Darren Till: From Liverpool to Brazil and back again

Don’t talk to Darren Till about sacrifice. Don’t talk to any fighter about sacrifice. But, definitely, if you have any sense, don’t talk to Darren Till about sacrifice.

After all, this is a man, a proud Liverpudlian, who, in late 2012, left behind everything he knew and loved in Liverpool to venture halfway across the world to Brazil in order to learn from some of the best coaches and training partners in the business and fulfil his potential as a mixed martial artist. It is also a man who, four years later, found himself back in Liverpool, still pursuing his dream, only now with a young daughter living in Brazil with his ex-girlfriend.

There’s your sacrifice. Undefeated Till, who fights Jessin Ayari on Sunday (May 28) in Stockholm, Sweden, knows what it is to leave, love and lose.

“It’s all a sacrifice at this point,” he told Fighters Only on Friday. “It’s really tough. I 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.”

Despite all this, Darren Till isn’t looking for sympathy. Nor does he expect it. He doesn’t even want people to feel sorry for him when they hear he has been unable to make money from his profession – fighting – since October 24, 2015, the last time he appeared in the UFC’s Octagon, on account of a shoulder injury and various other life hurdles he has had to overcome. Thoughts pertaining to this, this layoff, are greeted only with the same nonchalance and what-makes-me-so-special? attitude he extends to every other perceived hardship in his young life.

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating,” he said. “I’m a mentally strong person and not a lot gets to me. I take everything as it comes. But I broke up with my girlfriend in Brazil, I had surgery, I don’t have another job and the UFC don’t pay a monthly wage. So that was hard. But this is life. This is what happens sometimes.

“The layoff shouldn’t have been that long, but what can you do? The UFC were perfect. They paid all my medical bills. I can’t thank them enough. I actually sent Lorenzo Fertitta a thank you message and he got back to me.

“The problem was, we went to see a couple of doctors near where I lived and the surgery they were saying I should have didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like they were just going to butcher my shoulder. I have a friend in Brazil, though, who has studied at all these great colleges and he said he had a really good doctor down south by Paraguay. I went to see this guy, who is excellent, but he had a waiting list and we had trouble getting money from the UFC into the account in Brazil. It’s always a hard transaction because of various regulations.

“So it took a little longer than it should have done. But it’s all good. In that time I grew and I was still working hard even with a bad shoulder. I’m still young, still unbeaten, still learning. It’s fine. This is my first proper injury and layoff. Everyone goes through it. Dominick Cruz, for example. Look at him. I admire him for all he has been through. I’m not going to sit here and cry.”

It should come as no surprise to hear a man who moved to Brazil as a twenty-year-old taking a year-and-a-half layoff in his stride. It comes with the territory, I suppose; that toughness, that robustness, that ability to confront the reality of a situation, no matter how stark or problematic. Who knows, the development of these attributes could have been behind his decision to up and leave in the first place. Certainly, there was a sense a boy would quickly become a man.

“It took a while to get used to the culture, the people and the language, but everybody just treated me like one of their own,” said Till, who moved to Brazil on December 28, 2012. “I can adapt. If you sent me to Africa, I’d adapt. That’s just what I do.

“Saying that, I was a very closed person before I went to Brazil. I didn’t trust many people. When I was in Brazil, the first six months not many people took to me. Why? Because I didn’t speak to a lot of people. So, it really opened me up as a person. It was a culture shock.”

Till’s initial plan was to stick around in Brazil for no longer than six months. After that, he would head back to Liverpool, continue with a thriving MMA career and hopefully make his way to the UFC in due course. Life, however, got a hold of him. Soon enough, he was speaking fluent Portuguese and falling in love with a local girl.

“Training was great out there and I trained with some great people,” he said. “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 can speak slang Portuguese and even understand a bit of Spanish. Apparently, Portuguese is one of the hardest languages in the world. It was hard at first, but, when I put my mind to something, I can achieve great things. I put my mind to learning it and now I speak it fluently.

“I learnt 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 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 in that way.”

All the time he was in Brazil, Till returned to Liverpool only once. So, naturally, he missed certain aspects of the city in which he was born and raised. He missed the accent, the lingo. He missed friends, he missed family. He missed his old gym mates. He missed Colin Heron, the coach he calls his “master”. But he knew missing things was all part of the growing and the maturing. It was a by-product of sacrifice, and sacrifice, he told himself, was necessary if he was to achieve his goal of one day becoming not only the UFC welterweight champion but the best welterweight to ever call himself a mixed martial artist.

“I don’t want to just be the champion, I want to be the all-time greatest,” said Till. “I want to practically be the Muhammad Ali of the UFC. I know that’s a big thing to say, and people might get the wrong impression, but you’ve got to dream big. I don’t even think about not achieving my goals or not becoming champion. That’s really not even an option for me. It’s 100% going to happen. I’m not a big believer in God, but I know what I was put on this earth to do. I know nothing can stop me.”

Oh yeah, Darren Till’s back. Make no mistake about that. He’s back in Liverpool, he’s back chasing dreams and he’s back in the Octagon. Sunday’s opponent, Germany’s Jessin Ayari, might see Till’s layoff as an advantage heading into their welterweight contest, yet, conversely, he could well be about to meet a man intent on unleashing eighteen months of frustration and, yes, sacrifice on him.

“Ayari’s just tough,” said Till, 13-0-1. “He’s got a decent ground game and a purple belt off Dean Lister. He’s a good fighter and a nice guy. That’s about it. But he’s nowhere close to my level. I hold advantages everywhere. If he dives for a takedown, he’s getting heavy hips sprawled on him and I’ll guillotine him, I’ll take the back, I’ll elbow him from anywhere. If I see a submission, I’ll take it. If he’s on the cage flustered and running away from me, I’ll dump him on his head and elbow him from half-guard. He’s going to try wild hooks and I’m not going to be there. I’m going to be The Invisible Man. Then I’m going to crack him on the jaw with the nicest left you’ve ever seen. I’m very confident. I’m the most confident person you could ever meet, but also the most humble. You’ve always got to stay humble.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t go past one round.”

You could say Darren, now twenty-four, is doing all this for his young daughter. And you’d be right, of course. Yet, to do so, to win fights, he must detach himself from everything – all he has loved, all he has reluctantly left behind – and transform into someone or something far from reasonable, relatable or even likeable, much less loveable. It’s then, in that moment, the aching heart is no more, the tears disappear and Darren Till is able to focus on the thing he does best in life.

“When I’m in there (the Octagon), I’m a closed and cold fighter,” he said. “I don’t care about my daughter, my girlfriend, my mum or anyone. I just get the job done. I’m a cold, dark person on that night. I’m a machine.”

A machine getting the job done; for a while, this is Darren Till’s life. Until he becomes The Greatest, that is. Until he has completed his job.

 

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