Darren Till swaggered into the top flight of the UFC’s welterweight division when he beat fan favourite Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone – he’s no stranger to self-confidence but takes a surprisingly humble approach to training…
RSNG has come to London’s Fight City Gym to see how UFC welterweight Darren Till trains for the cage. Till entered the spotlight following his decisive bout in October 2017 when he demolished Donald Cerrone, via a ferocious technical knockout in the opening round. Darren ‘The Gorilla’ Till, the man Dana White called ‘The Future’ has the typical fighter’s build – strength combined with the agility needed to survive in the cage. As we’re in a gym, featuring a flighting mat, heavy bags and free weights, I think to ask Till what his preferred weight moves might be. ‘I don’t really do any of that shit,’ he replies.
The Liverpudlian is set to face the UFC’s top ranked welterweight, in Stephen Thompson, on May 27, so how does Till prepare his body and mind to put it all on the line? After all, being fighting fit is no good without unshakable confidence to back it up...
RSNG What does a training session look like for you? DARREN TILL, UFC WELTERWEIGHT ‘I come in and stretch the legs and upper body off for about ten minutes, then do 20 minutes of skipping. In between, every five minutes, we’ll do a set circuit of ten of each of press-up, squats, tuck jumps, burpees and reverse squats (you squat each side and you’re jumping as you squat) and we do that about four times.’
‘Then we will get straight in, we’ll belt up and get straight into pummelling: takedown, sprawl, takedown sprawl, pummel with each other then start to drill whatever that day would be; for instance drilling guillotines, 100 or even 200 of each, it depends on how long the coach wants to go on. From that we’ll start drilling a specific technique.’
‘After that we’ll roll maybe for and hour and ten minutes, and then at the end we’ll finish with circuits again to really get the heart pumping.
RSNG So, you don’t do any of the weight training that a lot of MMA fighters do? DT ‘I don’t believe that weights are such a good input in MMA; I don’t lift weights at all. It’s good to base your training around what you are actually going to do. So, if a runner is going to run a marathon then he needs to run. I just believe that an MMA fighter is fighting then he does not need to lift weights, or run as much as what he’s doing on the mat.’
‘Everything needs to be based around what you’re doing on the mat and the cage because you fight in the cage so that’s where your conditioning needs to be, whether it’s striking, grappling, wrestling or whatever. Everything needs to be based around what you do on the mat for your conditioning and cardio. And your muscle memory – I think the most important thing out of all that is muscle memory.’
RSNG Do you have an example of where you worked muscle memory as a counter for a specific fighter? DT ‘Take my first UFC fight; the guy was very strong and muscular. He was from Brazil and we knew he was going to try to keep me up against the cage and strength me down onto the floor, so we drilled a lot of hooking him under the biceps and lifting him up. That’s a strength drill but not doing it with weights, doing it with actual people – transferring it from the weights department into the actual, real fighting department.’
‘In the fight it’s all in the spur of the moment, so you don’t know you’re doing it at the time but you are because you’ve drilled it so much in the gym. That’s where the muscle memory kicks in and where you find it working in fights – if you’ve drilled something 1000 times then it’s going to work once in the cage.’
The world is about progression, that’s what we’re all here for – if you’re not progressing, then what are you doing?
RSNG Do you have an overarching training philosophy that you use to guide you? DT ‘You try to work on what you’re weak on. So if you are weak on the ground you work on the ground or weak standing up you work there. It’s good every day to work on your weaknesses. If you’ve got a specific weakness then just get it in your mind and drill it and drill it, and work it until it’s not a weakness no more. The world is about progression, I think that’s what we’re all here for. If you’re not progressing, then what are you doing?’
RSNG Your training load must be high – how important is recovery? DT ‘I train for 40 hours a week – we train twice on Saturdays as well. Sometimes you can be tired one day and the coach will say, “Listen just rest, and train tonight.” Recovery is the most important thing. If you wake up on a day and you feel physically destroyed then I’d advise resting – go and get an ice bath, chill for the whole day, eat something to get some energy. Sometimes it can’t hurt to have a full day off.’
RSNG How important is mental strength in the cage? DT** ‘It’s 90% of fighting. You need to have a strong mind to get through the rigorous training, every day is hard. You need to have a good mind to eat healthy, to fight, you can never switch of even for a day. You can’t think: “Oh today I’m just going to have a lazy day, I’m not really in the mood.” You’ve always got to have that motivation coming from somewhere.’
RSNG Right, so where do you get your motivation from? DT ‘I just get it from loving training. I love being in the gym, working hard and knowing that I am working on weaknesses, and people are showing me weaknesses. I just love working to make everything perfect – I’m sort of a perfectionist in a sense. I love being in the gym and being put through may paces to gradually get to a point where I think: “Good.”’
RSNG What’s the best piece of training advice you’ve ever had? DT ‘I remember my coach telling me: “Never think you know it all. Never think you get to a point and you’ll know everything.” I think there’s always going to be someone in any place in the world who is going to show you something different, and show you one of your weaknesses.’
‘That’s why MMA is so interesting because there is always going to be someone out there who is going to fight you and show you a weakness of yours. You can’t stay undefeated in MMA, people think you can – it’s hard. It’s possible but just don’t ever get to a point where you think you know it all, and you can be your own boss in training and you know better. You’ve always got to have someone telling you that you don’t know it all and to put you in your place – that’s important.’
You can get knocked out, you can be chocked. You can get arms, legs sapped. You can break your spine. There are a lot of ways to get hurt and lose
RSNG You’re a former kickboxer – how hard is it to combine all of the MMA disciplines? DT ‘It’s hard – that’s why MMA is the hardest sport in the world, I think. It’s not even a sport, it’s fighting, because there are so many ways to lose. You can get knocked out, you can get elbowed, you can get your face split open, you can be choked. You can get arms, legs sapped. You can get taken down, you can break your spine. There are a lot of ways to get hurt and lose.’
‘For anyone to be at the top of the UFC, then you’ve got to be getting something right. I feel like I do it right every day. I train to the best of my ability and you’ve just got to focus on the weaknesses – that’s the biggest part. Don’t play to your strengths, play to your weaknesses.’
RSNG No doubt pro level training is tough, have there ever been points where you wondered if you could carry on? DT ‘There was one point in a training camp where I just wasn’t getting stuff right and things were not going my way. I was getting injuries, I felt sluggish and tired. One day I remember just saying to myself: “What the fuck am I doing all this for? Why? Should I quit?” I had two days of thinking should I quit? But everyone has those days, it’s not just me.’
‘I think everyone goes through that point and if you haven’t then you must be very mentally strong or lying to yourself.But I’ve had a few points where I have thought: “Is it really what I want?”
RSNG How did you get through that? DT ‘Just remembering why I started. I started to be the best so I don’t want to just give up halfway through. Then it would all have been for nothing, all the hard work. And then what would I be doing? Would I be in a job that I wouldn’t like, would I be doing something I didn’t enjoy? The only thing I really enjoy in this life is fighting, so you get through it. You sort of talk to yourself and make yourself mentally stronger – well I do anyway.’
I never obsess about the opponent, I obsess about myself – am I going to do it?
RSNG Why do you like it so much? DT ‘Fighting is just such a different sport. It sort of defines who’s the main man, who’s the best, who can beat everyone? You can’t argue with the result, it’s not a thing of luck. There can be luck involved but it’s a margin do you know what I mean? There’s more skill involved than luck – who’s the hardest man in the world? That’s why.’
RSNG What do you want to have won in the next two years? DT ‘My ambitions in the next two years? My goal right now is to be the champion in the Welterweight division of the UFC. That’s what I want.’
RSNG What’s the biggest obstacle to you achieving that? DT ‘Myself. I can do it, I want to do it. Am I prepared to go through all of those training camps, am I prepared to fight all of these top guys, am I prepared to lose and bounce back, am I prepared to have setbacks? It’s not all just going forwards, you have setbacks. I know this is a cliche but if you can fight with yourself, make yourself so mentally strong that there’s no other obstacle, it’s all about you and what you do, forget them. You’ve got to do it, there’s no one else that can do it for you.’
RSNG So, you don’t obsess about who you’re about to fight then? DT ‘I never obsess about the opponent, I obsess about myself. Am I going to do it? I don’t really care about the opponent. Have I done everything I could have done to be in the best physical shape and the best mental state of my life?’
RSNG What’s been your proudest moment in the cage? DT ‘My proudest moment was when I had my shoulder surgery and I had a 18-month lay off, and then I came back after a lot of people said I wouldn’t make a return. I made a return and beat one of the top prospects in the UFC. That was my proudest moment. I fought against myself and won.’
‘Every fight I fight always goes the way I expect because I dream it into a reality and I believe so much that it’s going to go the way that I want, that it does. For three rounds I dominated and I won easily – I don’t want to disrespect anyone but I won easily.’
‘I do that a lot but in the fight it sometimes goes differently but I am always prepared for those options. I know that whatever happens in the fight I am going to win.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Darren Till’s post-fight interview following his win against Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone to hear what self-belief sounds like…
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Main image by Matt Ray