Tyron Woodley: The Unpopular One

Undisputed welterweight champion. Unbeaten in his last five fights. Won the UFC title with an electrifying first round knockout. Doting father. Honest and dedicated athlete. Community leader. Charity organizer. Role model… So why is Tyron Woodley the most lamented champion in the UFC? Nick Peet tries to find out…


Tyron Woodley is a great guy. He’s a committed father, husband and community leader. He’s popular with both his teammates and his coaches. He’s diverse in his approach to mixed martial arts, always championing the sport and representing his peers with pride. He looks and talks great on TV, boasts the shape of a supreme athlete and he delivers, more often than not, when it truly matters. He’s never ducked anybody. He even gets vocal when he needs to and, unlike so many others, isn’t afraid to butt heads with Dana White and the rest of UFC’s top brass.

Yet, for all these character qualities, ‘The Chosen One’ can’t seem to catch a break with the fans. It not only raises the obvious question – what do fight fans actually want from their heroes? – but also makes us question why we so often champion underdogs, rogues and renaissance men, yet have little or no admiration for the straight shooters.

What is it about ‘T-Wood’ that makes fight fans unable to embrace him as a hero or even deserving champion? Why do the majority of fans save their adulation for the likes Nick Diaz, Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown, who also make up the UFC’s welterweight roster, when, on any given Sunday, the current undisputed champ would obliterate them all?


REALITY BITES

Joe Rogan struggled to be heard as the boos rang around the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in March. The main event at UFC 209 had just limped to an end and was one of the most uneventful championship fights in Octagon history. The fans inside the arena were letting 170lb kingpin Tyron Woodley know about it.

He wasn’t solely to blame for the lackluster majority points decision success, of course. Stephen Thompson hardly did enough to warrant taking the belt at the second attempt. But it was Woodley, the man who promised to deliver conclusively second time around, who bore the brunt of the angst. After being outraged when their first fight at UFC 205 ended in the draw, it was the champion who vowed to prove a point in the return. Yet, for 25 minutes, he circled the cage, throwing little more than feints and posturing rather than prompting the action.

“Tyron Woodley came out and said he was going to destroy Thompson and there would be no question he was the champ,” UFC president White said afterwards. “Well, guess what? There’s questions again!” The fans agreed. And it poured fuel on a fire that’s been smoldering away under the 170lb champ’s feet for a long time.

Even with a 7-2-1 record in the UFC, featuring five knockouts, Woodley has never truly been popular, despite the fact he entered the UFC as one of the leading 170lb’ers on the planet (as part of the Strikeforce buyout). Thrilling first round knockouts of Jay Hieron, on his Octagon debut, and Josh Koscheck were sandwiched between a forgettable three-round loss to Jake Shields at UFC 161.

Woodley never even really got much credit for the way he handled Carlos Condit at UFC 171, dropping bombs on the former interim champion before buckling his knees, and was then rushed into a late-notice fight against Rory MacDonald in Canada, where he suffered a points defeat.

Woodley bagged another performance bonus out in Macau, China, when he starched Dong Hyun Kim in the summer of 2014. Yet once more he found his points victory over now surging middleweight contender Kelvin Gastelum overshadowed after his opponent lost to the scales first. Meanwhile, Condit, fresh from a win over fringe contender Thiago Alves, jumped over Woodley for a title shot.

“There was a time when I really thought it wasn’t ever going to happen,” Woodley confesses to FO. “I asked to fight Carlos Condit, I pushed to fight Johny Hendricks and I took the fight against Rory MacDonald at short-notice in his hometown. I did everything I could to get the title, and yet there was times when the fans wanted me out of the rankings.”

Eventually Woodley would get his shot. But it came at a price, especially in the eyes of MMA’s loyal fanbase. Not only would he be fighting a teammate for the title, but that teammate was also one of the biggest fan favorite fighters on the planet. Robbie Lawler’s title success in the aftermath of Georges St-Pierre’s departure from the sport was embraced by fans. After a lifetime in the Octagon and beyond, when ‘Lawler’ took the belt from Johny Hendricks the MMA gods repaid him for his years of toil and exciting style. Planet MMA rejoiced.

“People love Robbie; hell, I enjoy his fighting style myself; I was a fan long before I became a teammate of Robbie’s at ATT. But the fans don’t get that. They just saw me as the bad guy in that fight,” Woodley adds. “It gave the fans another reason to hate me!”

With his heavy hands and all-encompassing ground game, Woodley had a clear edge over aging Lawler’s brawling assaults. Breaking hearts of fanboys around the world, T-Wood’s opening round knockout should have heralded a new dawn for the weight class. But instead it again seemed to tar his persona only further.


MONEY TALKS

One man who doesn’t agree with all the Woodley bashing is the most successful flyweight in UFC history, Demetrious Johnson, who even named his son after ‘The Chosen One’. “He’s a huge inspiration to me in my career, just because of the way he carries himself,” Johnson told The MMA Hour. “He says whatever he wants and I respect that. And you have to respect his opinion and how he feels about things.”

Outspoken throughout his career, Woodley didn’t bite his lip once he had the belt. Rather than wait for the leading contenders to line up he had his own ideas on who should challenge for the belt next, and they were all names with dollar signs attached. With Conor McGregor changing the game with his approach, Woodley’s not the only fighter and champion to follow suit and start demanding more power.

Shrugging off calls to face Thompson and Demian Maia, Woodley turned his attentions to Nick Diaz and McGregor, the returning GSP, and even middleweight kingpin Michael Bisping. In his eyes, why fight the challengers relative to the rankings when there are much more financially beneficial match-ups to be made outside of the top 10.

After all, Woodley had been a rankings contender for some time but had been made to wait. Plus, chasing PPV fights was only what McGregor had been doing, and he’s bringing more dollars to the table than anybody has ever done before.

“Fighting St-Pierre or Nick Diaz made sense to me,” says Woodley. “Financially, they’re just bigger fights and attract more pay-per-view dollars. It wasn’t that I was trying to dodge anybody; it was just I’d worked damn hard to get to the title and, once I got it, I wanted to cash in. I believed I deserved that.”

Fans overlooked the fact McGregor circumnavigated Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson to get to Eddie Alvarez and carve out his own piece of history, while cashing in along the way, but, when Woodley went public with his desires for the belt, the industry lost its mind, labeling him a “coward” and “greedy”.

He adds: “It’s one rule for one I guess. In the end I had no choice but to fight ‘Wonderboy’, but I still maintain there were bigger fights and bigger paychecks out there. And there still is.”

At UFC 205 in New York in November, Woodley and Thompson fought to a five-round draw; two judges officially scored it 47-47 and the third gave it 48-47 for Woodley. But that was only after they originally announced the fight as a split-decision victory for Woodley. The whole thing, like everything MMA-related in NYC, was a mess.


BLAME GAME

Things only got worse in March’s Las Vegas rematch. Both Woodley and Thompson failed to engage in a fight. Neither really deserved the ‘W’, but at least the belt didn’t change hands.

“I fought to keep the belt; that’s what champions do,” Woodley states. “Thompson failed to fight and he never tried to take the belt from the champion, like I did against Lawler. Yet I was the one vilified for the fight. I kept my belt – against an opponent I never pushed to fight in the first place. Me against (Michael) Bisping or (Nick) Diaz doesn’t play out like that, I can tell you that much.”

White, though, is still seething. “When you have a performance like you did at 209, and you get booed for five straight rounds and then people are booing so loud you can’t even do your interview, you should probably just take your lumps and move on,” he said. “Get your next fight as fast as you can and try to put that performance behind you.”

Woodley, too, hopes to do just that. Yet he refuses to play the game just to win over White and MMA’s fanbase for that matter.

“People can bill me as the bad guy all they want but the people that really matter, my family and teammates, they know the type of person I am,” he says. “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.

“Listen, MMA is f**ked up in a lot of ways. 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, too. 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.”