Robert Whittaker defeats Darren Till by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night

Till, Whittaker come out swinging early (0:30)

Darren Till and Robert Whittaker take turns dropping each other to the mat early in their main event matchup. (0:30)

The former champ is back on a winning track.

Robert Whittaker edged out Darren Till via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 48-47) in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Till dropped Whittaker in the first round, but Whittaker rallied beginning with a huge second to get the nod in a very close fight.

"My brain is on overload," Whittaker said in his postfight interview. "That fight was so stressful. Honestly, I hope the fans and everybody can appreciate it. For me, it was one of the most technical fights I ever had to fight."

Judges Ben Cartlidge and Clemens Werner had Whittaker winning the second, third and fifth rounds. Judge Anders Ohlsson had Whittaker winning the second, third and fourth.

The bout had a lot of significance in the UFC's middleweight division. Coming in, ESPN had Whittaker, the former champ at 185 pounds, ranked No. 2 and Till ranked No. 6 in the world at middleweight. It was a chess match between Till, a counter-striker, and Whittaker, a fighter who likes to blitz in from distance.

The bout took place at the recently constructed Flash Forum inside a "safe zone" on Yas Island, which the UFC has dubbed "Fight Island" for its July slate of events amid the coronavirus pandemic. This was the fourth and final UFC event in Abu Dhabi this month. The first was UFC 251 on July 11.

For Whittaker, it was a crucial victory. He had not fought since dropping the title to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 in October. Early this year, Whittaker took a brief sabbatical from training and withdrew from a fight with Jared Cannonier because he was burned out on MMA. "The Reaper" looked refreshed and loose Saturday night.

Till knocked Whittaker down with an elbow in the first round. It appeared that Whittaker was in trouble, and he was unable to get into a rhythm for the rest of the round. Till seemed to be in the driver's seat. But Whittaker came back in the second by dropping Till with a big right hand. From top position, Whittaker landed hard elbows. Till was able to get up -- but not without blood coming from his nose.

Till said a stomping kick by Whittaker to his right leg in the second round "blew" his knee. Till said he'll probably need a "little" surgery on the knee after this bout, and he had trouble bouncing around after that kick.

"That was it then for the whole fight," Till said. "I don't think he recognized. I was still in there."

Whittaker had another strong round in the third, when his calf kicks started to add up. There was visible reddening on Till's right leg.

"He was countering me so hard," Whittaker said. "He was very heavy on his feet. He was very planted. Obviously, when someone is very planted, you've gotta kick away. To his credit, he didn't fall for that trap. He took the damage, and I took those points."

Till mounted his comeback in the fourth. He wobbled Whittaker with another elbow. Whittaker was looking for takedowns late, but Till was able to stuff them. In the very close fifth, Whittaker landed two grazing left hands off of the separation from a takedown attempt. Till opened up a huge cut on Whittaker's ear with an elbow. There was a lot of blood, but it didn't seem to affect Whittaker, who finished the fight with a takedown.

Whittaker (21-5) was on a nine-fight winning streak before he lost the belt to Adesanya. The New Zealand-born Australia resident became the first Aussie to win a UFC title when he beat Romero for the interim belt in 2017. Whittaker, 29, went on to become undisputed champion when Georges St-Pierre vacated the title following his win over then-undisputed champ Michael Bisping.

Till (18-3-1) moved up to middleweight from welterweight to beat Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 244 in November. The England native lost two straight before that to Jorge Masvidal and to Tyron Woodley in a welterweight title bout. Till, 27, was undefeated before falling to Woodley. He has now lost three of four.

"I feel like I won it," Till said. "I feel like we both won the fight. I'm not saying I feel like I won it -- we both won. It was a clinically great match."