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It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the boos and jeers of a crowd are directed at UFC welterweight and children’s karate instructor Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
This weekend at UFC Fight Night 130 however, Thompson will likely endure the vocals of a Liverpool crowd high on the meteoric rise of their home-grown star, Darren Till. The two will headline the event at Echo Arena and if anticipation were measurable, it’d be a telling sign that tickets were sold out within an hour.
In just five UFC fights, Till (16-0-1) has generated an overwhelming amount of interest in his MMA career. The undefeated 25-year-old is brimming with confidence, confidence articulated with a scouse accent and executed in 10 knockout victories. His heavy hands and ability to remain composed under the bright lights have seen him knock down all of his UFC opponents.
In his last outing, “The Gorilla” was widely perceived to be overmatched by Donald Cerrone, a criticism echoed ahead of this match-up with Thompson. Till rose to the occasion last October and managed to secure a first-round TKO win over Cerrone.
The decision to have Till headline the Liverpool event is reminiscent of UFC Fight Night 59 where an up-and-coming Conor McGregor took on Dennis Siver on home soil in Dublin, Ireland. However, Till has a very tall order in front of him in “Wonderboy” Thompson.
Currently ranked #1 in the welterweight division, Thompson (14-2-1) has faced an elite line-up of competitors in his 12-fight UFC career. He is widely considered one of the most accomplished strikers in the organisation and his karate style has proven a difficult challenge for many of his opponents.
Thompson, 35, last fought in November last year and claimed a unanimous decision win over Jorge Masvidal. Prior to that, he fought two close five-round title fights with current champion Tyron Woodley.
Despite the 10-year age difference, the two fighters each have 17 professional MMA fights. The fight poses a uniquely interesting contest of striking abilities between Till’s background in muay thai and Thompson’s in karate.
Following his win over Cerrone, Till campaigned for the fight with Thompson, claiming he wanted to test himself against one of the best strikers in the UFC. On the Obviously Fight Talk podcast , he predicted a third-round knockout.
“As soon as I beat Stephen everyone will know that I’m the best striker in the welterweight division. As soon as I beat him on the 27th then people can stop talking about my hype train,” Till said.
On the MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani , Thompson dismissed the prediction as Till’s overconfidence.
“All I can do is laugh at that. He’s very confident in himself, which is something you’ve got to have, but sometimes you can be a little overconfident,” he said.
“[Till] has got that hype around him so let him think that. Let him be overconfident and let’s see what happens when he steps out there with me. He better be on his Ps and Qs when he steps in with Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.”
Thompson told Helwani that he initially turned down the fight with Till (#8) because he felt like he deserved someone higher ranked.
“So who is the number seven guy? Why is he jumping over everyone else to fight the number one contender? Why am I not fighting the number two guy?” Thompson said.
“I know they’re trying to push this guy. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they don’t have anyone else to push from that area or Europe. He’s definitely a talker and that’s kind of where UFC is heading. They like to push those guys that go out there and run their mouth a little bit.”
UFC Fight Night 130 will be held at Echo Arena in Liverpool, England. The Fight Pass preliminary card will commence at 10pm (AWST) Sunday 27 May, with the main card to kick off at 1am (AWST) Monday 28.
Additionally, for the first time, BBC Radio will broadcast live commentary of the UFC event.