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Tyron Woodley: the one you don’t see coming

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch explores the personality and fighting style of UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley ahead of his rematch with Stephen Thompson at UFC 209.

Tyron Woodley did not win the UFC welterweight title the right way. At least that’s what a growing subset of fans seems to think.

The problem, Woodley’s critics say, was that Woodley had not earned the opportunity. He never should have fought for the title in the first place. That he ended up winning the title is apparently of little importance; this is an argument built on principal. In the UFC, the best are supposed to fight the best, and the cream of the crop are the ones who deserve to fight, and become, champions.

Tyron’s last two predecessors carried these traditional narratives into their title fights, as did most of their challengers. Johny Hendricks had won six straight, three by knockout, before he battled Georges St-Pierre for the belt. When GSP took a controversial decision and then retired, it made sense to fans that Hendricks should receive an immediate, second shot at the now vacant throne. He fought Robbie Lawler, who was riding a three-fight win streak since his return to the UFC and the welterweight division. More than that, Lawler had just beaten Rory MacDonald, long hailed as a future champion in his own right. And when Hendricks scraped by with a narrow win, Lawler still had to take two fights before securing a rematch for the belt. When Rory MacDonald received his long-awaited opportunity, he had compiled an excellent three-fight win streak since the first fight with Lawler—including a victory over Tyron Woodley.

Woodley’s own path to the title was less typical. The aforementioned MacDonald loss had not yet disappeared into the distance behind him when he was scheduled to challenge Robbie Lawler. In the time since, he had beaten an overweight Kelvin Gastelum via split decision, and knocked out Dong Hyun Kim. Neither man was ranked in the top ten at the time.

It was supposed to be different. Woodley was scheduled to fight the recently deposed Hendricks in October of 2015, but Hendricks missed weight and fell seriously ill. The fight was canceled, and Dana White promised Tyron Woodley a title shot, apparently just for being professional and showing up. It would not have been the first time that a fighter had a promised title shot taken away from them, but Woodley was determined to cash in his I.O.U. He waited. A year and a half went by.

Tyron watched Lawler just barely defend his belt against Carlos Condit. Carlos Condit, who Woodley had defeated via injury TKO two years prior. Who had won only one fight since, and against an aging former contender no more formidable than the men Woodley had been beating. Condit deserved that title shot no more than Woodley, but no one complained. Carlos was a fan favorite. Called “The Natural Born Killer,” he was known for wars, fights in which he would smile grimly through a sheet of blood running down his forehead and over his eyes, battles of attrition in which he would be hit just as much as his opponent.

But Carlos Condit couldn’t beat Robbie Lawler. He came close—but not close enough. Tyron Woodley, on the other hand, waited quietly for 18 months and then, when nobody was looking, he knocked Robbie Lawler’s goddamn head off.

Ladies and gentlemen, your new champion. Nobody claps.

MMA: UFC 205-Woodley vs Thompson Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

I spent a long time scratching my head over why Tyron Woodley approaches fighting the way he does. Why would a confident, well-rounded fighter with tremendous athletic talent consistently back himself into corners, restrict himself mostly to a single offensive weapon, and allow his opponent to control the fight?

I knew Woodley had been working on his lateral movement. I knew he had focused on expanding his striking arsenal. I knew he treated his opponents seriously, bringing in mimics and employing a great deal of tape study and specific preparation. These things were evident in his fights, but only in small glimpses. Only if you were really looking for them, as I was, desperate for any sign of positive change in a fighting style that seemed impractical and unsustainable.

I treated Woodley’s habits like some sort of unfortunate accident—and I was wrong.

Tyron Woodley is not a stupid man. Nor does he lack self-awareness. In fact, he has suggested in the past that he tends to be a little too invested in introspection and self-analysis. He gets inside of his own head and takes his time examining the furnishings. Despite this, he does not lack confidence. He is not noticeably insecure or prone to poor decision-making under duress. In fact, he maintains a cool, almost chilly disposition even in the midst of his most heated fights.

This is not the description of a man who fights irrationally. Rather than focusing on what I wanted to see, I realized that I needed to make an effort to understand why a fighter with Woodley’s abilities would hit upon such a measured approach. And though there are still changes I would make to Woodley’s game, I now think I get what he has in mind when he steps into the cage.

The one thing everyone knows about Tyron Woodley is that he hits really, really hard. When Woodley’s right hand catches his opponent clean on the jaw, the lights go out. His is not the smashing, mashing power possessed by men like George Foreman, whose punch lands like a heavy weight swung round at the end of a thick chain. Rather, Tyron Woodley’s right hand is a cannonball, which goes ripping through its target at lightning speed. Explosion is the name of the game with Tyron Woodley.

Speed like that possessed by Woodley is not something most fighters see on a daily basis. When Stephen Thompson was scheduled to fight Johny Hendricks, he brought in a sparring partner specifically to train for his trademark left hand, having his mimic throw the same shot over and over again so that he could practice his reactions. And though “Wonderboy” reportedly repeated this process for the right hand of Tyron Woodley, he still found himself on the receiving end of that punch many times. He knew what he was supposed to do, but Tyron caught him by surprise nearly every time he let that cannonball fly.

Stephen simply could not see the shots coming, and in fighting there is an old saying: it is not the hardest punch that knocks you out, but the one you don’t see coming. Still, fighters like Thompson know how to adjust, and explosive punchers like Woodley tend to enjoy their best and biggest moments in the early stages of a fight, all thanks to that speed, and the element of surprise. Once the opponent has had a chance to experience that speed, once he has seen the same setups and learned to keep his distance, even the fastest punch can be avoided.

This is the reason behind Woodley’s penchant for standing with his back near the fence. Knowing that power and speed are his biggest advantages, Woodley does not chase his opponent about the Octagon. He does not waste energy attempting to hide his punches behind a volume of lesser blows. He wants every attempted knockout punch to be just as surprising as the first, so he backs up, keeps his right hand at home, and lets the opponent do his thing.

Sometimes it means being outstruck, the opponent growing bold and picking up their output as Woodley patiently picks off their shots. That’s okay, though. Woodley doesn’t have to match pace to win. All he has to do is land the big one, and convincing the opponent to get a little closer and throw a little more recklessly is a perfect way to set it up—especially when he hasn’t seen the right hand often enough to recognize it before it connects. One minute the opponent is touching and feinting, trying to let his hands go in the pocket—and then, sudden as anything, he’s on his back.

Combinations are useful things, and often it is the second or third successive punch which finally puts a man down. This is perhaps the biggest reason that Woodley does not have nearly as many knockouts on his record as you would expect, considering how hard he hits. Even so, Woodley doesn’t need the knockout to win. Usually buckling the other guy’s knees is enough. Once he feels the power, the confidence encouraged by Woodley’s position against the cage starts to wilt, and suddenly he doesn’t feel so good about throwing punches of his own; he stands a little farther back, too, so he’ll see the next one coming.

But that’s okay, too. Remember, Woodley’s punches stay unpredictable because he barely throws them. He is, both by nature and by design, an inactive fighter. If he can encourage his opponents to be a little less active, too, then . . . well, who’s complaining?

Fans and commentators frequently point out that Woodley is prone to gassing, and it is true that a fighter so reliant on explosive power and speed is more likely to poke unfixable holes in his own gas tank than a low power, high output fighter like Nick Diaz or Michael Bisping. In reality, however, Woodley does not gas. It just doesn’t happen as often as fans expect it to, if at all.

Let’s use significant strikes as our measurement. If a fighter exhausts himself over the course of a fight, it is reasonable to assume that his output will dwindle with each passing round. And yet for Tyron Woodley this is simply not the case. Against Jake Shields, as exhausting an opponent as I can think of, Woodley threw 27 strikes in the first round, 24 in the second, and 43 in the third. Against Rory MacDonald, he went from 26, to 29, to 26 attempted strikes in the final frame. Against Kelvin Gastelum: 25, then 35, then 44. And against Stephen Thompson, he went from 18, to 22, to 32, to 41, and finally 28. Not only does Woodley not slow down as much as it seems he should, he typically throws more strikes in the final round than in the first, only deviating from this trend in the fight with Thompson, most likely because he spent a lot of energy trying to finish the groggy challenger in the fourth.

And if power, not volume, is to be our indicator of stamina, then surely Woodley’s near-knockout in that fourth round is evidence that he carries more than enough power to get the job done well into the championship rounds.

These are further rewards of “The Chosen One’s” choosy style. If he throws only infrequently, he has plenty of time between bombs to breathe and recover his energy. Woodley throws a relatively low 5 strikes per minute, and often takes long stretches of time off. In their first meeting, Thompson outthrew him in every round but the first, when he was taken down early and controlled for the remainder of the round, and the fourth, in which he spent a good portion of the time reeling around the Octagon desperately trying to protect his chin. In every round that Thompson threw more, he outlanded Woodley, and (usually) took the frame on the scorecards.

As you already know, however, “Wonderboy” could not maintain that pace. He had the energy, but the threats were too great. Woodley used his power, a trait which is usually considered more brutish than tactical, to shut Thompson down over and over again. Throwing just five strikes per minute, Woodley turned a volume striker into an uneasy counter puncher.

UFC 205: Open Workouts Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Woodley has such an uncanny ability to control the behavior of his opponents, perhaps it frustrates him that he cannot do the same to fans. Certainly he resents the fact that they can’t appreciate his skillset. During an interview in 2015, I pointed out that he had shown some definite improvements in his fight with Kelvin Gastelum. “You used a bit of a jab,” I noted, “You feinted, you used a lot more footwork . . . you were less hesitant with counters . . .” My intention was to ask about the changes Woodley had made in training to bring about these changes in the cage, but he had a point to make first.

“First of all,” he said, “I appreciate that you identified what was going on. A lot of people were watching that fight just looking for cuts, blood, and knockouts.”

But fans did not, by and large, appreciate the Gastelum fight. Woodley worked his magic on Kelvin, but this magic did little to capture the imagination. The Ultimate Fighter winner had thrown 174 significant strikes in his last 15 minute fight, landing 67; against Woodley he landed just 32 of 143. From nearly 14 strikes per minute to less than 10; from 38 percent accuracy to 22. The fight was so uncharacteristically slow by Gastelum’s standards that it actually had a significant impact on his Fightmetric averages, dropping his significant strikes landed per minute from 3.61 to 3.26, and his accuracy from 41 percent to 37. Woodley came close once or twice, but didn’t find his knockout, so the fight was simply slow.

Even knowing that Tyron elicits this response all the time, we could still lay some of the blame for the outcome at Kelvin Gastelum’s feet. The young Ultimate Fighter winner missed weight by a staggering nine pounds before the bout, and walked into the cage with flu-like symptoms as a result. This put Woodley in the difficult position of considering a fight that, by rights, he did not have to accept. Gastelum broke contract, and Woodley would have been justified in walking away. Instead, he agreed to go ahead with the bout, and even did Gastelum a good turn, offering back the $9,000 he had been forced to forfeit for missing weight.

Woodley did not, it should be noted, refuse the sum outright. He accepted the bout on the condition that 30 percent of Gastelums’ purse would go to him. Cynical observers might point out that Woodley waited until he had secured victory before offering the cash back, or they might suggest that Woodley made the gesture in an attempt to get a few claps out of the jeering Vegas crowd.

I believe that Woodley was simply trying to help out a fellow fighter, but maybe there is some symbolism to be found in the act, as well. That $9,000 sum was intended as an incentive for Woodley to take the fight in light of the unfortunate circumstances, something extra to keep him from depriving the fans of a good show. In returning the money, Woodley seemed to be saying, “That was not the show I was paid for, but I don’t care. I won.”

In the end, he was pleased with the performance, and his good mood inspired him to commit a selfless act. And hey, if he got a little applause after assuring himself a win bonus, who can blame him?

Whether within the cage or without, Woodley always seems to keep something to himself, to hedge his bets and quietly survey his options. Yes, it can be frustrating to watch, but this much is true: Tyron Woodley knows how to bide his time, keep his eyes open, and strike when the time is right.

Woodley garnered the ire of many fans when he suggested that perhaps race had something to do with his lack of popularity, and the lack of effort the UFC had put into promoting him. He even called out the promotion’s long history of attributing black fighters’ success to “explosiveness” and “athleticism,” suggesting that these terms are “subliminally racist.”

The subject is a sensitive one, but it would be unfair to dismiss the champion’s claims out of hand. MMA fandom is composed mostly of white men. Not entirely, of course—in fact, one study shows that a large and rapidly growing portion of the audience is female, and another study found that about 16 percent of avid American fans are black, whereas blacks make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population.

So ours is not an exclusively white, male sport by any means, and I am willing to bet that the vast majority of MMA fans would be very happy to hear that. Nonetheless, the bulk of the viewing audience is both white and male, and it is not outrageous to suggest that UFC marketing and matchmaking is more invested in this portion of the fanbase. If they are under the impression that white fans connect more easily with white fighters, then Woodley could very well be right. And according to Tyron, the UFC did contact him with earnest questions regarding his remarks.

Still, many fans find this line of thought unreasonable. Search UFC 209 on any MMA message board and you will find myriad comments accusing Woodley of playing the race card, or playing the villain. It has nothing to do with complexion; rather, they are upset that the newly crowned Woodley dared to ask for a payday fight with an established name rather than asking for Stephen Thompson as a challenger right away. Never mind the fact that Woodley did fight Thompson just a few months after winning his belt. Never mind that Michael Bisping, MMA’s favorite rogue, is now scheduled for his second title defense against an unranked opponent, actually leaving his top contenders waiting in the wings rather than just threatening to do so. Bisping is a fan favorite; Tyron Woodley is not. That’s just the way it is.

To assume that these people are all overt, aggressive racists would be foolish, but I am reminded of men like Rashad Evans and Daniel Cormier, both intelligent, genuine, and well-spoken black fighters who, for no reason that I can discern, have experienced considerable hatred throughout their careers. “Arrogant,” “whiny,” “fake”—these are not words usually associated with professional fighters, but Woodley, Evans, and Cormier have all three received such criticisms many times in the past, and the disdain for Woodley shows no signs of slowing down soon.

Even the now-beloved Anderson Silva had to toil away for well over a decade before fans learned to care about him. That it took him fighting a loudmouthed suburbanite (who calls himself a gangster) to get fans interested in one of the greatest fighters of all time is a little strange. And though he did eventually get over, Silva had the unassuming advantage of not speaking English. With no common tongue, perhaps white fans were less inclined to notice the uncomfortable similarities between themselves and their eccentric, showboating middleweight king.

As a white dude in his mid-twenties, who went to college but failed to graduate—in other words, the average MMA fan—I don’t exactly feel qualified to make strong claims about this topic. I do, however, feel that Woodley’s words deserve to be discussed rather than simply thrown back in his face. And I cannot blame the man for trying to understand just why so many people he has never met regard him with so much distaste.

One comment Woodley made when I last spoke to him stuck with me. He was talking about brutal, hard sparring, and how he was trying to gradually get away from it. I can’t help but extrapolate his words into the context of fighting in general. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think that, just from the meathead wrestling mentality, I need to beat myself and other people up four or five days a week just so I’m ready for a fight . . . When you’re a young fighter, you should do it that way; your body can take it. But when you’re a veteran, and I assume I’m at the point that I’ll be defined as a veteran, you either know you’re tough or you’re not.

“And I think I’m pretty tough, so . . .” Yeah. That’s that.

Forget putting on a show, fuck the haters. Sure, it rankles Woodley that fans don’t appreciate him. It annoys him to think that quiet racism may be among the factors motivating this ambivalence. And you better believe it pisses him off that the UFC seem either totally disinterested in promoting him, or totally ignorant of how to go about doing it. To paraphrase the man himself, Woodley rose above humble and troubled beginnings in one of the country’s most dangerous cities to become an entrepreneur, a father, a husband, and even a professional fight analyst. Who can blame him for feeling that he deserves a little respect?

In the end, however, I think that list of duties and accomplishments—his family, his children, his future—is enough for Woodley. Woodley rarely “leaves it all in the cage” if he can avoid it. And he seems more than happy to “let it go to the judges” if he knows he is ahead. Both cardinal sins in Dana White’s book, both essential aspects of Woodley’s style. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Dana White and the fans say. They exist only to pay Tyron Woodley.

Because Tyron Woodley is the champion of the world. He knows he’s good. Whether or not you agree is your problem.


For a more in-depth, technical look at the matchup between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson, plus a breakdown of UFC 209’s co-main event battle between superb lightweight contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.