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UFC London: As Darren Till begins his journey back to welterweight title contention, can the Gorilla go all the way in 2019?

Liverpool’s favourite fighting son came up short in his first attempt at the 170lb championship last year – but a win over Jorge Masvidal this weekend could catapult Till right back into the frame.

It felt like a whirlwind 18 months watching on from afar as Darren Till rampaged through the welterweight rankings before landing a maiden title shot against Tyron Woodley in September last year.

But for those who have been following the 26-year-old closely in recent years, Till’s blazing ascent came as no surprise.

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Even prior to his debut in the promotion - a second round knockout of of Wendell de Oliveira at Fight Night Goiania in May 2015 - Till had begun to prick the ears of MMA fans around the world.

However, his journey to the top is not one that is likely to be repeated by a British sports star any time soon.

Born and raised in Walton, Liverpool, a teenage Till rose through the ranks in Muay Thai before joining MMA talent factory Team Kaobon, emerging as one of the most promising talents in the gym under the tutelage of coach Colin Heron.

Ambitions to emulate the heroes with which he shared the mat, the likes of Terry Etim and Paul Sass, by joining the UFC soon followed.

But away from the gym, the 19-year-old struggled to separate himself from the hardships of a violent neighbourhood, culminating in an almost fatal incident in a city centre nightclub.

Till was stabbed twice in the back after intervening in an altercation, escaping death by the smallest of margins with one wound narrowly missing an artery by a single millimetre.

"I was training a lot but mixing with the wrong crowd. I was in a nightclub and I got stabbed, I spent time in the hospital, chatted with my coach [who told me] 'if you want to continue fighting you've got to get focused',” Till told ESPN last year.

"If the knife had hit the nerve - it was 1mm away - I'd have bled to death. It hasn't made me the guy I am today, it just showed me that life can be taken away from you really quickly.”

Following the attack, Till was advised to move more than 6,000 miles away, to the southern Brazilian city of Balneario Camboriu, to focus on his training with former Kaobon coach Marcelo Brigadiero.

“Back then, it could have been my night to die there. Coach Colin said 'go there and when the time is ready I'll tell you to come back'. I just believe everything he says, so I went the week later,” Till continued.

"'Go to Brazil [he said] and let's see what can happen'. He trusted me to come back a UFC fighter."

Chief among Till’s greatest weapons is a hydraulic left hand, delivered with spite and venom from a southpaw stance – but many believe it is his mentality that sets him apart from his peers.

Arriving in Brazil as a teenager, unable to speak the language and with barely a coin to his name, Till’s dedication and drive was tested to the utmost.

"It was overwhelming because I didn't know when I was coming back," he said.

"I was in an apartment on my own. No one spoke English, so it was really hard to order food and go to the supermarket - I realised I had to learn the language.

"I made a list about daily routine: Eat, gym, study Portuguese on Google translate, go training in the night and come back and do the same thing.”

Within months, Till had not only grasped the language but commanded the respect of his team-mates, learning to adapt quickly in a gym full of high level submission artists and grapplers.

An excursion that had been intended to last just six months ended up lasting more than three-and-a-half years as Till racked up an impressive undefeated record in South American MMA to earn a contract with the UFC.

Injury subsequently curtailed his progress after a dislocated shoulder in the third round of his 2015 draw against Nicolas Dalby left him needing surgery, leaving Till out of action for almost two years.

He used the lay-off to move his camp back to the UK, returning to his hometown for the first time since turning professional – and, following a lengthy rehabilitation, results rewarded him almost instantly.

Till burst back onto the scene at UFC Stockholm in 2017, clobbering Jessin Ayari for three rounds in dominant fashion before repeating the feat with a shutout win over Bojan Veličković less than four months later.

His successes in the Octagon were amplified by his magnetic persona, providing the UFC with their next star-in-the-making at a time in which the absences of the likes of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey had begun to be keenly felt.

A debut main event slot against veteran Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone soon followed – and Till duly delivered a striking masterclass, toying with the former title challenger before stopping him in the first round.

His reward proved to be one of the proudest moments of his career, convincing UFC bosses to relocate a planned event in Dublin, Ireland, to Liverpool – the first time the promotion had held an event in the city.

Till had made no secret of his desire to face fellow striking technician Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson on the card, knowing that victory over the two-time welterweight title challenger would catapult him into the reckoning for a shot at UFC gold.

And he got his wish after Wonderboy accepted the invitation to fight in front of a frenzied crowd of more than 8,500 at the Echo Arena in Liverpool.

The bout proved to be a far more technical affair than many anticipated with both fighters clearly relishing the opportunity to test their stand-up skills against an equally talented counterpart – but it was Till who received the nod after a cagey five-round affair, despite struggling to make weight for the bout.

Speaking immediately after the fight, Till campaigned against being fast-tracked into a title shot, telling Dan Hardy: “I missed weight, so I don’t feel I deserve a title shot anyway.

“So there you go, right away. I don’t deserve it. I feel like Stephen deserves it.

”I still want to beat them all in the division.

“I want to come back and put that weight thing behind me. ... I’m ashamed. I am a professional, and I’m a big guy for the weight, and I’ve got to get it more under control. I’ve made weight before. I’ve just got to get it more under control now. Adversity, good or bad, I’ll take it.”

But within weeks, the decision was taken out of his hands and he received the call from the UFC to prepare for a crack at the then-king Tyron Woodley.

Legions of Liverpudlians roared Till into battle that night as he cruised into the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, at UFC 228 in September oozing confidence.

“I’ve always been a calm, relaxed fighter, but maybe I was too relaxed,” he told TalkSPORT earlier this week of his ill-fated title challenge.

“I was too confident in myself that I looked past [Tyron] Woodley and I shouldn’t have done – he’s one of the greatest fighters of all-time! In the changing rooms, I wasn’t really warming up. I was just, like, sat there waiting to go and take my belt and it shouldn’t be like that – you should be on edge. I wasn’t on edge.”

It was a poor showing from Till, who failed to land a single significant strike before being submitted in the second round by the 36-year-old champion in a performance he now admits will haunt him for the rest of his life.

But on Saturday night, the Scouse phenomenon will hope to take the first steps towards another title charge, headlining his fourth main event for the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion against fan favourite Jorge Masvidal.

The 34-year-old is a veteran of the MMA scene, learning his craft in the world of unregulated backyard brawls alongside early viral internet star Kimbo Slice before refining his skills to become a perennial contender in the UFC.

“Jorge is very real. He’s game and he’s a fighter to the core,” UFC commentator John Gooden told BTSport.com.

“The kind of conversations I have with guys like Jorge Masvidal are not conversations I have with many other fighters on the UFC roster. He just has a different level of experience. He has a worldliness about him when it comes to the fight game that not many people share.

“Sitting down with him has been interesting, he is ready. He has been light-hearted this week but at the same time, he’s hungry to get back in there.

“I don’t think he likes the way that the game has changed. He’s seeing a lot of people being quite insulting on social media, they’re using these new digital channels to try and get ahead in the fight game and it is working – and he doesn’t like that.

“He wants to become the champion and take it back to the old school way of earning your credibility - and he prides himself on being one of those OG’s of the fight game who, they really let their fists do the talking.”

Between Till’s fists and his own, the conversation will be one sure to entertain fans as the pair trade leather in the main event on Saturday night.

And with the prospect of a title shot looming large for the winner, the prize is certainly one worth fighting for.

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