On Saturday, the fourth and final event to take place this month at “Fight Island” on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi took place featuring a variety of legends and former champions. Former middleweight titleholder Robert Whittaker returned to the Octagon for the first time since losing the belt in October 2019 to take on Darren Till in the fight card’s main event.
Till moved up to the middleweight division in November and took out Kelvin Gastelum. The win launched Till into the top five ranks of the 185-pound division and into a match against the former champion. Whittaker emerged victorious but Till didn’t make it easy.
In the opening round, Till connected with a elbow as Whittaker ducked inside the pocket. The impact sent Whittaker crashing to the canvas. Till quickly gained top position but Whittaker scrambled back to his feet. Whittaker recovered and knocked Till down with a right hand in the second frame.
Whittaker outworked Till throughout the remainder of the fight. He delivered leg kick after leg kick as Till looked to land a big counter strike. Whittaker mixed it up by working in takedown attempts to keep Till guessing. It was a back-and-fourth technical striking battle with Whittaker displaying a more diverse attack. In the end, all three judges scored the bout 48-47 for Whittaker.
“That fight was so stressful,” said Whittaker following the win. “It was one of the most technical fights that I’ve ever had to fight… The takedowns got me across the line today.”
In the co-main event, former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua faced fellow Brazilian Antônio Rogério Nogueira for the third time. The two first fought to a decision at PRIDE Critical Countdown in 2005 with Rua winning. The two faced each other for the second time a decade later at UFC 190 in 2015. Rua defeated Nogueira again by decision with the bout earning Fight of the Night honors. Prior to the Saturday’s event, the 44-year old Nogueira announced that it would be his last fight.
Their two previous bouts were wars and the trilogy was no different. After a brief feeling out process, the Brazilian fighting legends picked up where they left out five years ago. Rua delivered leg kicks while Nogueira’s left hand found its mark regularly. After absorbing a straight left, Rua opted to take the fight to the ground in the closing moments of the opening round.
In the second frame, Rua connected with kicks to the body and right hands. Midway through the round, it was Nogueira trying to get the fight to the ground. Rua eventually worked his way back to his feet and went back to landing leg kicks and right hands.
In the final round, the two exchanged early before Rua changed levels and put Nogueira on his back. Nogueira scrambled but Rua remained in control and connected with left hands. Like their two previous meetings, the fight went the distance with Rua winning by split decision.
Former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum faced former three-time light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson in Gustafsson’s heavyweight debut. It didn’t take long for Werdum to spoil Gustafsson’s aspirations in the new division.
Gustafsson looked light on his feet. He landed his jab early, but Werdum wanted to get the fight to the ground. Werdum changed levels and Gustafsson tried to defend. As Gustafsson was working his way back to his feet and away from Werdum, Werdum secured the takedown and took Gustafsson’s back.
Werdum immediately put his jiu-jitsu expertise to work. After threatening with a rear-naked choke, Werdum transitioned and isolated an arm. He remained composed and methodically locked on an armbar, extended the arm and forced Gustafsson to quickly tap out midway through the opening round.
Former women’s strawweight titleholder and No. 7 ranked Carla Esparza met No. 9 ranked Marina Rodriguez in other main card action. It was a classic clash of conflicting styles. Esparza, known for her wrestling, was able to successfully take Rodriguez, primarily a striker, down repeatedly. She was in control of the fight in the first and second rounds when she decided to work for an ankle lock late in the frames. Rodriguez shook off the submission attempts and inflicted damage.
In the final round, Esparza didn’t make the same mistake after grounding Rodriguez. She maintained top control and managed to pull off a split decision win. With the victory, Esparza is now riding a four-fight winning streak and is inching closer to an opportunity to regain the belt.
“I’ve just got to go and get some impressive wins and finishes,” said Esparza following the fight. “I’m getting a step closer, a step closer, so hopefully I’ll be in those talks pretty soon.”