Inside ‘Champ Camp’ As Darren Till And Team Kaobon Prepare For UFC 228 In Las Vegas
Blood, sweat, walking wounded and nothing but hard work – ‘Champ Camp’ is full swing for Darren Till and Team Kaobon.
Rarely as a reporter do you ever get the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and witness a fight camp at the business end, but this past weekend in Las Vegas I got a brief glimpse at life right now two weeks ahead of UFC 228.
Till and ten teammates from his hometown gym Team Kaobon in Liverpool, England all made their way out to Las Vegas on August 17 and ever since then it’s been all hands to the pump in a bid to get “The Gorilla” in tip-top shape for his first ever title fight on September 8.
It was a flying visit, but worth it nonetheless.
There’s only one place to start and that’s the man at the helm of it all; Team Kaobon Head Coach, Colin Heron.
He has a presence like few other men I’ve met in this industry.
The respect each one on his fighters shows him tells you everything you need to know about the man. He runs the show without ever needing to raise his voice and every one of them listen to his every word and instruction in regiment fashion.
He’s a leader amongst men and as an outsider looking in, you instantly recognize the respect you need to show him.
“What are you doing here?” Coach Heron said when I rocked up at the gym like an idiot unannounced on Friday night.
“I just want to watch – is that ok?” I replied, like I little child asking their parent to stay up and watch TV past their bedtime.
Brief pause …
“Ok, you’re alright,” he said as he looked me in the eye, slapped me on the arm and walked past me to get on with practice.
From far and wide
Just before I entered the gym that night, I got the opportunity to meet Paul Baccino who had made a five hour Friday night rush hour trip down from Los Angeles in his car to join his old teammates in camp.
This told me everything I needed to know about these lads.
Even Paul who had been away from Liverpool and made his way to live on the other side of the world as a realtor had made the effort to join the camp in the name of Team Kaobon.
Paul introduced himself and told me about how Terry Etim would kick him around the mats back in the days he was terrorizing the UFC’s 155-pounds division. Seemingly, some things never change.
Just hours before, Till and co. had completed a session on the mats with BJJ legend Andre Galvao and you could tell that the team were still buzzing from the experience when they arrived.
Paul’s arrival came as a surprise and notable lift for some of the camp. Smiles all round before entering the gym, but after that it was time for work.
After my interaction with Coach Heron above, I took a seat ringside and proceeded to watch Till complete a 50-minute pad session consisting of 10 x 5-minute rounds.
Despite it being a Friday night after a long and tough week, I have to admit I was somewhat mesmerized by what I saw.
Timing, power, speed and almost a telepathic understanding of the combinations he was being asked to throw even during the tenth round. Impressive.
“If you think that was good, you should’ve seen him hitting pads at the start of the week,” I was told.
Mike Grundy echoed similar thoughts to me the next day.
“Camp is going great and Darren is looking superb,” Grundy said.
“The atmosphere in the training, in the house where we’re staying, it’s all good and it’s good vibes.
“He’s been looking very, very good.”
Will he make weight? It’s probably going to be the question each and every one of us ask ourselves over the next 13 days.
I was with Till just three weeks prior at UFC 227 and this weekend he was already looking considerably slimmer than he had done in Los Angeles when we did our walk and talk.
Everyone in the camp is convinced he will make weight without a problem and Coach Heron on Saturday told me he was “a week ahead of where he was when he fought Cerrone and that was his easiest weight cut ever.”
Suffice to say, from what I witnessed this weekend, he couldn’t be doing anything more to hit the mark.
From working with a nutritionist who prepares each of his meals, to putting the work in every day at the gym, Till appears to be giving himself every opportunity to his 170-pounds on September 8.
“He’s definitely on track,” Grundy said.
“Like I said, it was a great choice for Darren to come out here and train at the UFC PI Centre. He’s also got a chef in the house, a nutritionist.
“He can’t do anything wrong. He’s eating exactly right, he’s training perfect and recovery is going very well.
“He’s definitely going to make weight.”
Iron sharpens iron
After watching Till be put through his paces on Friday I took the opportunity to speak with Mr Heron and training partners Mike Grundy and Chris Stringer more in-depth on Saturday.
I won’t lie, I’ve interviewed probably thousands of people, but putting a camera in front of Coach Heron was one of the more nerve-racking experiences I’ve had in my time as a reporter.
Despite my nerves, I’m glad I did it as it made gave a better insight into why Team Kaobon operate the way they do.
It’s a group where respect, trust and ultimately loyalty is earned through hard work and respect of your fellow teammates.
I quickly understood that this camp isn’t just about getting Darren Till to be a world champion. It’s about each and every one of them pulling in the same direction and sacrificing everything for one another for shared success.
Seeing and speaking to the likes of Grundy, Stringer and looking at some of the faces of the lads who’d been sparring with Till that week, you could tell it’d been a pretty rough time standing across the cage from The Gorilla.
Not once in my time there with them this weekend though did I ever hear one of them complain or moan about anything.
Busted eyes, knackered necks and sore bodies, but not a single word of negativity.
Just a total trust in their teammates and unshakeable belief that in two weeks time Darren Till will be the UFC welterweight champion.
“It’s not just for Darren, it’s the team and the team is behind Darren and everyone,” Stringer said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Darren fighting, Grundy fighting or Ali or me, whoever, everyone gives the same for everyone and it’s just a matter of if it’s your turn to spar you get in and do the rounds and do everything.
“I’ll be honest though, he hits hard and it isn’t fun. But you got to do what you got to do. Iron sharpens iron as they say.”
What it means to be Team Kaobon
So what was my takeaway from this weekend? Walking away I had an odd sense of jealousy.
I’ve been part of many a team in my time, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been in surroundings like this before.
MMA gyms often create formidable relationships and comradery amongst fighters, but at Team Kaobon this seems to be taken to a whole different level.
From the outside, you would assume that Till would be the star man, but I quickly understood that the team pulls together in the same way whether it’s him or any other one of them fighting.
“When people first come, you ask them do you really want to be in it,” Coach Heron told me.
“There’s a lot of stories that I’m an extreme coach – definitely. Aggressive? Nasty? I can be.
“But I’m very good at what I do and I’ve a certain way of doing things. If you come and try out and it’s not for you, then it’s not for you.
“But if you get through those first early stages of the intense training and being pushed harder then you’ve ever been before, and you can hack it – then ok, I’ll start working with you a little bit more.
“Then if you prove yourself that you’re loyal and that you’re prepared to give yourself to the team and not just me; you’re there for absolutely every single person who’s fighting, then you got me for life then.
“I’ll work with you for life then and I’ll take you as far as you can possibly go 100-percent. But I’m very particular about how many get people to that stage.
“Sometimes I’ve had like 45 professional fighters, that wasn’t unusual at one stage, but it’s too much. It’s hard to get quality out of that.
“You can’t get around that many fighters and I’d much rather have a smaller group and I’m picky about who I allow into that group.”
Brothers in arms
I barely scratched the surface of Till’s UFC 228 fight preparations this weekend, but I felt like I left with a richer understanding of everything surrounding his bid to become the UK’s second world champion.
Till will be on his own come fight night on September 8, but if he lifts the UFC welterweight title it will be a shared success amongst Coach Heron and every man on the mats at Team Kaobon.
When you’re going to war, brothers in arms are priceless and Team Kaobon are exactly that.