NEW YORK — Darren Till arrived here Thursday afternoon — at least two days after every other fighter on the card was already checked in and ready to go.
Till had issues with his visa and travel. He somehow made weight Friday morning and the logistical mess didn’t stop him from picking up his first UFC win at middleweight. Till beat Kelvin Gastelum by split decision (27-30, 29-28, 30-27) in the co-main event of UFC 244 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m just happy to be here right now,” Till said. “I just want to build myself back up.”
The bout itself was relatively uneventful. But Till landed the harder punches — mostly with the straight left hand — in every round. Gastelum was able to take him down twice in the third, but Till popped right back up. Though Till was moving up from welterweight and Gastelum has been a full-time middleweight since 2016, Till looked to be the bigger, stronger fighter. He won most clinch exchanges.
Till’s best round was probably the third. His kicks to Gastelum’s right, lead leg began adding up and the damage to Gastelum’s leg was evident. Till was able to catch a Gastelum kick and land a left hand. Not long after, he landed a nice 1-2 that sent Gastelum’s head back.
Till (18-2-1) lost two straight at welterweight coming in, most recently a second-round knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal in March. The Liverpool, England native was undefeated before that skid. Till’s first career loss came in 2018, a welterweight title defeat against Tyron Woodley. Till is still just 26 years old.
Gastelum (15-5, 1 NC) was coming off what will likely be the Fight of the Year, a loss to Israel Adesanya in a UFC interim middleweight bout at UFC 236 in April. The California native has lost three of his last five now. Gastelum, 28, is facing discipline from the New York State Athletic Commission for making contact with coach Rafael Cordeiro at the official weigh-ins Friday morning.
When the final horn sounded, Thompson embraced Luque with a broad smile, the fisticuffs behind them. That in itself was not unusual, as fighters often hug it out after throwing down. But in this case, Thompson truly did owe a debt of gratitude.
“It feels amazing to get back into the win column,” said Thompson. “My last two fights were obviously losses, so I wanted to come back in here and show the UFC and the fans that I can still compete against a tough opponent and come out victorious.
“I felt great to be honest with you, he hits hard, I think he has a harder head than I do, but it was awesome,” continued Thompson. “I knew he would be a tough guy to put away, so I was ready for a three round war.”
Luque had just brought out the best in “Wonderboy.” Thompson earned a unanimous decision by scores of 30-26, 30-26 and 29-27 to end a two-fight skid. Luque (17-7-1) saw his six-fight win streak come to an end.
Luque did not go away easily. Beaten to the punch right from the start, he toughed it out to the final horn and even threatened Thompson on occasion, often taking three, four or five punches and kicks in order to get close enough to land one.
His power kept Thompson cautious throughout the fight, but “Wonderboy” was in all his glory. He flashed every creative move he had, landing punches and kicks from all angles. When he connected with a front kick to the body that sent Luque tumbling backward onto the canvas, head over heels, Thompson stood back and admired his work. He then gave Luque a high-five once he stood up.
“Wonderboy” seemed to appreciate that his opponent had no quit in him. “Hey, he was a tough guy, man,” said Thompson. “I hit him in the head as hard as I could, and he just kept on coming forward.”
Derrick Lewis said he could’ve gone harder vs. Blagoy Ivanov, but didn’t want to push in case he would’ve run out of gas. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Lewis is the ultimate feast-or-famine fighter. He has gone to a decision just once since 2012. It’s usually a finish or get finished for the Texas brawler.
But Saturday night, Lewis showed up slimmer and put forth a pretty well-rounded effort in a split-decision (30-27, 28-29, 29-28) win over the ultra-tough Ivanov. Lewis landed huge punches in each round, all of which Ivanov ate and kept coming.
Perhaps most impressive was Lewis’ ability to get out of bad situations. Ivanov was on top working on a key lock submission in the second round when Lewis exploded to his feet and landed a flurry of punches.
Lewis was able to get up from an Ivanov takedown in the first and avoid a front headlock position in the third. Ivanov is a combat sambo master with very good grappling, and this version of Lewis was able to mostly stymie those types of attacks.
Lewis (22-7, 1 NC) lost in the main event of the Madison Square Garden card last year, getting beat by heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Lewis followed that up by falling to Junior Dos Santos by second-round TKO in March. Lewis, 34, looks leaner now, and his cardio held up here. He is now tied for the fourth-most wins in UFC history with 13, per ESPN Stats & Information data. He came in ranked No. 6 among heavyweights by ESPN.
Ivanov (18-3, 1 NC) had a two-fight winning streak snapped. The Bulgaria native has never been knocked out in his 12-year pro career. Ivanov, 33, had only lost once since 2014 coming in.
“Feels real good to get back in the win column because that was a battle right there, that guy was tough,” Lewis said. “I thought for sure he was going to be rocked after a couple of them and I could finish them, but he’s tough as hell. I was real shocked, anybody else they would have been out.
“I think this keeps me where I’m at in the division, because I should have finished him. I guess I was being too patient, but it is what it is.”
Kevin Lee describes his mindset going into his fight vs. Gregor Gillespie, to which he won via knockout. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Welcome back to lightweight, Mr. Lee.
After a one-fight detour to welterweight, Lee returned to 155 pounds to face one of the division’s rising stars, and he knocked his opponent cold with a left kick to the head at 2:47 of the first round.
Gillespie (13-1) came in unbeaten and with the wrestling credentials that made him a threat to go all the way to the top. But Lee (18-5) has wrestling in his arsenal too, and on this night he used it defensively, setting up in a low stance to keep Gillespie away from his legs.
That stance also packed power into Lee’s punches, and while Gillespie was clipping him with jab after jab, Lee was connecting with bigger punches. Nothing Lee delivered early on seemed to faze Gillespie, though, until Lee landed a straight right hand followed immediately by a left kick that landed square on the jaw, stiffening Gillespie as he collapsed backward. Gillespie was out before he fell against the cage and to the canvas. As the referee lunged in to save Gillespie, Lee calmly walked away.
Lee was back, he knew it and he had just let the rest of the lightweight division know.
“Coming off two losses, it eats at you some days, so it’s been a lot,” Lee said. ” It’s been a lot to get to this point, years and years just to get to that kick. I think that’s the cleanest knockout of my career. I think it’s something that he wasn’t expecting and that a lot of guys down at 155 weren’t expecting. I’m coming with a whole different type of power that these guys ain’t seen me throw before.”
Anderson has been trying hard to make the UFC interested in a fight between him and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. He even confronted Jones at an autograph signing over the summer in New Jersey.
On Saturday night, Anderson might have put forth his best pitch yet.
“Overtime” stopped hot prospect Johnny Walker by TKO at 2:07 of the first round in the featured fight of the UFC 244 prelims. Anderson blasted Walker on the feet and put him down for good with a huge right hand — a big development for someone who usually wins via his great wrestling.
Anderson (13-4) has won four in a row, and he came in ranked No. 6 among light heavyweights by ESPN. The Illinois native had not finished a fight since 2016. Anderson, 30, has 10 wins since 2014, tied for the most in the UFC light heavyweight division with Ovince Saint Preux.
So much for the early Christmas present. This is exactly why I just let them light heavyweight do all the talking.
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) November 3, 2019
Walker (17-4) had won four in a row to start his UFC career, the past three via highlight-reel KO/TKO. The Brazil native was in the light heavyweight title discussion, and he might have been tabbed as a top contender with an impressive win here. Despite the loss, Walker, 27, remains one to watch in the future at 205 pounds.
Burgos took a while to get going, but once he did, he did not stop coming until he had worn down Amirkhani to the point where the fighter from Finland could barely stand up, much yet fight.
It was Round 3 by that point, and the fight had turned around dramatically — and was all Burgos. He punished a helpless Amirkhani for much of that final round before finally crumbling him with a body kick for a TKO finish at 4:32.
“The first time I competed in MSG, it was quick, like two minutes or something, so I didn’t have a chance to embrace it. This time, I soaked it in; walking out, being in there, walking back, I soaked it all in,” Burgoes said. “My pace and my power made the difference; he felt those body shots. I expected him to stand a little longer. He shot right off the bat, and it caught me a little off guard, but it went well. I’m happy with it.
“A ranked opponent would only make sense for me now, but whatever the UFC wants. That was the last fight on my contract, so hopefully, I made a statement. I want a big deal next.”
Amirkhani (15-4) had started out well, clipping Burgos (13-1) with a hard right hand that bloodied him and set up a takedown. Amirkhani stayed on top of Burgos for much of the round, riding him back to the mat every time the fighter from the New York attempted to get up. But that took energy, and by round’s end, Amirkhani looked wilted.
Burgos took over from there, and it wasn’t far into Round 2 before it seemed to be a matter of time before he would get a stoppage. But Amirkhani kept coming and kept fighting; he was giving everything he had, but he had little to give. So Amirkhani absorbed punishment, more and more, doing just enough for the referee to not jump in. His cornermen just stood there and watched until Burgos finally, mercifully, finished the job with a body kick that dropped Amirkhani in a heap.
Glendale Fighting Club, the longtime home gym of Ronda Rousey, might have its next superstar.
The undefeated Shahbazyan flattened Tavares with a left head kick knockout at 2:27 of the first round. The gorgeous kick, which he hid expertly behind a jab, came after Shahbazyan had already dropped the veteran Tavares with a right hand.
Somehow, Shahbazyan is so polished at just 21 years old.
“I’m the new breed of MMA, man,” Shahbazyan said. “I’m coming for that belt.”
Shahbazyan (11-0) has won four straight in the UFC, which is tied for the third longest active streak in the middleweight division. Only Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa have longer streaks. The California native has 10 first-round finishes in 11 career fights. Shahbazyan trains under Rousey’s coach Edmond Tarverdyan and is represented by Rousey’s management company. He is ranked third in ESPN’s top 25 MMA fighters under 25.
“I believe this puts me in the top 10 of the division, or at least fighting those guys,” said Shahbazyan. “I like fighting every three to four months and staying active, so something early next year sounds perfect, we’ll see what happens.”
Tavares (17-6) has lost two in a row following a four-fight winning streak. The Hawaii native has only lost to Adesanya, former champion Robert Whittaker and now Shahbazyan going back to 2014. Tavares, 31, filled in for Krzysztof Jotko, who withdrew from the scheduled bout with Shahbazyan four weeks ago.
Rozenstruik put in an early bid to steal some thunder from those fighting later in the night. Jorge Masvidal might be coming off a five-second KO, but Rozenstruik came in having put away his last foe in nine seconds. Then he showed up at Madison Square Garden and face-planted Arlovski, a onetime UFC heavyweight champion, in just 29 seconds.
This native of Suriname, now 9-0 with KOs in all three of his UFC fights, is one bad man. He sent Arlovski backward with one of his first punches — a jab. And when Arlovski came toward him to try to engage again, Rozenstruik stepped back and clipped him with a left hook, crumbling the 40-year-old to the canvas.
“It was my biggest fight and definitely the biggest win of my career,” Rozenstruik said. “It means a lot to me, of course, if you have a win over Arlovski, who is a legend. It’s huge.”
No one has a better case for a women’s flyweight title shot than Chookagian, especially after this victory.
Chookagian beat Maia to further solidify her place high up in the UFC’s 125-pound women’s rankings. A fight with champion Valentina Shevchenko should now be close. Chookagian came in ranked No. 3 in the division by ESPN, while Maia was No. 7.
“Valentina is the fight that I’ve been wanting since she got the title,” said Chookagian. “I’m not just in the UFC to be another fighter. I want the title.”
Chookagian was able to outpoint Maia throughout with her long combinations, leg kicks and side kicks. Chookagian nicely finished her combinations with right hands that gave Maia fits. Maia took Chookagian down with about a minute left in the third round and landed some solid right hands, but Chookagian was never in trouble and won the standup battle throughout.
Chookagian (13-2) has won two straight and five of her past six. The only woman she has lost to in that stretch, Jessica Eye, got a flyweight title shot.
Chookagian, 30, now has four UFC flyweight wins, tying her with Shevchenko, Joanne Calderwood and Gillian Robertson for the most. Maia (17-6-1), the 31-year-old former Invicta FC champion, had her two-fight winning streak snapped.
Good led the dance from start to bloody finish. However, this welterweight prelim wasn’t bloody or even particularly violent for much of the way. For the first two rounds, Good showed off his IQ by maintaining distance and not allowing Rencountre to move inside, where he fights best. Rencountre instead was forced to eat a steady diet of jabs and straight right hands as he continued to advance, fruitlessly. For his trouble, Rencountre ended up with a cut over his left eye.
It got worse for him in a hurry in Round 3, when Good sent Rencountre into retreat with a straight right hand, which also bloodied his nose. Good maintained his poise but went into pursuit, catching his opponent against the cage and dropping him with punches and kicks and finishing the job at 2:03.
“I do want to get a crack at a top-10 opponent eventually, but I know it all depends on my performance, and I’m very pleased with mine tonight.”
Dawodu squeeked by with a win, but he was not at all happy with how he fought.
“S—ty performance, sorry for everyone that supported me,” Dawodu said. “I’m gonna come back 10 times better than that. My bad.”
Dawodu started strong with hard leg kicks in the first round that clearly affected Arce. Arce was able to find a home for his left hand at times, but it was Dawodu’s fight early on. In the second, Arce briefly had Dawodu’s back, but Dawodu quickly reversed. Arce finished strong, landing three straight hard left hands at one point. In all, it was a very close fight.
Dawodu (11-1-1) has won four straight and seems to be ready for a higher level of competition at featherweight. The 28-year-old Canada native is now tied for the fifth-longest winning streak in the 145-pound division. Arce (16-4), a 30-year-old from nearby Bayside, Queens, has dropped two of three — both losses at Madison Square Garden. Arce’s only prior UFC loss was also by split decision vs. Sheymon Moraes at UFC 230 on Nov. 3, 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
“Maybe he was just better than I thought. Could be the big stage; it was my first time in such a big venue, so that could have gotten to me,” Dawodu said.