Not many 19-year-olds pack their bags, head off to Brazil on their own and immerse themselves in a gym full of black-belts, all without speaking a word of Portuguese.
But Darren Till wasn’t your typical teenager and there has been nothing conventional about his route to a UFC title shot.
The Liverpool native, now 25, could become Britain’s second UFC champion when he faces Tyron Woodley on Saturday night – and his path to the top has been a truly remarkable one.
Darren Till has put in years of dedication to his craft to have a title shot in the UFC
This Saturday the Liverpudlian takes on welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (left) in Dallas
Till hits the pads during an open workout in Dallas ahead of the big fight this weekend
Six years ago, Till’s decision to buy a one-way ticket and settle in Balneario Camboriu, a small coastal city in southern Brazil, was triggered by a near-death experience after he was stabbed twice in the back.
The knife found a home just 1mm from an artery as he tried to intervene in a nightclub scrap involving friends back in 2012. As wake-up calls go, they don’t get much more extreme and doctors told Till he escaped bleeding to death by an impossibly small margin.
In agreement with his coach Colin Heron, he escaped from the crowd he’d fallen in with to pursue his MMA dream in remote South America, away from his home in Delamore Street in Walton, an area that still has problems with gun and knife crime.
‘It hasn’t made me the guy I am today, Till now says of the incident. It just showed me that life can be taken away from you really quickly.
‘Back then, it could have been my night to die there. Coach Colin said “go 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,’ he told BT Sport.
The 25-year-old embraces the brutality of the sport and has never been beaten in the octagon
Till says he is motivated not by money but to create a legacy as a fighter
Trainer and fighter remain thick as thieves and Heron has nurtured his young talent from the start. ‘Nurturing’ might be stretching it a bit, Heron put him in the cage against UFC fighters the first time he saw the young man spar, a brutal baptism of fire but Till toughed it out to earn his stripes and Heron’s affection.
DARREN TILL FACTFILE:
Gym: Team Kaobon
Last fight: Unanimous decision win vs Stephen Thompson, UFC Fight Night Liverpool
It was the coach who suggested a safe haven in Brazil with a trainer and gym he knew. It became the furnace in which many of Till’s skills were forged.
Life for fresh blood in a Brazilian gym can be particularly unforgiving, and to begin with Till found himself being choked and contorted from all angles by the natives with their far superior jiu-jitsu.
A fish out of water, he quickly realised he would get nowhere without the ability to communicate and dedicated himself to a daily routine. Eat, train, study Portuguese on Google translate, repeat. Every day the same.
He would memorise useful words and within a few months could hold a conversation. Three years later the self-study had paid off and he was fluent.
The fluency of his ground-game improved too and in return for the harsh lessons learned against black-belts on the mat, he shared his Muay Thai striking expertise.
From starting out in Muay Thai, Till became a more well-rounded fighter when he went to Brazil
There were no distractions, daily conversations with coach Colin and in his own words, Till started ‘ruining’ people in sparring. As promised, when the time was right he got the call to come home. ‘The Gorilla’ returned to Liverpool having won all 13 of his professional fights in South America but it was time to make a name for himself on a bigger stage.
He also returned with a baby daughter, though she lives with her mother in Brazil and Till has been brutally unequivocal in his belief that those closest to him are secondary to his ambition.
‘I’ve got a girlfriend who’s nearly seven months pregnant. I don’t really care. I’ve got a daughter in Brazil right now who I haven’t seen for one year. I don’t really care. I just care about legacy and greatness. That’s what I’m in this for,’ he told MMA Mania.
That motivation to create a legacy and establish himself as the best fighter on the planet burns deep in Till and he seems to make sacrifices without hesitation. There doesn’t appear to be a fear of failure either, he just wants to test his skills against all comers and looks totally at ease, even playful in the octagon.
Inevitably, comparisons with Conor McGregor abound and there are distinct similarities but the Irishman’s love of cold hard cash isn’t one of them.
The rising star has fought six times so far in the UFC against progressively tougher opponents
Till has spent the last few weeks in the UFC performance institute to prepare for his title fight
Till previously toldSportsmail: ‘I don’t give a f*** about money, I spend money like it’s going out of fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I love the finer things in life, I love a nice steak, I loved buying my Rolex, a £1,000 pair of shoes or whatever.
‘But I never think, “oh I’m on a pay-per-view I wonder how much I’m going to get”, that’s all a sideline.
‘I just want to fight and be the best. If people think of me as a famous guy then fine, I still go to the cafe I went to since I was ten years old.’
But when you’re as engaging on the mic and devastating with the fists as Till, the money and fame inevitably follow.
He dismantled fan-favourite Donald ‘Cowboy Cerrone to set tongues wagging last October and was already so highly regarded by the UFC that they brought the show to Liverpool in May. It was his first fight on home turf and the most significant of his career.
Till’s hometown legion of fans belted out ‘Sweet Caroline’ in one of the most electric walk-outs in recent memory before they watched their man outpoint lethal kick-boxer Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson over 25 enthralling minutes.
The 25-year-old’s blistering ascent through the welterweight division has only one obstacle remaining if he is to follow in Michael Bisping’s footsteps and become Britain’s second most successful MMA export.
Woodley, the champion, is a freak athlete boasting a right hand to measure on the Richter Scale and elite wrestling pedigree. The American has defended his belt three times but been criticised for ‘negative’ tactics and fights with a calculation that frustrates the blood-lust in some quarters, including UFC president Dana White.
He won’t have that opportunity against Till, who often stalks his opponents and walks them down to impose his will as the bigger man. The Liverpudlian walks around at 200lbs and has to cut down to 170, an almighty struggle that is likely to see him move up a division before long.
The massive right hand of Woodley (left) will be a weapon Till needs to avoid on Saturday
Woodley also gave fans and media a glimpse of his skills at the open workout in Dallas
Till’s ultimate goal is to become a three-weight world champion, going one better than McGregor and separating himself from the field as the greatest of all time.
It’s easy to laugh off such lofty goals but there’s such conviction in everything Till says that at the very least you know he believes it to be true, even if you’re sceptical.
Woodley should pose an acid test of those credentials and on paper it’s almost impossible to pick a winner with any confidence.
Even the bookies can’t separate champion from challenger but if ‘The Gorilla’ beats his chest in victory on Saturday it will cap off an incredible path to the top, from Liverpool to Dallas by way of Balneario Camboriu. Who knows, it could be Anfield next.