Darren Till Could be UFC's Next British Star
Till's matchup against Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 118 could be the launching pad for his career.
Donald Cerrone is the UFC's workhorse. Short notice replacement needed for a high profile fight? If it's within twenty pounds of his weight, Cerrone will be clamoring for the chance to step in. His short notice appearances have earned him a deserved reputation as a badass with the fans, and the fact that he often finishes fights spectacularly helps too. The frequency with which he fights allows Cerrone to put together streaks of wins—once as long as eight fights—over respected competitors, and on the rare occasion when Cerrone loses you know that you had better sit up and take notice of the man who has bested him.
That is why this weekend's matchup between Donald Cerrone and Darren Till has the fight aficionados chattering. Darren Till has looked great in all but one round of his UFC career, but he has not fought anyone even nearing Cerrone's notoriety. That isn't to say his record has been padded out with hobos and postmen, but there are the known names of the welterweight division, and then there are those who haven't quite made it yet. A victory against Donald Cerrone would would make Till's one of the names fight fans know.
Donald Cerrone is the known commodity in this bout. The fact that he fights so often and seems to care little about his opponent means that there is a lot of film available on him, and he doesn't tend to look very different from fight to fight. Standing at six feet tall, Cerrone was a towering lightweight and while at welterweight Cerrone is no longer a giant, the majority of the division is still punching up at him. Cerrone started in the WEC with a low kick and not much else, but through his years in MMA he has rounded out one of the most versatile striking arsenals you will see.
Cerrone is at his best when he is matched against an opponent who will give ground under fire. In mixed martial arts, where retreat is the go-to defensive motion, that includes the vast majority of opponents. If an opponent never steps inside of his arms, Cerrone is set to have a perfect night. Cerrone will pump his hands and run into low kicks which quickly take the fight out of his opponents' hands. If they stand still inside his kicking range, he will hoof in the front snap kick to the solar plexus and wind them with little chance of a return. And at any point the switch kick to the head can fly up and add another knockout to Cerrone's considerable highlight reel.
The problem that has haunted Cerrone through his career is crowding: when opponents step in on him his loopy punching form and long limbs leave much space to shoot inside. Cerrone and his team have done an excellent job of trying to mitigate this on multiple fronts. First his footwork has improved and he treats opponents with respect even if he is beating them silly at range. Cerrone is always aggressive but he has done a better job of staying out of trading range with his feet in recent years. If mid-range cannot be avoided, Cerrone has added some weapons to make him more dangerous in that theater of combat—most notably some nice elbows and a gorgeous intercepting knee. That knee has often proved to be the momentum changer in a fight in recent years and it often seems as if Cerrone is waiting to time it just to put the fear of it into his man.
While Robbie Lawler was able to crowd Cerrone and open up with his hands at points in their fight, and ultimately took the decision, Cerrone also showed some nice traditional clinch striking and continuous work with his knees and elbows inside the clinches. Often there is this idea that short range is the stockier man's territory, but Jon Jones's mastery of elbows in recent years has shown that if you aren't limiting yourself to Queensberry rule,s a lanky man needn't feel uncomfortable in trading range. Mind you, Jorge Masvidal wasn't giving up much height or reach to Cerrone and did a terrific job of wedging himself down the middle of Cerrone's guard. When Cerrone swung, Masvidal jabbed inside it.
When Cerrone kicked, Masvidal would pick up his lead leg and drive himself in to jab again. When Cerrone's favorite switch kick came out, Masvidal parried it across his body and counter punched for the knockout.
While he hasn't looked to be slowing down and his last fight was closely contested, this is the first time in Cerrone's lengthy career that he finds himself on a two-fight losing streak. A third might have fans asking questions about whether the long-time contender has much left in the tank.
If straight shooting down the center is a Cerrone weakness, Darren Till might turn out to be a horrible match up for him. While Till's rate of activity is generally pretty low, he is one of those fighters that makes it count when he does decide to strike. A southpaw, Till's left straight is his money punch and he can land it from all sorts of positions. Often Till will land the left straight as an intercepting or simultaneous counter, when the opponent is stepping in to strike or kick.
Other times he will cut angle out to his left as the opponent punches at him and weave the left straight in from the open side. This is the counter that Stephen Thompson and Conor McGregor love so much.
Fighting on the lead while keeping a very low pace can be difficult but Till is one of the very few fighters in mixed martial arts using feints consistently and effectively. Here he demonstrates a favorite of Benny 'The Jet' Urquidez, feinting the straight to shuffle up into a second straight.
And here he shows the same thing with a feinted jab before it, this time against another southpaw, which can make landing the left straight more difficult.
Defensively, Till seems to have taken his Muay Thai very seriously. The pulling straight back from attacks and mugging in between his opponent's misses is something you will recognize from many great Nak Muay, even if at times it comes off as an awkward Saenchai impression. Till will occasionally show a smooth pivot but most of his defensive work is retreating from range, or advancing to the clinch as his opponent moves forward. From there Till looks for those classic Muay Thai style foot sweeps which Matt Brown popularized in mixed martial arts.
Darren Till brings several elements to the table which seem as though they could spell trouble for Donald Cerrone. The long left straight down the center of Cerrone's often porous defense could prove a treat, and the counter left straight as Cerrone steps up to kick might be just as useful. Limiting the pace of the fight can encourage overcommitments from a higher output fighter like Cerrone. Secondly Till, once again a southpaw, is a constant threat with the left kick to the body. He hasn't knocked anyone out off it in the UFC but it is always there, and against Cerrone in particular that is an issue. Even kicking through the arm, opponents have paralyzed Cerrone by getting to his infamous "glass tummy" with some force. Till has also timed some lovely step in knees against his opponents both on the counter and when pressuring them along the fence. Any time he can get to Cerrone's body, it would probably be wise to.
Checking and evading low kicks in MMA is largely an afterthought and the common response of retreating from strikes means that Cerrone will often just pump his hands to run into his kicks. Till is in the game of retracting the lead leg and letting his opponent fall just short, or taking the low kick and catching it. Given how well Masvidal was able to counter off Cerrone's kicks once he had absorbed the momentum, Till might look to crowd Cerrone and draw out a predictable kick.
Watching Donald Cerrone fight a young gun who is so proud of his Muay Thai adds another layer of intrigue because at welterweight Cerrone has shown himself to be far more willing to sneak in a takedown and work from top position early on—much to the surprise of many of his opponents.
Cerrone's ground game and wrestling are often under-rated but to improve his chances of getting the takedown on Till, who keeps a good distance at all times, Cerrone would do well to move him towards the cage. Till's straight retreats and withdrawals from kicks often see him run onto the fence at points in his bouts, but so far few of his opponents have taken advantage of this.
Whenever a young fighter is taking a big step up in level of opposition, gas tank is a factor. Forced into a hard fight with Nicolas Dalby, Till went from the abuser to the abused in the last round as he stood still with his hands low as Dalby glanced him with high kicks. This fight is a five rounder and if Cerrone can make him work even in a grueling clinch battle for three of those rounds, Till's gas tank had better be much more full than it was against Dalby. Not only is a long fight unfamiliar territory, and Cerrone a stiffer test than anyone Till has fought previously, Till put himself through a severe weight cut to make welterweight and missed weight by five pounds in his May 2017 fight against Jessin Ayari. So often when we talk about youth vs. experience, experience tends to have the upper hand over the longer haul. With that being said, Cerrone hasn't been beyond the third round since 2009. He's trained for a whole heap of five rounders but he usually gets to the showers early.
You can normally identify a correlation between how excited you are about a fight and how many questions it raises. Cerrone-Till has so many angles to it that you could mull over the fight and convince yourself that either man could win any number of ways. The rest of the UFC Gdansk card is standard procedure for a European card—not a lot of names or important fights because the show was set to sell out in minutes anyway—but that headliner alone is enough to guarantee the attention of those who like a good tear-up.
Pick up Jack's book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor .