Darren Till’s young life was at a crossroads between danger and glory, writes James Dielhenn, when the UFC should have debuted in his home city.
Years later it is Till, survivor of a near-death experience and recently home from a life-altering hiatus abroad, who has tempted the UFC into Liverpool for the first time. He knows it should never have been him.
The gritty postcodes of Liverpool spawned a steady flow of UFC fighters a decade ago, when Till was a teenager with a dream that threatened to veer down the wrong road. He was stabbed, sent to live and train in remote Brazil by a trainer worried about his welfare, and watched the first wave of Liverpool fighters fall short of capitalising on the city’s hunger for professional fighting.
“You’ll never find another city like it, honestly,” Till told Sky Sports. He is from Delamore Street in Walton, an area that has experienced knife and gun crime this year, and retains the inherent proudness of his home city that is typical of Liverpudlians.
“There’s no place like Liverpool. I grew up in a rough area – I haven’t had a hard upbringing, I will never cry that I had it bad. But it was rough – there were gangs, violence, crime. It was tough. Being a kid we were robbing sweets from the shop, throwing eggs at cars. That’s what we did.
“Dress sense, music, girls, lads – we’re all into the same thing. We see someone like a Tony Bellew or a Darren Till and millions of people get behind them.”
Before the UFC boom, the city produced fighters with a cult following including Paul Sass, Terry Etim and Paul Taylor. They trained out of a Liverpool gym called Kaobon, which Till first entered as an adolescent with an attitude, run by trainer Colin Heron – the type of brutal, no-nonsense Sensei-figure that fades into the shadow behind every great fighter.
“The first time I saw Darren spar, I threw him in at the deep end with guys who were already UFC fighters,” Heron told Sky Sports. “They gave him a really hard time. He got dropped, got back up, never gave up. He had everything I was looking for – not just talent, but also grit and toughness.”
Till grimaces when he remembers those days.
“I knew what they wanted to do to me,” he said. “But I knew what I wanted to do to them. Proper tear ups. If you’re knocking someone out, Colin loves it. If you’re getting knocked out, Colin loves it.
“He doesn’t need to hold anyone back. If you can’t handle it, leave the gym. I’ve seen a lot of people leave. It’s do or die, few people can do this.”
Heron’s life has been dedicated to martial arts. He competed in the 80s, fascinated by what might happen if a boxer was grabbed by a wrestler, the same curiosity that all of MMA’s great minds had. He now teaches everyone from kids to professionals at his Kaobon gym.
“Known? He’s feared by everyone,” Till says about his trainer. “He’s the hardest man I know. Anyone who says different is a liar. He’s got few friends and few enemies because he doesn’t get involved with anyone.”
You wouldn’t immediately know, but it’s probably wise not to test Till’s theory.
“I don’t know anything different. This is what I’ve done all my life,” Heron said.
“In the 70s and 80s Liverpool was the No 1 place in the world for karate, believe it or not. We were beating the Japanese in their own country.
“I lead by example. If I expect my fighter to dedicate and make sacrifice, I do it too. I have a partially amputated finger yet I bandage it up, and still hold pads. I’m prepared to sacrifice things so I expect them to do the same.
“I remember the first time I saw Darren. I’d heard about a talented kid so I went to see what the fuss was about.
“I wanted to see what he was like mentally. I’m not prepared to spoil people with my time. If they commit, come to the gym, do what their told, then they earn my attention. They appreciate it.”
Till is doting about Heron, and recalls: “I didn’t think Colin liked me, when we first met. He shouted at me, didn’t give me attention. But he saw that I kept coming back trying to hurt his guys in the gym. Nowadays, I’m his guy.”
Their closeness makes it more remarkable that Heron recommended a teenage Till leave Liverpool for Brazil, where he knew a trustworthy trainer and a safe gym, and where the young fighter could leave behind the dangers of his home city.
“He was only 10 minutes from trouble in Liverpool,” Heron said. “I had to distance him, and put him in a positive space where he could see things from afar. He analysed his own life, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him.”
Till lived humbly in seaside city Balneario Camboriu after months of difficulty as a stranger in a strange land.
“I was on the phone every day – giving advice, strength and psychology,” said Heron.
Till trained, improved, and self-taught himself the local tongue. His daughter still lives locally. It led to the unique career trajectory where his first 13 MMA fights, including his UFC debut, took place in South America. He won the lot, memorably thanking the Brazilian crowd in perfect Portuguese after his UFC adventure began three years ago.
Till’s fight against Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson is his first pro fight in the UK. It is reminiscent of the UFC’s decision to visit Dublin in 2014 to cater to Conor McGregor’s uprising.
Till expects friends and supporters to come en masse from Brazil to Liverpool. His trainer from Kaobon, Heron, will join forces with Marcelo Brigadeiro, who taught him in Brazil, in his corner.
“This is what Colin has worked for for 20 years,” Till said, beaming. “This event isn’t mine, it’s for Colin. He means everything to me.
“He’s the most important person in this world. When I win the world title, it’s getting given to him. He can put it on his mantelpiece and he can do whatever he wants with it. He can throw it away, if he wants. It’s his belt, not my belt.”
That comment brought a rare chuckle out of Heron: “It definitely won’t be going in the bin!”
Till continued: “I trust everything about Colin. He’s a nasty person, he’s dry. Not many people like Colin. But he’s like me – truthful, honest, won’t go behind your back. If you leave £1000 in my house I’ll give it back. Colin sees I’m loyal and trustworthy and we’ve created a relationship like no other.
“I go to Colin for everything. If I want to buy something I ask Colin. If I want to do something I ask Colin. Not always do I follow his advice, and he knows that, but he advises me. He never does anything for his own benefit.”
The respect is mutual.
“He’s family to me,” Heron said. “My primary concern is Darren and his health. Is he OK? Has he gone to bed? Is he eating right? There’s not a day where I don’t think about him. I suppose that’s what a dad does, isn’t it?
“I’m the only person who can tell him off. I’m the first person he turns to. If he’s been a naughty boy, I’m the person who reprimands him.”
Does Heron worry that Till’s teenage troubles might return?
“Those worries are in the back of your mind,” he said. “It’s a small city, but I trust his judgement.”
The city will be united behind the unbeaten 25-year-old Till when he welcomes ‘Wonderboy’, the No 1 ranked contender in the welterweight division.
“There’s a hero in Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, and I want to be like him. I want to be a fighting hero. I’ve never even fought in England but now I’m fighting in Liverpool, and it’s built around me. It’s the Darren Till show.
“When they write things in 200 years about fighting they’ll write about Darren Till, top of the list.
“I owe this city.”