Undefeated welterweight sharpshooter Darren Till has proven he belongs among the welterweight elite. Now he’s aiming for the UFC title.
Darren Till talks about his need to fight the way a recovering alcoholic might talk about their need to meditate or embrace the taste of herbal tea. Fighting, to Till, is crucial to his survival and ability to thrive as a professional athlete and human being. It’s sustenance. It’s safety. It’s the thing that allows the monster lurking within to be kept hidden, the thing that allows him to appear normal. Take it away, this fighting outlet, and he’s liable to relapse.
“I’m a nice and calm dude, but I’m also a bit psychotic,” he explains. “I’ve got a lot of pent-up aggression. It sounds bad, but I want to really, really hurt my opponent. I want to see them in pain. Also, I really don’t care if someone hurts me or one day I get completely knocked out. The next day I’ll be the same Darren Till. I need fighting in my life. I couldn’t do anything else. The gym is my place, my home.”
Darren Till today, still just 24, is more or less the same Darren Till he was at 13, the age he left school in Liverpool, England, and started to gravitate towards Muay Thai. He’s a bit taller, broader in the shoulders and far more capable of doing damage to human beings, but, for the most part, in terms of mentality at least, little has changed.
“I wanted to be the hardest kid in school,” he says. “That was my goal. I don’t think I’m better than anybody, but I always had that mentality. Even when I went into MMA I said to a select few people I’d be the best. Most people don’t take your words seriously. But when they see it happen, they say, ‘F**king hell, he did say that to me.’ I just wish people took me seriously from the beginning. Right now, people are listening to me. When I say s**t, it’s powerful. People believe it.”
“It was just a matter of time”
In October, Till told anyone who’d listen that Donald Cerrone was incapable of beating him and when it came time for a shootout with ‘Cowboy’, he’d be quicker on the draw. It was a boast which amused and even riled some sections of the MMA community. They’d heard it all before. Not only from Till, who’s never shied away from outlining his own qualities, but from other undefeated fighters who had started gaining momentum only to then run into someone – like Cerrone, often Cerrone – who kicked some reality into them.
A similar narrative was expected to unfold the night Till stepped up in Gdansk, Poland. Too much, too soon: the consensus view was that despite Cerrone’s back-to-back defeats to Robbie Lawler and Jorge Masvidal, Till still didn’t have a shot. Nor were the Englishman’s victories over the likes of Jessin Ayari and Bojan Velickovic any indication he was ready for the best welterweights in the world. “But I already knew it was coming,” says Till, who spoke in similar terms before the fight. “It was just a matter of time.”
Right all along, Till, in spite of the concern he’d been thrown in too deep, came of age in Poland, lighting up Cerrone with a number of well-picked left hands and hurtful combinations before finally, with 40 seconds to go in the first, putting the American out of his misery.
“Cerrone said he’d seen it all before, and he has every right to say that because he has seen it all before,” says Till. “But when you fight me, I bring a different kind of pressure. I’m not hitting them with pressure. I’m stalking them and putting them under pressure and stress.
“It’s like a relentless wrestler, someone like Ben Askren. He brings pressure; mine is a striking version of that. My opponents don’t know what I’m going to do and they don’t know how to deal with it. They start getting stressed and things aren’t working for them. Right there in the moment, Donald was probably questioning himself. He was twitching his hands and didn’t know what was coming. I just had my guard down, relaxed, and was looking at him. As soon as I hit him on the nose I could see on his face that he was in pain.”
It’s an image he’d seen before, this image of an older man, a man who told him he couldn’t, starting to cower following one of his punches. In fact, it was something of a recurring theme for Till in the early days as a youngster in his Muay Thai gym, when he wanted to prove his worth against the adults. Ambitious from day one, he seemed in a hurry even back then.
“I used to spar a lot with the adults and they’d kick the s**t out of me,” he says. “I’d go home and think, you f**king b**tards, I’m going to kick your face in tomorrow. I just remember being this angry kid who thought he was better than all the adults. I didn’t want to fight kids.
“Kids are meant to believe adults are superior, but I never thought like that. Nobody was my superior. Nobody would ever talk down to me. I didn’t give a f**k who they were. If they challenge me to a fight, and I’m a kid and they’re an adult, I will fight them.
“I was 14 or 15 when we moved gyms and a lot of the adults were paying for sparring sessions when we opened. They came in and I battered them all. Broken noses and everything. They were shocked and were like, ‘What the f**k?’ I will never forget how badly I beat those poor blokes up. I used to get in the ring and the ring was mine. I’m just evil. If I’m sparring, I take pleasure from hurting people. I am prepared to die whenever I go into a fight.”
“I want to hurt people and I want people to hurt me”
Sometimes this mindset works. Right time, right place, it can be the very thing that separates champions from contenders. As a kickboxer, for example, it took Till to a 44-0 record and a K-1 European title. Get the time and place wrong, however, project this mindset without a referee and a set of unified rules, and the results can be catastrophic.
Till was 19 when he found this out the hard way. He was in a nightclub when he became embroiled in an altercation that so nearly cost him his life. There was an argument, chairs and punches were thrown, bottles smashed. Till, moments after fending off doormen in the girls’ toilets with knees and kicks, all of a sudden staggered to the floor in a pool of his own blood. Stabbed in the back, just inches from a main artery, the teenager was now fighting to stay alive.
“I just thought it was a little pinch,” he recalls. “I carried on fighting until everyone realized my top was soaked with blood and I’d been stabbed. I started feeling woozy, like I couldn’t fight anymore, and remember just dropping to the floor. Next thing, they’re carrying me out and trying to resuscitate me.”
It sounds strange, irresponsible even, to suggest Darren Till needed fighting, professional fighting, to prevent similar incidents in his future, but it’s true. Aware of this, Colin Heron, Till’s coach at Team Kaobon, advised his fighter to venture to Brazil in 2012 and find himself, something akin to a divorcee fleeing to India to do the same.
The plan, once there, was for Till to stick around for six months, train with the best coaches and fighters, improve his jiu-jitsu, and then head home when the heat had cooled and his goals were clear. Brazil, though, captured his imagination and his heart. Soon enough, he was speaking fluent Portuguese and falling in love with a local girl.
“Training was great out there,” he says. “There was a lot of focus on the ground game and we had an All-American wrestler in the team, so every day I was grinding that out. Brazil is a great country. I’ve got many friends out there. I’d walk the streets and people loved me and treated me as one of their own.
“I was a very closed person before I went to Brazil. I didn’t trust many people. The first six months, not many people took to me because I didn’t speak to a lot of people. It was a culture shock. But it really opened me up as a person.
“I can now speak slang Portuguese and even understand a bit of Spanish. I learned it with the guys in the gym. A few words here, a few words there. I’d go home and go on Google translate and think, what words do I need to learn for tomorrow?
“Also, I’d go into a supermarket and the girls there would laugh at me because I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I hated that. I thought I needed to go away and show these girls I could learn how to speak it. As time went on, I’d speak to them and they were really impressed.
“Obviously, things then went to a higher level when I was with my girlfriend. She was helping me with everything. I didn’t return the favour, though. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I was very selfish.”
Four years later, having begun his professional MMA career in Brazil, Till was back in Liverpool. His girlfriend, however, was now his ex-girlfriend, and the child they had together remained with her mother in Brazil.
“It’s all a sacrifice at this point,” says Till, who also endured a shoulder injury which kept him out of competition for the whole of 2016. “It’s really tough.
I do miss my little girl. But I know it will all be worth it. Her mum’s taking care of her and I’m going out making an honest coin. There’s a lot of money to be made in the UFC – not that that was ever my goal when I started out.”
He calls his approach to life “living in the moment s**t” and uses this as a coping mechanism whenever thoughts pertaining to his child or Brazil – a country he misses dearly – interrupt his more primal leanings. He refuses to dwell on the past, nor look into the future, and reveals that, for all his overt confidence, his one great fear is simply not living life to the full.
“Everyone’s talking about how much money I’ve just made, but I’ll probably end up spending all of that in a matter of months,” he admits. “I’ll think about tomorrow when I open my eyes because I might not open my eyes tomorrow.
“I’m a very simple guy. I literally like to buy three things: trainers, clothes and food. Nothing else excites me. I’ve always had my own style. If I see nice trainers and I like them, I’ll buy them. It doesn’t matter what brand they are. The clothes I buy are trackies, jeans and T-shirts. It’s simplicity.”
Till, for now, lives with his uncle in a “nice little room with a telly on the wall”. But the more he wins, and the more money he makes, the more this simplicity will be tested. There will be temptations. There will be trappings. There will be tests. It comes with the territory. It comes with success. Look around and you’ll see, thanks to the Cerrone win, the cynics already starting to believe Till will be a UFC title challenger. Dana White, the UFC president, agrees. Moments after watching Till crush ‘Cowboy’, he used an Instagram post to herald the Briton’s arrival: ‘The Future’ was all he wrote. It was, in truth, all that needed to be said.
“Tyron Woodley is just not on my level,” Till, 16-0-1, reckons. “That would be a fight where it would be a matter of time before he quits. He’d quit against me. He’s a champion, he’s really f**king good, he’s powerful and all that, but I wouldn’t just be hitting him the way ‘Wonderboy’ (Stephen Thompson) did. I’d break his confidence. I’d break him. I know I would.
“These motherf**kers, I don’t care about any of them. I just want to fight. I just f**king love fighting. I will fight until I die. I want to hurt people and I want people to hurt me.”
In the end, one suspects the only thing that will hurt Darren Till is the prospect of not fighting.
This article first appeared in the January edition of Fighters Only. Sign up for a free digital subscription by filling in the form on this page.