Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker claimed a unanimous decision victory over British contender Darren Till in the final event on UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
Whittaker, who lost the UFC’s 185-pound title to Nigerian-born New Zealander Israel Adesanya last October, stepped away from the sport to recuperate after complaining of burnout.
Whittaker returned after nine months away from the cage to outpoint Till over five tight and tactical rounds.
The 29-year-old Australian now puts himself right back into the UFC middleweight title conversation.
Fight Island – the brainchild of UFC president Dana White – was developed in a bid to continue hosting mixed martial arts events during the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 100 fighters flew to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island for four events between 11 and 25 July, and they have faced strict safety protocols since arriving.
Whittaker’s second-round knockout loss to Adesanya at UFC 243 last year was his only defeat as a middleweight, and he returned to action in Abu Dhabi and produced a composed, controlled performance to defeat Till with scores of 48-47, 48-47, 48-47 and improve his record to 21 wins, five losses.
Before the fight, Till said he felt “the stars are aligning” and he was “looking forward” for a title shot.
Till dropped Whittaker with a perfectly-timed short elbow in the first round, but Whittaker returned the favour in round two with a big right hand as the pair engaged in a fascinating striking battle on Yas Island.
In a fight of fine margins, it was Whittaker’s superior striking output that saw him edge the fight on the scorecards, with the Australian outstriking the Brit 100-50 over the course of their five-round bout to take the victory.
What about the rest of the Brits?
Earlier in the night, Scottish light heavyweight Paul Craig produced one of the most impressive finishes of the night as he finished Russian submission specialist Gadzhimurad Antigulov in the first round using his go-to submission move.
Antigulov headed into the fight with 15 of his 20 wins coming by way of submission, but it was Coatbridge’s Craig whose jiu-jitsu skills proved decisive as he locked up a triangle choke off his back to force the tap and register the 13th win of his career, and his 12th by submission.
It was a tougher evening for debuting Northern Irishman Rhys McKee, who lost out to Swedish hot prospect Khamzat Chimaev in their welterweight bout.
McKee received the short-notice call to make his UFC debut last week, with his manager Graham Boylan sharing on social media the emotional moment when he surprised the 24-year-old with the news.
But McKee’s first UFC appearance ended in defeat as he was quickly taken down and finished with ground and pound in the first round by Chimaev.
Chimaev scored his second win on UFC Fight Island in the space of 10 days to set a new record for the shortest time between modern-era UFC victories.
It was a better night for another of the night’s debutants, however, as British heavyweight prospect Tom Aspinall scored an eye-catching TKO finish of American Jake Collier.
A thumping knee to the body, followed by quickfire two-punch combination, sent Collier crashing to the mat as 27-year-old Aspinall, a former sparring partner for Tyson Fury, took just 45 seconds to register a spectacular victory – the fourth-fastest win for a heavyweight debutant in the UFC’s modern era.