Billed as one of the UFC’s next true stars, Darren Till was fast living up to his label. An engaging and enlivening mixed martial artist from Liverpool, he rode the promotion’s push by winning six of his first seven appearances. He drew the other, a Fight-of-the-Night winner in 2015.
So the Conor McGregor comparisons continued, with Till’s overall professional record sitting at a formidable 17-0-1.
But then he lost his welterweight title bout against champion Tyron Woodley by submission - his first championship test - in September 2018. A second successive defeat soon followed, in March last year, this time to Jorge Masvidal via knockout.
Previously impenetrable, the cracks had appeared. Some recalibration was required.
“I truly believe I’m a better fighter than Woodley, and I know I’m a better fighter than Masvidal,” says Till, who rebounded in November with victory against Kelvin Gastelum, setting up a blockbuster middleweight match-up with Robert Whittaker in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
“And this is not me hating on his success. I'm truly 100 per cent happy for all the success Masvidal’s having and I hope he continues to have it.
“But I think [the defeats] needed to happen. I was too confident, too cocky, and just felt invincible. I felt I couldn’t be touched, I couldn’t be knocked down or knocked out, because it had never happened. I took shots from some of the biggest punchers ever and it had never happened.
“And in a twist of fate, knock-knock, and my confidence just went to zero. It was at 110 and went straight to zero. I was questioning so many things that never even entered my head in my 15-year career of fighting."
Till says the consecutive losses, and the split-decision bounce-back against Gastelum on his move up from welterweight, brought back a “humble confidence”.
“It was weird, because throughout my life I felt like Superman, invincible, that wherever I went in the world I’d win," he says. "In the UFC, same thing: just beat everyone and then just ‘boom-boom, knock, knock’.
“It did knock me a lot, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot. And I know this is a cliched thing to say, but I've proper matured. Not even as a fighter, but as a person.”
The card is stacked, featuring a trilogy-ending co-main event between Shogun Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, while Alexander Gustafsson returns to debut at heavyweight.
“And I’m the cream of the crop, me and Whittaker,” Till, 27, says. “I didn’t get here by chance, I got here by a lot of hard work and it’s paying off. It’s good to be on a historical event like this.”
In Whittaker, though, Till faces a huge test of his talent. Already a middleweight champion, the New Zealand-born Australian is back in the UFC following time away after losing his title to Israel Adesanya in October. Burnt out and in need of a break, Whittaker (20-5 MMA, 11-3 UFC) arrived in the capital with a fresh “fire lit for the sport”.
Speaking to the media before Till, Whittaker said his upcoming opponent did not worry him, that it was he who possessed the more potent arsenal. Whittaker remains the division’s No 1-ranked contender.
“Of course, what would you expect him to say?,” Till says. “He should say that and I should say the opposite - that I’m better everywhere. But I’m not like that. I think Rob is potentially, probably more of a seasoned wrestler, a little bit better in that department. Jiu-jitsu-wise, I don’t know.
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“Striking-wise, he ain’t even close to my level. But he could come in and show me something new and, ‘bom, bom,’ and that’s how it is. He’s meant to say that. Would you expect him to say anything else?"
The cordial back-on-forth that has dominated the build-up maintains - somewhat.
“I’m not going to build anything there that isn’t,” Till says. “We’re both nice people, we’ve had a laugh on social media.
“But whether I like you or I don’t, I’m still going to try and annihilate you. And I do that to my teammates. So imagine what I’m going to do to someone who’s not. I’m sure he’s going to do the same.”
Take out the top contender - Till ranks fifth in challengers - and there’s only one route the Englishman with the previously torqued trajectory envisages
“If I beat Robert Whittaker, the only way to go is to the title,” Till says. “I’ve come up to middleweight - a lot of people say ‘he’s only had two fights’, but look at my two fights. But now if I beat Robert Whittaker, which is a big ask, a big mountain to climb, the only fight for me is a title fight. The only name I want to hear coming out of anybody’s mouth is [champion] Israel Adesanya.”
After the fall and the apparent fix, Till appears more ready than ever.
“I don’t want to sound cliched, but I feel the maturing I’ve done the past year, past six months is phenomenal,” he says. “Not even as a fighter; the maturing I’ve done mentality-wise.
“Just little things, being 100 per cent in in the fight game. I’ve never had motivation like this in my life.”