy on the feet and definitely on the ground,” Brunson said.
Till, one of the better strikers in the UFC, wasn’t much of a threat but Adesanya might be the best striker there is in MMA.
Brunson has come a long way, though, from the time he was thrashed by Adesanya.
Humble Aspinall impresses with first-round finish
Tom Aspinall made short work of Serghei Spivac and finished him with strikes in the first round. He was awarded a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus. When he was asked if he knew it, he smiled.
“I am,” he said, “and I just cried. And I think it’s on camera, so get the views up on that. For anyone who doesn’t know, I have a missus and three small kids and I’m trying to buy a house. I’m just a normal guy trying to get by in this world and look after my family. I need that money just as much as anybody else. It’s like a dream. I appreciate it so much.”
Aspinall is from England and was looking forward to fight in London, where the card originally was supposed to be held.
It wasn’t an ego thing, though, where he was disappointed he couldn’t hear a sell-out crowd cheering him on. He’s far too humble and self-aware for that.
He wanted to see how he’d react in front of such a big crowd. He’s ranked 13th and handled No. 14 Spivac with ease, though Spivac took the fight on just a week’s notice.
“I need more experience to fight those top guys,” said Aspinall, who called out No. 12 Blagoy Ivanov.
Part of the experience is controlling one's emotions when things around you are going wild.
A fight in the U.K. in front of the home fans would have been just that. Instead, there were a couple hundred, at most, inside a mostly quiet Apex.
“I’ve been saying all week that I want to fight in front of a crowd because I don’t know how I’m going to react with 20,000 people screaming, booing, throwing drinks,” Aspinall said. “I don’t know how I’m going to react to that because I’ve never done it before. The most I’ve fought in front of has been 1,000, maybe 1,500. I want that to be the next step in my career, fighting in front of people because I don’t want get into the Top 10, Top 5 and never have fought in front of anyone before.”
Paddy 'The Baddy’ shows star power
Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett made his UFC debut on Saturday a sensational one. He’d been heavily hyped in the U.K., but it’s a big step up to the UFC from the regional scene.
He made the transition look simple. He took a couple of hard shots from Luigi Vendramini early in the first and barely blinked. But when he hurt Vendramini, he finished him quickly.
“I’m the new cash cow!” he shouted in the cage after the first-round TKO that also earned him a Performance of the Night bonus.
He figures to grow in popularity with his colorful personality and his penchant for slugfests.
“I want to put on too much of a show, lads,” he said. “I just put my hands down and get into firefights with people. My coaches … all moan at me for it. They’ll say, ‘Put your hands up!” But I can’t help myself. I like fighting.”
And he looks like he’s going to be a very fun guy to watch.