UFC 244 preview: Darren Till v Kelvin Gastelum; Nate Diaz v Jorge Masvidal

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The quickest low blow ever? Masvidal shocks Till

A little over 12 months ago, Darren Till was telling anybody who would listen: "I am the greatest."

Till was on a remarkable 18-fight unbeaten run in mixed martial arts and was about to challenge Tyrone Woodley for the UFC welterweight championship.

He had emerged from relative obscurity to become a European name the UFC could use to sell events. In three years he went from a late-notice call-up in Brazil to headlining cards in Poland and his hometown of Liverpool.

But in Dallas last September, his welterweight championship campaign came to an abrupt end as Woodley crushed his hopes of a maiden UFC title.

Too much too soon? Perhaps. But Till's resolve was not dented.

He told the media: "I'm still the greatest."

The rehabilitation date was booked for London in March. Jorge Masvidal was handpicked by Till as the ideal opponent to bounce back to the top.

This time, the weight-drained Merseysider was knocked out cold for the first time in his career.

The critics' voices were clear: Till was not the greatest after all.

'Why not me?' - Till on change of mindset

Darren Till after being knocked out by Jorge Masvidal at UFC 147 in London in March 2019
Darren Till after being knocked out by Jorge Masvidal at UFC 147 in London in March 2019

Till is in reflective mood as he prepares to return to the cage in Manhattan this weekend - fighting Kelvin Gastelum in a co-main event at UFC 244 in his first fight up at middleweight (185lb).

"That was the toughest time of my life," the 26-year-old says as he looks back to the Masvidal bout.

"For a long time, I truly never wanted to fight again. I wasn't depressed, I just felt so sorry for myself. I spent days just thinking, 'why me?' One day I just realised, 'why not me?'

"At that moment my mindset just changed. I still believe I can leave a legacy as one of the greatest fighters of all time. I still believe that's my destiny.

"But that's not what's driving me any more. Win, lose or draw, I'll see my journey out until I retire. I've got at least another 10 years of fighting."

Till will face Gastelum after overcoming visa issues to make a delayed arrival before Friday's weigh-in.

Gastelum is the number two 185lb fighter on the UFC roster. The Arizona southpaw lost a narrow points decision to Israel Adesanya in his last fight in April. Adesanya went on to claim the UFC middleweight belt last month.

"Tell me one other fighter that loses twice and moves up to get what's basically an eliminator for a title fight in another weight class?" Till says. "Absolutely nobody. The UFC know I can fight, they know I've got a following.

"I have so much respect for Kelvin Gastelum. He's one hell of a fighter. But I have to beat him. I have to win. I'm not afraid to lose. But I can't afford to lose this fight either. Everyone that's written me off, I see you. I even hear you. But I'm going to show you what Darren Till is truly about.

"I've lost now. I've been knocked out. There's nothing more to fear. It doesn't get any worse than that. I feel free and I feel big and strong too."

'You'll see the best of me' - Till on change of weight

Moving up in weight should favour Till. A gigantic welterweight, he is still going to be a huge middleweight. Gastelum, for all his success at 185lb, is truly a large welterweight. Size, Till hopes, will prove decisive.

"I'm hitting harder, feeling stronger and I am generally more focused at middleweight," he says. "I was killing myself to make 170lb. Everyone who watched the videos of me cutting weight could see that. You'll see the best of me now."

Gastelum himself moved up a weight class in 2016 after twice failing to reach 170lb. He too was beaten twice before making the jump. And his revival at middleweight has been substantial.

Wins over former champion Michael Bisping and 'Jacare' Souza led to his shootout interim title fight with Adesanya.

"I want that fight back. I want to go to New Zealand [Adensanya's home country] and fight for the title. That's what I'm here to do. I've got to make a statement, put a stamp on Darren Till and get him out of the way."

Should Till manage to defeat Gastelum, he will emerge from Manhattan as a genuine title contender at 185lb. And with champion Adesanya looking for a fresh contender, Till could be back on track for his "destiny".

Diaz v Masvidal - in the shadow of McGregor?

Saturday's UFC 244 main event has captured the imagination of MMA in a way not seen since Conor McGregor's rise.

The revival of both men, who for a long time were seen as little more than fringe title contenders, has been spectacular.

Nate Diaz fought McGregor twice to see his stock rise from cult status to international star, while Masvidal's 32-13 record did not suggest he would ever be a headliner again - until he knocked out Till in London.

The former street fighter has since recorded the fastest knockout in UFC history, when his five-second flying knee rendered Ben Askren unconscious in the summer. This will be his third fight of the greatest year in his fighting life - with Diaz representing potentially the biggest scalp of all.

For the victor, a career-defining pay day with the returning McGregor next summer awaits.