UFC - Fight Night - Vera v SandhagenMar 26
How Darren Till conquered his demons to headline Fight Island
A middleweight classic is brewing on Fight Island and BT Sport customers can watch Robert Whittaker vs Darren Till from 11pm on Saturday 25 July on BT Sport 2 HD on TV and online.
Darren Till returns to the Octagon to take on Robert Whittaker as the curtain falls on Fight Island but his biggest battle took place outside of the cage.
In a sport synonymous with machismo and bravado there is scarcely room for empathy and introspection.
But as elite sport continues to wake up to widespread mental health issues, Britain’s pre-eminent UFC star has joined a host of revered names in opening up about their struggles.
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Survivor of a near-death experience and shaped in a gritty Liverpool postcode, on the surface Till is an invulnerable matador.
But after back-to-back defeats in the space of just over six months, the rising star’s meteoric rise suffered an almighty setback.
He failed in his bid to become Britain’s second UFC world champion when he was forced to tap out by Tyron Woodley in Texas in September 2018. “It just really, really hurts,” he said afterwards.
Then, in March 2019, he suffered a shock loss to Jorge Masvidal at UFC London in front of a sold-out crowd at the O2 Arena.
It was after the two defeats that doubts started to creep in.
“I was just upset at myself,” Till told Bleacher Report. “I considered myself invincible for a long time, and to have the invincibility stripped of you is so savage. It hurt a lot, so it took a lot of building back up.”
Determined to get back on track, Till announced a long-rumoured move from welterweight to middleweight – viewed by many as his natural fighting weight after a history of struggling on the scales and enduring difficult weight cuts.
Till jumped straight back into the lion’s den against former interim title challenger Kelvin Gastelum in a bid to reignite his career but the doubts that had crept in after a dark six months had festered.
“I was just terrified of fighting; the bright lights, big stage, that sort of thing,” Till said.
“I was really scared of fighting, especially fighting Gastelum, because of the guy he is and the guys he’s beaten. It was on the biggest stage possible. It couldn't have gotten any bigger. There were a lot of emotions at the time.”
Notwithstanding his mental turmoil, Till secured a highly-impressive split-decision victory at Madison Square Garden and announced himself as a genuine title contender in the middleweight division.
Speaking immediately after silencing his vociferous critics in New York, he admitted he was sullied by the fear of failure.
“I nearly pulled out. I nearly faked an injury,” he said. “I was so scared. I didn't want to lose again and the fear of losing almost made me pull out. But I didn’t. I manned up and I took the fight. And now I’m back!”
Reflecting on the night he banished his demons and breathed fresh life into his career, 27-year-old Till speaks candidly of conquering anxiety and learning from failure.
“I felt like I’d conquered my own personal mountain inside my head – something I think a lot of people are too scared to do, something people don't have the chance to do”.
“I’ve conquered the big scary mountain that I was afraid of, and after that, it was about building myself back up.
“It was a big weight off my mind. [It taught me] I can conquer anything. I can come back from 10 losses. I can come back from defeat in life. It made me a lot stronger that fight. That fight taught me a lot about myself.”
Now, on the eve of another defining moment against Whittaker, Till is thriving under the pressure of bringing Fight Island to a close.
“After my last fight, I’m content and I’m in a happy place, and I’ve trained really hard,” he said. “I’ve put in the work and the rounds, and I’m going to go in there and fight happy.
“I can’t wait. Time’s ticking. I count every minute down.”
In a profession where scrutiny and attention is unrelenting, Till speaks dispassionately about coping with the pressures associated with being an elite-level sports star.
“I believe we all do have demons and mountains to climb, mostly inside our own heads,” he said.
“Every single individual, whether they say it or not, is trying to conquer something inside their head and trying to overcome something, whether it be fear or whatever. They’re all on their own path, their own journey. It’s all individual experiences.
“It’s a tough thing to understand, the mind.”
In confident mood ahead of his second taste of a stacked middleweight division, Till feels he will put himself at the front of the queue for a title shot if he beats Whittaker.
Gastelum, his last victim, went the distance with title holder Israel Adesanya and the man known as ‘The Gorilla’ believes a shot at ‘The Last Stylebender’ is the next natural step in his career.
“If I beat Whittaker I don’t want to hear any other name come out of anyone’s mouth apart from Israel Adesanya,” he said.
Reborn after reconciling the lowest period of his career, a rejuvenated Till is ready to make a huge statement as Fight Island draws to a close.
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