When it comes to Tyron Woodley, Dana White and the curious case of a UFC champion nobody (apparently) wants to watch fight, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a right or wrong answer.
Woodley can be many things all at once. He can be a bad guy and a good fighter. He can be a good guy and a bad fighter. He can be a UFC welterweight champion, a busy one who has defended his title three times in eight months, and also boring to watch. He can be the best in the world and pay-per-view poison. He can be the best in the world and feel undervalued. He can talk sensibly, and at times seem the voice of reason, and yet, at other times, speak out of turn and seem wide of the mark. He can deserve a super-fight against Georges St-Pierre and then, twenty-five minutes later, not deserve a super-fight with Georges St-Pierre.
Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. Nothing’s black and white.
Woodley himself should be proud of his achievements – holding on to the belt, defeating the best striker in the division, Stephen Thompson, followed by the best grappler in the division, Demian Maia – but must also accept that the manner of certain victories won’t lead to overwhelming popularity or, in the cut-throat world of MMA, big money fights down the road. It just won’t. Instead, you’ll get boos and chants of “boring, boring, boring”. You’ll get the cold shoulder. People will switch channels or turn off altogether.
Woodley, an intelligent man, surely knows this, too, just as he knows he’s the best 170-pound fighter in the world; just as he knows Georges St-Pierre should be returning at welterweight, his natural habitat, the division he once ruled, rather than targeting a fight with UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping in November. But you can’t have it both ways. Either he wins fights the careful, calculated way, as is his custom, and suffers the negativity, or he goes against his better instincts, throws caution to the wind and risks taking chances – and, possibly, defeat – in order to prove people wrong, silence the boo-boys and attract some love, both from the fans and, crucially, Dana White.
It’s pretty much impossible to fight selfishly, which is to say deprive fans of fun in favour of self-preservation, and still expect to be part of the in-crowd. Not in 2017. Not when combat sports have succumbed to the lure of the pay-per-view dollar and never been more entertainment-based. If you’re not making the fans and bosses happy, you aren’t making money. It really is as simple as that. Forget the title, forget your dominance, forget even your brilliance. It’s all irrelevant if people don’t actually want to watch you beat the crap out of someone.
Titles no longer sell fights. Promoters no longer sell fights. Fighters do. If you can’t sell, you can’t survive. Not today. Not at a time when a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor is considered a good idea.
“Listen, MMA is f**ked up in a lot of ways,” Woodley told Fighters Only earlier this year. “Myself, DJ (Demetrious Johnson) and Daniel Cormier take a lot of s**t even though we’re all champions in this game. Whether that’s because of the way we fight, the way we walk or talk or simply down to the color of our skin, it’s not our problem. It’s your problem if you don’t appreciate what we’ve all done to get where we are.
“But I’m done playing games. I know what I’m worth. I know what I’m capable of. I’m going to do my thing from now on and I’m going to be a tough dude to deal with. I’ve been making this easy for everybody, but now I’m going to be making it easy for me. I’m the champion, the belt is going nowhere, and people should remember that.”
Tough to deal with, tougher to love, Woodley has every right to feel aggrieved because he doesn’t get the respect his accomplishments deserve, but is wrong to put that down to anything but his own inability to entertain fans who simply want to be entertained. Seriously, it’s no more than that. Fans, after all, are a fickle, transparent bunch. Give them something to love and they’ll love it. Alternatively, give them reason to hate and they’ll come down on you like Mark Coleman’s ground-and-pound.
“People can bill me as the bad guy all they want but the people that really matter, my family and teammates, know the type of person I am,” continued Woodley. “I never took any shortcuts to get where I am in this sport. I’ve never taken a shortcut in my life. I work hard, I’m committed to my family and my team and I represent mixed martial arts with integrity. If the fans aren’t down with that, that’s cool. I didn’t need them before and I don’t need them now.”
That’s the other thing about Woodley. He’s someone who on one hand embraces his unpopularity, yet, on the other, bemoans it. He resents missing out on chances afforded to more popular fighters, those who care about popularity, those who realize its importance in 2017, but then refuses to do anything to change this – either in the Octagon or away from it. He frustrates opponents and couldn’t care less. He then does the same to fans.
“If you ask fans if they want to see Woodley fight again, I think that will be a flat out ‘no’,” Dana White said following Woodley’s latest defence, a soporific decision win over Demian Maia at UFC 214. “Who wants to pay to see Tyron Woodley fight again? He’s an absolute physical specimen and could’ve finished the fight any time he wanted. But, you know, he didn’t want to take the risks. You take no risks, you get no rewards.”
Let’s address that Maia fight for a second. First, though, let’s address the fact Woodley has since revealed he tore his labrum in the first round, a shoulder injury that would have severely impacted his ability to throw punches. This has become important information and may well be the reason Woodley performed the way he did in Anaheim. It might also make an impressive result – I said result – look all the more impressive in years to come.
Then again, naysayers will claim Woodley would have approached a fight with Demian Maia the exact same way has he not had a torn labrum. It’s just him, they will say. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Injury or no injury, he was always going to go about getting the win with minimal risk and with no thought spared for those who paid money to watch him perform. It wasn’t an injury, it was the Woodley way. Always has been, always will be.
“Listen, when you break a record for the least punches ever thrown in a five-round title fight – I think it was 130 (strikes) and these guys threw 60 or something like that – that sums it up,” White said post-fight.
“The guy (Maia) had one eye in the first round and you’re (Woodley) faster, you’re stronger, your hands are better, you’re explosive. I believe Woodley could’ve finished that in the first round, and if not, he definitely could’ve finished it in the second round.
“If you had a remote control for that guy, he’s a freak of nature, he’d be an incredible fighter. Listen, it’s easy to say a win is a win, but when you get booed out of an arena, that means people don’t want to watch you fight. And that’s how you make a living. It’s not good if people don’t want to watch you fight.”
Dana White is right and wrong. It’s not really his place to say what Woodley could and couldn’t do, in light of the injury, and it’s not his place to say what he should or shouldn’t do, in light of the fact Woodley, a UFC champion, was fighting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion with seven straight wins to his name. In the cold light of day, Woodley, the fighter, won and won well. He impressively stuffed 24 takedowns, shut down the threat of a top contender and kept his belt. He’s not obligated to do more than that. He doesn’t owe anyone more than that. But, all the same, Dana White, the promoter, the man with his finger on the pulse, is probably correct when he says this stubborn and shortsighted approach means few will want to watch Tyron Woodley in the future. And that’s fine.
What isn’t fine, though, is the prospect of a UFC champion somehow being blackballed because he wins in a manner that doesn’t set the world alight. Were that to happen you’d lose all reason for even having champions, let alone a ranking system, and subsequently disillusion every fighter, young and old, making their way in the sport, hoping to one day experience the feeling of having a gold belt strapped around their waist.
This, lest we forget, is still a sport – of some kind. It needs rules, written or otherwise, and needs rewards for those who are the best in the world, not just those who shout the loudest, dress the loudest and whose face or personality fits. All that stuff helps, of course, but it shouldn’t be the ultimate decider, the thing that controls the flow of the sport and, in turn, the happiness and prosperity of its fighters.
Chances are, Tyron Woodley will now be sidelined on account of his injury. He might even require surgery, after which he’ll have no option but to head down the well-travelled path of other champions who have had to take time off in order to heal and recover. It’s then, during this time, we’ll discover precisely what Tyron Woodley means to the UFC and precisely what mixed martial arts means in 2017. If all remains the same and Woodley is given the respect and time an active champion deserves, we can breathe a sigh of relief and relax. If, however, his hiatus is used as the perfect reason to either strip him or create some kind of interim title, not only will Woodley’s greatest fear be realized, but the very idea of belts, champions and even competition – the foundation of the sport – will all of a sudden be called into question.
“If anybody utters, mumbles or accidentally says the word ‘interim,’ I’m going to lose my s**t,” Woodley told The MMA Hour on Monday.
He gets blamed for a lot. But nobody would blame Tyron Woodley for that.