As of August 2, 2019, Darren Till is back in the game.
It’s a clean slate from the frenzy that defined his first four years in fighting world’s spotlight, heralded with a post on a box-fresh Instagram account simply captioned, “F*** you.”
European MMA hadn’t seen a star shine so bright since Conor McGregor: a man whose gift in the cage was surpassed only by a personality among the most relatable and appealing in the sport’s modern era, both working harmoniously to earn him a shot at UFC welterweight gold at the age of 25.
That fight and the subsequent KO loss to Jorge Masvidal in this year’s UFC London headliner didn’t go his way, prompting Till to take a near seven-month hiatus from his wunderkind role. But, as he tells BT Sport in an interview this weekend, it was never going to be sunshine and rainbows all the way to the top. But he’s headed there all the same.
“It’s the ups and downs,” he tells UFC UK and Europe Commentator and Analyst, John Gooden.
“I feel like lately it’s been a few downs because I’ve had two losses in a row, but then I can’t forget all my wins. Before that, I had like 17 wins. Before Woodley, I was unbeaten in MMA; I was on a roll.”
“Life is just ups and downs, and that’s the fight game, it’s ups and downs, it can’t all be upward traffic. And I used to say that a lot of times – there’s going to be a time where I’m going to get beat, there’s going to be a time where I’m going to have some losses on the run. And that happens, you have to really accept it and, you know, I have. I do.”
So bright was the star Till sat upon, that the three-time defending then-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was a +110 underdog heading into their September 2018 clash. Despite being unable to realize the dream that night, Till remained a prized UFC asset and was booked as the headliner for March 2019’s UFC London card. Again, the bookmakers were all in on Till and offered the 45-fight veteran Masvidal at +200.
If the loss to Woodley was a ‘down,’ the KO loss to Masvidal was a ‘double down,’ and a result of something not sitting right with Till after his failed title bid. Gone was the fluidity, the poise, the eerie composure; the O2 saw Darren Till fight angrily, and pay the price.
“I was just like, ‘I’m going to f***ing murder this guy,'” he says.
“To be honest, the last loss I had was quite tough, I don’t know why but it was just tough because I didn’t feel myself and I didn’t fight the way that I fight. Maybe I was just a bit too overly aggressive, I didn’t go in there with my fight style. Maybe I just wanted to just go in there, put one on Jorge’s chin and have done with it – and I nearly did succeed in that.
“But, as I say, you live and you learn, my mindset might have been tweaked a little. But also as much as I like going into it, I don’t like taking credit away from the fight and the opponent. I’ve never been that guy. I always like to clarify as well that, to me, in my mind on them nights when you win and you lose, you seem simply sometimes are just the better guy.”
That’s two losses in a row, breaking a run of 17 fights in which Till had drawn once, and never left the judges split in their decision when it had come to it.
Was he pushed too far, too fast? It was certainly a possibility; some media seemed to think so, as did UFC President Dana White.
Till doesn’t. As Masvidal would say, it’s a ‘super necessary’ part of the whole journey and the destination is never in doubt.
“I feel like I’ve dealt with it all well, but I feel like also it is hard because you know, I had an explosive rise, same as Conor did as well,” he says.
“I’m only 26, and I’m probably the second-biggest name in MMA in Europe right now, and it’s just like, no one is in your ear when you have an explosive rise saying, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ and I like the way it’s like that because you’re going to make a lot of mistakes and I make a hell of a lot of them.”
“I still sit here, and I know I beat Woodley, I know that I’m a better fighter than Woodley, I know that I’m a better fighter than Masvidal, but on the night those two guys were better than me, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
“Regardless of what happens next, I’m going to be a UFC world champion. I’m not going to accept that I’m not going to be in no way, shape, or form. So whatever happens with stuff outside the octagon or inside, there’s no way I’m letting that not happen. It’s going to happen, and I just said then, I’m only 26.
“I’ve always said to myself that I’m going to retire when I’m 35 which in MMA is quite young so I’ve still got nine years left, think about that, nine years. So whatever happens, I’m ready. Whether the next fight is a loss or a win.”
Since March, Till hasn’t featured much in Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard’s conversations. That’s not to say he hasn’t been a talking point, though. Boys will be boys, after all. A trip to Spain soon after the Masvidal fight saw him back in the public eye, albeit for the wrong reasons.
“I was just over there for a birthday, and just 26-year-old lads just got into bother, that’s it,” he says
“But I think it’s different with me because of obviously who I am, and the name and wherever I go I am noticed and known and I would never call myself a celebrity or a famous person because I don’t believe I am – just a well-known fighter so we just got into trouble in the hotel and things just led from one thing to another and ended up in a Spanish jail for a few days and obviously it came out in the papers. It is what it is.”
The trouble in the hotel, whilst stemming from a resident complaint about loud music, ended up in Till’s friend stealing a local taxi and Till spending four days in a Spanish prison cell which he describes as “horrible.”
“People came up to me like ‘Darren, you stole a taxi’ and I was like, ‘no’. But they come up to me now and say it and I’m just like ”yeah, I stole it.’ I’d rather just not even get into it, you know what I mean. When they came to round where we were outside the hotel, there was like 20 police they all looked at me and were like, ‘UFC fighter Darren Till?’ and I knew exactly what they were going to do. I was like ‘this is all getting pinned on me.’
“Obviously we did something, I’m not saying I’m not guilty, but it’s like a snowball isn’t it. It always gets made out worse than what it is. It’s just a mistake you come back from isn’t it,”
How you come back from it is another question altogether. For Till, the two losses had given him a reason to doubt, if only temporarily, his invincibility.
“After the fight, I remember I spoke to Colin after (the trip to Spain), and he was talking to me, and I just said to him, ‘You know what, I used to believe that I was the best in the world and right now I’ve got a little bit of doubt about that. I truthfully still believe that I’m the best fighter in the world, I know I’ve got the skillset and the mindset for that.”
Colin Heron, Till’s head coach at Team Kaobon, is the man behind it all. Their relationship is reminiscent of the McGregor-Kavanagh partnership that became such a part of MMA lore. He orchestrated Till’s UK departure following trouble as a youth and was ultimately the primary reason for his return – Till realized he was simply too integral to go on without.
“If there’s anyone I’m going to go to for advice for anything inside the octagon or outside of it, most of the time it’s probably going to be Colin,” he says.
“I like his perspective, it’s very rare that Colin will ever shout at me. He’ll always be very calm and collected in his responses. Years and years ago – him as a coach, me being one of his closest fighters – letting me go off to train in another gym in another country. That’s how open-minded he is. Not a lot of coaches would do that; they’re very possessive. But that’s how confident Colin is in his approach with training. He knows that I’m not going to find a better trainer anywhere else.”
Till is a poster-boy for the UFC dream, especially for European fans, but he is also one of the faces of the darker side to the sport – aggressive weight cutting. He’s long hinted at a move up to middleweight and now could be as good a time as any – whatever the scales say, the mission is still the same.
“Most probably,” he says when asked if the move is definite.
“I’ve been lifting a bit, just a tiny bit. As I say, I’ve been improving my nutrition and things by 5%, I’m ready to go in four weeks for a fight. No one trains like me, they just don’t. I know they don’t.”
“Right now, what I want to do is get myself in some kind of shape where I see what I’m like lean. And then I want to go from there, and I know that’s what Colin wants as well and we’ll see. As I say, down the line, somewhere, I’m going to be champion. I’ve got a lot of time to do that.
“I know that only good things and bad things are coming. I don’t want to sit here and say that only good things are coming because good and bad things are coming in life, that’s just f***ing right, either you realize that or you don’t, but that’s life.”
Middleweight, or welterweight, the mantra has always been, ‘hard work, keep it simple.’
Nothing’s changed there, Till is training like a man possessed and believes a return to the Octagon will happen before the year is through.
“Before Christmas, I’m definitely out,” he says.
“I definitely want to fight; I’m raring to go. I can’t wait to get back in and move around and stuff like that, so we’ll see.”
Moving forward, he’s learning from the old-school training methods; simple hard graft – something that he believes is no longer the primary focus for some fighters.
“I’ve always liked the Mike Tyson approach,” he says.
“He used to wake up at four in the morning; train, eat, train… he was just an animal. I just feel like we’re in this day now where a lot of people are coming away from training hard, and they’re getting into aspects like the brain, nutrition side, this side, that side, there’s a lot of stuff. I feel like just get up, go the gym and learn your craft, go home, do an ice bath, eat and go to sleep.
“Just train hard, just have some f***ing belief in your skills and your craft, and that’s what I’m getting back to instead of trying to make it more difficult than what it seems. I’m just trying to keep things simple in the mind. I see these videos of guys on the treadmill with masks on – mate, just get out on the f***ing road and do your run man, do your Mike Tyson, Muhammed Ali run – it worked for them, it can work for us.
“Obviously the world’s evolved and the science is evolving around fighting but I don’t see many heavyweights that are as good as Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali and that was years and years and years ago.”
And just like that, as mysteriously as he disappeared, Darren Till is back. The world is still there for him to conquer, but this time, in his road to the top of whatever UFC division he chooses to pursue, it will revolve around whoever is unfortunate enough to sign the next contract.
“Deep down inside of me, I believe that I am the best fighter in the world. I believe I’ve got the skills, but I’m still keeping it simple, focus on that fight. Focus on the fact that me and that guy are going to have a fight, and one of us is going to win. I promised Colin a title years ago, and I’m going to give him that. Whether he kills me before I get to that…”
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.