UFC 244 was, by almost all standards, a stellar event. While a disappointing doctor stoppage capped off what was a banger of a main event, there were enough strokes of masterful violence prior that it’s hard to classify the card as anything short of a success. As an Englishman nurturing a denied masochistic streak, I was most looking forward to the co-main event featuring the middleweight debut of the once much-hyped Darren Till.
Pressure was the key word in this bout. Pressure to succeed, pressure to make weight, pressure to make it to the cage to even have the opportunity to fail, considering the Scouser’s visa issues delaying his arrival to New York City. The very inverse could be seen in the main event. Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal are two perennial fan favourites, made men in the eyes of fight fanatics. They could take a one sided ass whooping and still have the respect of fans – which is exactly what happened to Nate Diaz. In order to win back the approval of fans, Till had to be nothing short of perfect in the cage.
As UFC 244 geared up for its main event, fans online declared Till vs Kelvin Gastelum as the most boring fight of the night. To be completely fair, this was a night featuring unusually high levels of excitement, and to be “boring” in its company is not quite the condemnation it would be on almost any other occasion. In the eyes of a Just Bleeder, UFC 244s co-main event was not the perfect performance Darren Till needed to save his credibility, but to the MMA scholar (I am an MMA scholar, prove that I’m not you can’t) this was in fact very close to perfect.
The Scouse striker (alliteration!) was on a two fight skid. Losing two fights in a row is suboptimal, but getting brutally finished twice in a row when you’re supposed to be the next big thing is devastating. Darren Till’s mentality was ironclad. He felt invincible, to his detriment. With a much publicized weight cutting issue, the massive welterweight was under a microscope as he stepped on the scale.
As he fought for welterweight title against Tyron Woodley in September of 2018, he felt the pressure to cut the pounds, but in his performance “The Gorilla” felt the championship victory was a done deal. It wasn’t. Till was blasted with a stiff right hand, fed elbows then stuffed into a d’arce choke. He tapped, and his confidence – his aura – took a hit. No matter, he was young and overconfident, with much to learn. This was a rebuilding opportunity, a chance to ascend even greater heights.
Despite an unsuccessful run at the belt, Till still had stock, especially in the UK. In March of this year, “The Gorilla” was booked to headline at the UFC’s annual trip to London. Although, “headline” may actually be an understatement. This was the Darren Till show. His trademark confidence was ever present, and this was his opportunity to get back on the horse, and prove he was what he said he was: the best. His opponent, if we’re being honest, seemed like an afterthought, a warm body for Till to demonstrate on. His opponent was “Gamebred”, Jorge Masvidal.
A lot can change in a fight. Stars can be made, unmade or even remade. On March 16th, 2018, in London, England, Jorge Masvidal stepped out of his Lazarus pit. After an early knockdown, “Gamebred” came back to melt Darren Till. With a shifting left hook, he temporarily separated Darren Till’s soul from his body. Masvidal became a star on this night, going from strength to strength in his two fights since. Till on the other hand, was thrown on the pile, another derailed hype train, chinny and overrated.
“The Gorilla” would go silent. Once a staunch believer in telling everyone how good he is as often as he could, we didn’t hear from the Liverpool native for months. Upon reemerging, things were uncertain, especially his next weight class. Was the cut to 170 worth it, or was a move in order?
Eventually we were given our answer. Darren Till was booked to fight Kelvin Gastelum in his middleweight debut at Madison Square Garden of all places. Now the hype became consternation, Till was making a mistake. And he would pay when the heavy hitter planted one on his deteriorated chin. Gastelum had just gone toe to toe with now champion Israel Adesanya in one of the most back and forth barnburners of all time. How could Till, a welterweight with a questionable chin and defensive issues, cope with an onslaught from a bull like Kelvin Gastelum? The answer to most people, he couldn’t, and this was to be the nail in the coffin for the Brit.
With a more reserved demeanour, Darren Till arrived at fight week… five days late. Thanks to visa issues, Till had a hard time even making it into the country he was supposed to make weight and fight in. Pressure mounted for the Englishman, as much as could be expected for the average fight week.
When he finally arrived in New York, he was assaulted by journalists (not literally, MMA journalists cannot fight). With a backlog of questions, reporters cover everything from his K.O. loss to the man of hour Jorge Masvidal, to his weight issues, to his legal troubles. Till was reminded of everything he had to prove, and make no mistake, he didn’t need reminding.
He made the walk, and before the bell rang, the atmosphere was one of uncertainty. How would Till look with 15 extra pounds? How could he handle Gastelum’s power and wrestling? Had he shored up those defensive holes. The fight lacked excitement. There was little blood, no one was dropped, in fact neither man even seemed to get hurt. It was, in the eyes of some, a “boring” contest. But for Till, it was everything he needed.
Till looked energetic and strong at 185. He stuffed almost all of Gastelum’s takedowns, and when he was taken down he popped right back up. And his defense problems and common criticisms has clearly been addressed in the gym. Not only had Darren Till improved, he had evolved. He looked excellent at 185 pounds, and neutralized Gastelum’s entire game, earning a split decision win. It was a clear win for Till, only one judge had decided to be bad at his judge that night. The result itself was almost irrelevant. Darren Till had proved he could still hang with the best.
After the fight, “the Gorilla” released all that pressure. In his own words, he was “terrified to get in there”. Despite no fear of a scrap, the moment had shaken Till. He considered faking an injury to get out of the fight, not wanting to fail in front of the world once more. Pressure had gotten to Darren Till, and he was not afraid to admit it. When you consider the pressure, the opportunity – to succeed or fail – Darren Till knocked it out of the park.
Darren Till always claimed to be honest, but that was easy when he was telling everyone he was the best. Now he was human, with fears and failures in his head, and he owned it. Being honest with the media is one thing, but being honest with yourself is another. Thanks to that honesty, Till was able to improve and move, instead of stagnate.
Now ranked at number five in the ultra competitive UFC middleweight division, the future is not certain for Darren Till. Robert Whittaker has declared an interest in fighting him, surely opening a door to showdown to fellow striking savant Israel Adesanya. Till though, ever surprising, called out none other than Yoel Romero. “The Gorilla” denied any interest in fighting Romero at the post fight press conference, but seems to have changed his mind, with a tongue firmly placed in his cheek. Is that the fight? Who knows. But one thing is for certain, the Gorilla is not done, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.