Over time, we’ve learned through combat sports that the distance between anonymity and stardom can be as short as a straight left hand. One good shot in the right place at the right time can send a career into orbit. Darren Till has the right place and the right time set up. Now, he just needs the result.
Oh, he really needs the result. On Saturday, he missed weight by 3.5 pounds, putting some doubt into the minds of the legions who have glanced his way for a closer look at what the future might be. Right or wrong, such offenses can be undone with a quickness. Just ask Mackenzie Dern, who recently debuted in the UFC rankings after a dominant win despite missing weight by 7.5 pounds.
On Sunday, Till will headline UFC Liverpool at Echo Arena, just a four-mile drive from his childhood home in the Walton neighborhood. If it is not the ultimate conclusion to a long-held dream — after all, Till is still just 25 years old — it is a poetic springboard to get him where he wants to go.
When you hear Till discuss where he’s been and where he’s going, his confidence comes through loud and clear. He has long thought he will become the best welterweight in the sport, and on Sunday, he has a chance to jump to the front of he line. All he has to do is beat top-ranked Stephen Thompson. Currently sitting at No. 8 in the UFC divisional rankings, Till is bidding to become the first man not named Tyron Woodley to defeat Thompson in over six years.
It’s a tall order after a relatively brief and (at-least-until-now) mildly celebrated tenure in the UFC, spanning only three years. While Till won some renown in his home country for an undefeated start to his career, his UFC run started in fairly subdued fashion, with a TKO win followed by a draw and two straight decision victories, all on the undercards of marginal events. It was only when he accepted a short-notice, main event bout against longtime standout Donald Cerrone that the fight world really took notice.
And the reaction was nearly unanimous: Who?
Seriously, Cerrone was hardly alone when he wondered aloud who exactly he’d accepted a fight against; he’d never even heard of Till. By the time he left, he knew more about Till than he ever wanted to know. He was big and sharp and powerful, and Cerrone couldn’t make it out of the first round against him, crumpling under the weight of the Scouser’s heavy and accurate southpaw strikes.
The rest of the fight world had their eyes opened, too. Till shot up the rankings and suddenly had his name paired with the best of the division. It certainly helped that he came flanked by an entire city.
The UFC has long prized the kinds of athletes that bring their own base of rabid followers with them. Such shortcuts are marketing gold, but are notoriously difficult to come by. Conor McGregor is an example; he delivered the Irish in legions. So is Brock Lesnar, who brought the pro wrestling world in for a peek. The promotion will now try to pull off the same trick with Till, who is young, multilingual (he speaks English and Portuguese) and undefeated (he’s 16-0-1).
By all accounts, Liverpool seems to be rallying behind him. The local newspaper, The Echo for example, recently profiled him, calling him “a household name in Liverpool.”
It is the city, it seems, that shaped him. Till grew up rough, scrapping in the streets, but before the time he was a teenager, he began to narrow his focus toward organized combat. At age 12, with designs on eventually becoming a professional fighter, he started training in Muay Thai. At 14, he was so sure of his career path that he dropped out of school against his parents’ wishes. By the time he was 17, he had shifted his target to MMA, until a bar fight nearly changed everything for him. In August 2012, Till was involved in a nightclub melee in which he was stabbed twice in the rib. Though he recovered, doctors told him the knife had entered an inch from an artery that, if severed, likely would have killed him.
When he recovered, his coach Colin Heron advised him to move to Brazil for his own good, and like a good charge, Till listened. He spent almost four years there, immersing himself in the sport, and eventually coming out as a major prospect.
A short time later, Till is nearing his promise. While Thompson has been known to make even those who defeat him look bad, there is reason to be optimistic that Till can buck the slight odds against him.
According to Fightnomics’ Reed Kuhn, Till compares favorably with Thompson, with better accuracy in head strikes, superior striking defense and similar power. In a bout that figures to be won and lost on the feet, such statistics should be encouraging.
That says nothing for the seismic home field advantage he will experience in his city. The day before Till fights, Liverpool will be on its feet, attempting to will its football club to the Champions League trophy against favored Real Madrid. Every street and alley will be buzzing.
The next day it’s his turn to take the main stage. Liverpool has waited to see one of their own make the leap to MMA superstardom. While other native sons like Terry Etim, Paul Kelly and Paul Sass all found modest levels of success in the octagon, Till is the upgrade, meant to surpass them and crash the global stage.
He has that chance now, in a way that was unimaginable just a few months ago. The city will be primed to explode, and Till will have both the benefit and the danger of riding the wave of emotion and momentum. A young man who was almost a nobody a year ago, is on the cusp of something great today, and everybody knows it. It’s quite a moment and it’s all his. Now all he has to do is deliver it.