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‘Darren Till KOs Whittaker in 3, 100% beats Adesanya’: Teammate & UFC veteran Paul Kelly on Fight Island 3 (VIDEO)

As Darren Till prepares for a make-or-break fight against number one-ranked middleweight Robert Whittaker at Fight Island 3 on Saturday, former UFC fighter Paul Kelly is backing his teammate to become king of the 185lbs division.

There aren’t many fighters that know Darren Till better than Paul Kelly. The two Liverpool hard men have fought countless hard rounds on the matts of the city’s famed Team Kaobon stable, which has also spawned fellow UFC fighters Terry Etim and Paul Taylor.

Veteran Kelly, who enjoyed a nine-fight streak in the UFC beginning in 2008 and ending against legend Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone under the Las Vegas lights in 2011, has been handed the task of sharpening the skills of Saturday’s Fight Island 3 headline fighter, or as he calls it “going at it” in the gym.

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It's a relationship the two have shared since Till was an apprentice, a teenage scrapper and Muay Thai student, while Kelly was performing on some of the fight world's most famous stages. For Kelly, the Till he knew then is the same Till we are now seeing.

“I think this Darren Till now is the Darren Till we've all seen since he was a kid,” says Kelly. “You see him and you think ‘fuckin’ hell he's going to be a talented kid’. He’s been fighting with men since he was 16. Fighting with men. Not like tippy-tappy because we don't do that in Kaobon, we go at it. So I think this is the Darren Till that you probably never got to see at welterweight.”

Training, preparing and fighting out of the same city center gym, Kelly realized the potential in a young Till as the older of the men was beginning his foray onto the biggest stage in mixed martial arts. He has seen and felt first hand what a fully-fledged middleweight Till can do in training, and he likes his chances of repeating that form on Yas Island.

Twenty-seven-year-old Till has, quite literally, rebuilt himself as a middleweight. His struggles to boil his six-foot frame down to the required 170 lbs welterweight limit were well documented and even prompted calls to reconsider the agonizing weight cutting process fighters subject themselves to.

Now campaigning in a more forgiving division, Till has his focus firmly set on the middleweight title. Two fighters from the Southern Hemisphere stand between him and UFC glory: first, the New Zealand-born Australian Whittaker, and the New Zealand-based Nigerian Israel Adesanya, the holder of the 185lb belt.

Should he pass the test of Whittaker on July 26 at the exciting new Flash Forum venue in Abu Dhabi, he’ll likely earn a shot at becoming only the second English MMA champion in history, as Whittaker is number one-ranked contender but that mantle will likely change hands in defeat. Kelly believes Till has the beating of both men, and it’s all down to the jump up a division.

“Now even though he’s at middleweight he's making a big cut because he's a unit. He's a massive kid. Even at middleweight he’s big. He’s used to boiling down to welterweight because he had to but now he's boiling down to middle he's still there. He’s still a lump. But I just think everything is a more natural weight to him,” Kelly says.

“I think he beats [Whittaker]. I really do think he beats him. And I have this discussion with everybody because Whitaker is an animal, let’s have it right. I think [Israel] Adesanya is a better fight for him. Matchup and stylewise. But I think he beats Whitaker and he 100% beats Adesanya and gets the strap. I do. And he works so hard you know,” Kelly says.

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“Darren moves you round the ring and moves you round the mat and plays his game like nobody else I’ve seen. And he does a lot of it with power. Because he’s such a powerful puncher. I think he dictates play with power and stops Whittaker late in the third. There’s my prediction.

“I think Adesanya’s a completely different fight, and I think he beats him to the punch. Everyone’s going to be slagging me off and saying you’re round the bend but I think he beats him to the punch. I know Adesanya’s long and he’s rangey and he’s sharp, but he’s got to do that while he’s in front of someone who is long and rangey and sharp.”

Till has already tested his new weight at elite level, besting the highly respected Kelvin Gastelum after two straight losses to former champ Tyron Woodley for the UFC welterweight belt, and BMF king Jorge Masvidal, the latter of which incidentally lost in his bid for the same strap against new ruler Kamaru Usman at UFC 251 on Fight Island.

Kelly credits Kaobon trainer Colin Heron as the man who laid the foundations for Till’s success. Heron was the man who sent ‘The Gorilla’ to the jungle; packing off a teenage Till to Brazil to keep away from the distractions his hometown had to offer, after the youngster was stabbed twice in the back during an altercation at a party.

There, Till honed his Muay Thai skills and studied Luta Livre during a three-year stay in South America, picking up the language along with the knocks and scrapes against toughened, mature opposition that would earn him respect, beginning an unbeaten career in the southern state of Santa Catarina.

The beaches of Brazil were a far cry from the stoney, grey exterior of a rain-lashed inner-city Liverpool, but now Till’s journey has come full-circle, training with his old gym mates again on the path to a world title.

“Colin has always seen that talent in him. If Colin sees talent in you and sees hard work in you he puts his effort into you. If he sees that you're talented and you’re hard working and you’re a shitbag, you haven't got a second chance you might as well walk out the door,” Paul says of Kaobon founder and former kickboxing champion Heron.

“If you've got talent and you're lazy, you might as well walk out the door. So with Darren people have only seen the boiled down, fucked-up version of Darren. And I think the time and effort that’s gone into him. I think everything’s working right towards the right path.”

Once on the same path toward a UFC title as Till, Kelly expresses no regrets at the events that derailed his own career. After going 5-4 during his UFC stint, Kelly left for a fight in India with SFL, before returning to England where things began to unravel.

In May 2013, a the-28-year-old Kelly was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his part in a drug trafficking ring based in Liverpool, of which he served six.

Now owner of a healthy food bar in his native city, he recorded a winning comeback after a seven-year hiatus in March with a second-round KO under the inaugural Probellum banner.

His plan is to fight Paul Daley next year in a fight he believes will be a throwback to the glory days of UK MMA, when the sport was just emerging and young, hungry fighters saw UK-based promotions as the sport's zenith, rather than a stepping stone.

“I wouldn’t change my journey. If your life’s set out the way it is, if you get lemons you make lemonade. I was not meant to be world champion at the UFC, does that not mean I can be world champion somewhere else?” Kelly says without a hint of wistfulness. 

"I wouldn't ask to go back. I had a different ambition for my career than I did when I was in the UFC. Back then, I was just happy to be a 'fight-filler', I was happy to win fight of the night, whereas now I want a welterweight title."

Kelly’s job for some months has been preparing with Till, passing on vital knowledge and experience and, although a world title shot didn’t materialize in his own career, he will have served as an integral part of the preparations in a UFC title charge of a new generation.

A fighter from a new generation Till is, but will we be seeing a new version of the world’s number five-ranked middleweight this weekend?

“I wouldn't say he's a new Darren Till. I would say he’s the right Darren Till,” Kelly says. The right and real Darren Till will surely stand up and be counted on Saturday night.

By Danny Armstrong

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