Rangy Southpaw, Darren Till, will face off with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, this Saturday (July 25, 2020) at UFC on ESPN 14 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Can Till be back if he never really left? Sure, the 27-year-old Englishman had a rough pair of back-to-back losses, but they came to his division’s champion and 2019’s “Fighter of the Year” runner up, Jorge Masvidal. Till was largely written off as a result, and most expected Kelvin Gastelum to pulverize him in his Middleweight debut. Instead, Till rebounded with a smart showing, utilizing his range and defense to really limit Gastelum’s success. It wasn’t a barn-burner, but it was enough to immediately introduce Till to the upper echelon of Middleweight competition and set him up for a main event slot.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Till has always been an interesting case because he’s a long-time Muay Thai trainee who stands more like a Karate fighter. His side-on stance and intercepting left hands simply scream Karate, but that’s not to say Till has completely abandoned his Muay Thai roots.
Considering Till’s victory over Gastelum really boiled down to low kicks and clinch work, it was perhaps his most Muay Thai-like performance in years. At distance, Till flashed the jab and occasionally stepped in with a real one-two combination, but mostly he chopped the leg. When Gastelum kicked back, Till twice managed to catch the leg in very Thai style, once landing an elbow and scoring a brief takedown as well.
Till’s use of the clinch in that bout was really intelligent. Whenever Gastelum tried to step forward and throw hands, Till would lower his level and try to catch the inside of Gastelum’s arms. Getting inside helped secure good position to start the clinch, and Till was also drive his forehead into the jaw immediately. As a result, he was often able to break quickly with a left hand or left elbow.
In most bouts, Till is patient and looks to get a read on his opponent. He’ll feint, shoot out some kicks, and jab at the hands a bit, but he’ll commonly back away from exchanges until he has a solid grasp on his opponent’s approach and style.
Once Till is comfortable, he’ll begin playing with that distance. For example, Till commonly leans his head forward, which gives his opponents the impression that Till is within punching distance. When they find out he isn’t, a quick pull back and left cross down the middle is often there to greet his advancing foe. Between long kicks and that step back cross, Till routinely traps his opponent on the outside and leaves him hesitant to push forward.
Between pitching a sharp cross from a strong angle and pulling to throw it as a counter, Till routinely finds a home for his left hand. Till also does a nice job of mixing his right jab into his offense, alternating between tossing out a jab to the gloves and firing one down the middle. He’ll then switch to a hand trap into a cross, a great way to land the strike (GIF).
Opposite Cerrone, Till did an amazing job of mixing up the angle on his left hand. After landing it straight down the middle, Till began to loop his left around the guard, fire it in something of a shovel hook, or throw a more standard uppercut. Even though most of his combinations were jab-left hand or feint-left hand, Cerrone had an insanely difficult time defending because of how the left continued to sneak in from different angles (GIF).
Till also makes great use of the classic Southpaw double threat: The left hand and left kick. Till’s cross is crisp and his kicks heavy, so both strikes must be respected.
While the two strikes play off each other brilliantly, Till takes it further than that. Aside from simply feinting one to set up the other, Till will feint his left hand or kick in order to take a small step towards his opponent. Suddenly, that extra few inches that caused his opponent to miss is now erased, while Till has a clear path to punch a foe potentially frozen from a feint.
Aside from the left kick at range, Till deserves some credit for his lead leg side kick, which worked to great effect opposite Thompson (GIF). Till timed Thompson’s bounces forward, catching him with weight on the leg and doing real damage to the knee joint.
One part of Till’s game that is distinctly Muay Thai is his use of elbows. While stalking his opponent, Till commonly reaches out and hand fights. Pulling down on his foe’s hand, Till will fold over his arm into an elbow strike. Against Velickovic, Till also controlled his foe’s lead hand then stepped in with a massive left elbow (GIF).
Till’s defense looked real sharp against Gastelum, but he does have a history of pulling straight backward with his head up high as well, which makes for a fun target for looping punches. In addition, Till struggles to check low kicks from his current stance., something Gastelum did pick up on midway through the fight.
Offensively, Till has looked for his own takedowns a couple of times. Opposite Wendell Oliveira, for example, Till showed how striking defense and wrestling tie in together. Oliveira was swinging wildly and trying to catch the taller man with a looping shot, so Till adjusted by remaining planted and looking to slip. He repeatedly caught Oliveira with underhooks — similar to the aforementioned Gastelum performance — and ultimately took top position when Oliveira attempted desperate throws.
In a more proactive example, Till used an overhook and hand control opposite Jessin Ayari to show his Muay Thai experience. He waited for Ayari to throw a knee and then easily swept the remaining foot, taking top position without expending a bit of energy (GIF).
Lastly, Till’s violent elbows opposite Oliveira deserve a mention. His debut is also his only knockout win inside UFC prior to the “Cowboy” knockout, but it landed in style. From half guard, Till allowed his opponent to control his wrist and used that opportunity to fold over an elbow directly into the chin. It landed perfectly, and a follow up elbow or two sealed the deal (GIF).
Till’s defensive wrestling is pretty proven at this point, having largely denied the best attempts of Tyron Woodley and Kelvin Gastelum. His wide stance, dedicated measurement of distance, and the generally conservative nature of his kickboxing style means that Till rarely overexposes his hips to a shot. In addition, Till’s comfort and strength in the clinch mean that he’s quick to pull an opponent off his legs and into the upper body, where he’s quite difficult to move around.
It’s hard to get a full read on Till’s grappling game. On the regional scene, he showed a willingness to hunt for submissions from his back, but he was also fighting pretty mediocre competition at the time. Toe hold and inverted triangle submission wins are certainly cool, but it’s hard to tell much from them until he actually grapples with top competition.
Defensively, Till hasn’t looked good from his back, but he’s also never been put there while fresh. Till was fatigued with a broken arm against Nicholas Dalby, which is a pretty good excuse for getting beat up on the mat. Meanwhile, Woodley never managed to take down Till, but he did drop him with an absolute hammer of a right and then smash him with a dozen follow-up elbows.
It’s a lot easier to succumb to a d’arce choke when barely conscious already.
For whatever it’s worth, Till did utilize a nice butterfly guard to nullify Gastelum’s momentary takedown near the end of their bout. Gastelum timed a double leg well, but as the pair fell to the mat, Till elevated him with butterfly hooks. This created enough space for him to dig an underhook and get a foot beneath himself, allowing Till to stand up instantly.
Till is back in the win column and ready to make a run for the title once more, but he’s faced with a serious task ahead of him. Whittaker is absolutely an elite fighter, so if “Gorilla” is able to gain the upper hand and earn the win, there can be zero doubt that Till himself is among the best in the world.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 14 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.