LAS VEGAS -- It's the final week of Darren Till's first UFC championship fight camp, and there's an interesting dynamic playing out between two opposites.
Outside the cage, there is a sophisticated, round-the-clock effort taking place to make Till as small as possible. Or, to be more accurate, as light as possible. Till competes in the UFC's 170-pound division, but you wouldn't know that by looking at him. He's 6-foot-1 and usually weighs more than 200 pounds. Ring announcers introduce him as "The Gorilla." Getting him to championship weight is a science. His nutritionist is with him at all times and carries a black notebook filled with scribbled equations that look like algebra homework. Pages of data on sodium levels, potassium intake, water consumption.
Inside the cage, however, it's the exact opposite. Even at this tired, depleted stage of his camp, it somehow appears as if Till is always ... growing.
Physically speaking, Till, 25, is used to holding a size advantage because of the weight he cuts, but there's more to it than that. Even an untrained eye can sense it. Till's presence unmistakably swells when the cage door shuts. His coach, Colin Heron, refers to it simply as "making yourself big." Obviously, Till does not literally grow in size when a fight breaks out -- but damn if it doesn't feel that way.
"That's something we've consciously worked on, and Darren has always understood it," Heron says. "I can remember the morning I taught him what I meant by 'make yourself big.' When someone has nowhere to go, there's only one option left, and that's panic. Panic brings a strike they don't want to make or a takedown they don't want to do -- and then you capitalize. Darren is a master of that."
Mike Grundy, one of Till's oldest teammates and sparring partners at Team Kaobon in Liverpool, says it's hard to put into words.
"It's like, he pushes you in the cage without touching you."
That's one force at play, but the other is equally as important. Till has missed weight twice in his UFC career, and there is plenty of outside concern he'll do it again.
During this last week of camp, he's trained multiple times per day, fueled only by three small, low-carb meals and a few snacks. That nutritionist with the notebook, Eoghan Gallagher, strategically arranges Till's meals to appear bigger than they actually are, for psychological effect. Considerations are put into the size and weight of the bowl his food comes in. And when fight week hits, the diet will restrict even more.
These are sacrifices Till is willing to make for the opportunity to defeat Tyron Woodley at UFC 228 on Saturday in Dallas and finally become a UFC welterweight champion. Considering what he's already sacrificed to get here, the weight seems relatively manageable.
And as long as he does make weight, concerns about his size will quickly give way to speculation and excitement about his future. Because the million-dollar question about Till, as he goes into his first UFC title fight, shouldn't be, 'Is he too big?' The real question is, 'How big can Darren Till get?'"
"Triggers" are what Heron calls them -- and they are a critical part of his coaching philosophy. They are the individual keys he uses to unlock potential in each of his students.
"It's a long process to develop that," Heron says. "I need to see every fighter at his worst. I need to see him at his best. I need to see him when his gum shield is hanging out of his mouth and he can't get off the floor. I also need to see him when he's having fun, how he's stimulated. We all generally work together, obviously, but I've got to give each fighter his trigger."
Heron was a teenager when he began coaching combat sports, and he's now accumulated more than 35 years of experience. He's happy to share that knowledge with any fighter who walks into his gym, as long as he feels that fighter is deserving of it. This brings us to the first time Colin Heron met Darren Till.
Till first introduced himself to Heron and Team Kaobon in 2010. He was 17 and had competed in muay Thai tournaments around the world, but he was looking for something more. Heron had seen tape on him before he came into the gym and knew he could fight. What he needed to know was how badly he wanted to fight.
"I put him in with Terry Etim, who was in the UFC at the time. Etim dropped him three times in the first round," Heron recalls. "Till kept getting up. I put him with someone else, he got dropped again. He had a horrible night. I said, 'OK, let's see if the kid comes back.' I could see it in his eyes that he would. You could see the anger in him. He wanted revenge.
"If you come to me at a high level and want me to invest 35 years of experience in you -- things that I was never taught but had to learn through my own experience -- that comes at a price. Prove to me you're worthy of it, that you're dedicated and loyal. You do that, I'll give you all of it, no problem; but you have to earn it."
Till eventually joined the team and even moved into a dormitory located in the back of the gym. It was as good situation, but Heron worried about him constantly. Heron describes Liverpool as a beautiful city, but one in which trouble is "always five minutes away." Especially for someone like Till, whom Heron recognized as volatile.
In 2012, Till was stabbed twice in a bar fight. Heron went to the hospital and told him it was time to get out of Liverpool. They'd discussed it before, and it was time to act. Heron had a relationship with a fight team in Brazil. It offered Till a place to live and train, away from distraction. The same day he checked out of the hospital, Till was on a flight out of England.
"I remember speaking to Colin and saying, 'I want to be a champion,'" Till says. "He said, 'Right at this moment, you need to be more focused. I want you to go to Brazil for a few years. You'll come back, but go for a few years. I want you to work on other aspects of your life.' Everything he's told me, I've always done. I didn't second guess him. I just went straightaway."
Before Till left, the two made a promise to speak on the phone every day. So every afternoon, Heron's phone would ring with Till on the other end. Shortly after he had settled in, Heron challenged Till over the phone.
"Who's the best grappler in the gym?" Heron asked. "Tomorrow, you're going to go there and give him hell. You're going to let him know you're the best now. Then you're going to ring me and tell me. Don't ring me if you haven't done it."
Next day, usual time, Heron's phone rang.
"I done it," Till said. "I done it. Great session."
"Did you win?"
"Yeah, I won."
"OK. Now you're the best."
From that moment on, every call across the Atlantic ended the same way.
"I made him repeat his name and what he was going to achieve," Heron says. "I'd say, 'Who are ya?' And he'd say, 'I'm Darren Till. I'm going to be the UFC welterweight champion of the world.' I'd make him scream that three times into the phone, every single day."
It took more than three years, but eventually Heron was satisfied. Till had thrown himself into a foreign country, learned the native language and even become a coach at the gym. He'd met a Brazilian girl and fathered a daughter. He knew what it meant to be hungry and to have responsibility. Heron heard wisdom in his voice, at the age of 23.
Christmas Day 2016, an ecstatic Till set foot in Liverpool for the first time since he'd left. And through it all, he'd amassed a professional record of 13-0-1 and signed a UFC contract.
To this point, the majority of Till's UFC career has been a steady progression toward stardom. Perhaps, save for just one moment: his failure to make weight for a fight against Stephen Thompson in May.
The UFC moved an entire event from Dublin to Liverpool that month, just so Till could headline in his hometown. He defeated Thompson in a narrow decision but missed weight by 3.5 pounds.
The week after the fight, video surfaced of Till's failed cut. It showed him struggling to stand at various points and crawling out of a sauna on his hands and knees. He was forced to leave in the middle of the cut for a family emergency but returned in the early-morning hours of weigh-in day to try to finish. According to the video, Till only stopped cutting when he suddenly lost his eyesight (a detail he would later deny).
Till has been relatively private about the emergency that interrupted that cut. He has promised to make weight for Saturday's championship fight, but that hasn't stopped the UFC from booking a backup plan. Welterweight contender Kamaru Usman intends to make weight in Dallas in the event his services are needed.
Ironically, Heron says he's against cutting weight in general. He comes primarily from a muay Thai background, where weight-cutting measures are not nearly as extreme.
Why would Till allow Heron to dictate where he would live for 3.5 years but not which weight class he competes in? Heron says he's only comfortable with the cut because he knows it's manageable when done properly -- and because this has always been the dream. A move to middleweight is not far away (likely two more fights, at most), but the welterweight goal has to be seen through.
"He started his career at welterweight, and he's adamant he wants to be the welterweight champion," Heron says. "That's what the kid wants to do, and if it means a big weight cut for now, we've got to roll with it. It's not going to be much longer, let's be honest."
In Woodley, Till faces a two-time defending champion and an All-American wrestler from the University of Missouri. In some ways, Woodley is the anti-Darren Till. He has butted heads with the UFC during his title reign and once referred to himself as the "worst-treated champion" in company history. He is motivated to crush a contender the UFC has taken a keen interest in -- leave it at that.
If Till is successful on Saturday, his ambition doesn't stop at welterweight. He has openly talked about winning titles in three different weight classes, which has never been done in the UFC. Heron, who has not yet had a UFC champion in his stable, barely blinks when Till mentions it to the cameras -- he's been hearing him say it for nearly a decade.
It's 7 p.m. in Las Vegas and Till is sitting in the backyard of a rental house, his feet dangling in a small pool. Truthfully, he doesn't prefer the Vegas heat, but it's been a good place to hold camp. He's tired and he's hungry, but he smiles when he thinks about the upcoming flight to Dallas. He subconsciously pinches at his very lean abdomen as he talks into the night.
"I just want people to remember me as one of the greats."