Darren Till realized he was at a critical point in his life in December 2019. As he turned 27 years old, the Liverpudlian had just gone through quite an up-and-down year that included a knockout loss in London to Jorge Masvidal – his first fight after coming up short in his welterweight title shot against Tyron Woodley at UFC 228. Those losses prompted a move up to middleweight, and in his debut, he defeated Kelvin Gastelum to win a split decision and thrust himself into the title picture at 185 pounds.
With all that in mind, Till looked at where he was in his life and career and made a choice to lock in and make the most of his window of opportunity.
“I really decided, ‘Right, you’re on a path here. You got a purpose. It’s time to buck up more than ever and get what’s yours,’” Till told UFC.com. “Since then, I’m becoming stronger, wise, a little bit more mature, and it’s only been good for me. It hasn’t been bad.”
Refocused, Till went blow-for-blow with former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in a main event bout but ultimately came up short on the judges’ scorecards. The bout still served a positive purpose, however, as it proved Till could very well compete with the best at middleweight.
Injuries kept the Scouser out of action for much of the next year, knocking him out of matchups with Jack Hermansson and Marvin Vettori, but as he approaches his main event tie with Derek Brunson on September 4, he returns to action as prepared mentally and physically as ever.
Part of it is his acclimation to his status as a UFC star, particularly one of the biggest ones to come out of Europe, and that understanding of his place in the sport and in his community allows him to carve out how he wants to use that platform personally and professionally.
“I like to always give off this vibe that I’m just Darren Till,” he said. “I’m just speaking when I want to speak and being me, and if you don’t like that, then that’s your problem. That’s not really my problem. I like to think of myself as a straight-up guy who will always speak the truth, and I’ve got values, morals, and I’m honest most of the time, so I think that’s all people can understand about me if they want to. They can take however I act inside or outside the Octagon, but that’s the guy I think I am.”
In the Octagon, Till is in need of a result. Sure, 1-1 at middleweight against two top contenders isn’t the worst place to sit, but zoom out, and you see he is 1-3 in his last four. Again, his losses (Whittaker, Masvidal, Woodley) aren’t necessarily bad, but for someone as centrally focused on proving his dominance as Till is, taking out Brunson is of paramount importance.
Middleweight king Israel Adesanya hasn’t shied away from his interest and intrigue in fighting Till, but he also has made it clear that he needs to see Till get his hand raised before granting him a shot at the belt. Till isn’t oblivious to that reality, but he’s quick to lay out his thoughts on where he stands in the title picture either.
“I’m always one fight away from a title shot because of what I bring,” Till said. “I bring star power to the Octagon. I bring star power to the UFC like many others, and this is going to be one of them things, after it, I’m going to be able to decide – do I take a (Jared) Cannonier fight or do I wait for the winner of Adesanya-Whittaker? So, we’ll see. I want to be active. I want to be fighting. I want to be fighting the best fighters. I want to be beating the best fighters. I want my name out there all over the world, and that’s what I want.
“For me, one fight away from a title shot, two fights. It’s not that much, really, is it? I’m always there.”
At present, the “one fight” comes in the form of the streaking Brunson. Once quietly thought of a sort of gatekeeper at 185 pounds, Brunson ripped off four wins over Elias Theodorou, Ian Heinisch, Edmen Shahbazyan and Kevin Holland to reassert himself as a real threat in the Top 10. Along the way, Brunson showed a more mature, controlled approach that made best use of his explosive athleticism.
Against Till, the general consensus is that Brunson will wrestle Till much like Whittaker did, a proposition Till more or less brushes off as a threat.
“It’s not like I’m going in there and I’m not going to know how to put a whizzer on and use my hips and stuff,” Till said. “I know how to defend wrestlers. We’ll just see how much of a good wrestler that he is, and after the first, second takedown I start defending, we’ll see how his head goes, and I’ll start landing naughty smacks on his face. That’s how it’s going to be.”
As one can assume, Till is as calm as you’d like before a crucial bout in his career. Still just 28 years old, it feels like this fight is as high stakes as any he’s had, save for his title shot in 2018. He feels as settled into his circumstances as he has in some time, and although he toyed with dropping back to welterweight in some interviews, he called middleweight “sweet home Alabama.” Whether he pulls “Sweet Caroline” back out for his walkout is uncertain at the moment. He opted for the silent walkout on a crowd less Fight Island against Whittaker, but he’ll feel it out with a limited crowd in the UFC APEX on fight night.
Regardless of what is or isn’t playing when he makes the walk, he feels in control of his destiny, and his sole focus will be on getting his hand raised.
“No pressure on me,” Till said. “I’m here to do a job Saturday. I want to get my s**t done Saturday, and I want to really get my s**t done, and then I want to sit back for a week and just enjoy s**t, and then just see what (UFC President) Dana (White) says to me. He says, ‘Till, want to get another fight? Want to wait? It’s up to you, brother.’ That’s what he’ll say.”
Don't miss Darren Till this Saturday at UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs Till. Please note the special broadcast time: Prelims begin 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT and the Main Card kicks off at 4pm ET/1pm PT on ESPN+.