As he stood on the dais after successfully defending his title for a third time in nine months, welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was inundated with questions about the reaction to his fight. Fans booed in the stands. The Twittersphere decried his inability to knock out Demian Maia, a jiu jitsu specialist. To cap the night, UFC president Dana White pulled the most potentially lucrative fight in Woodley’s career off the table, bemoaning a performance he labeled boring.
Instead of booking Georges St-Pierre to fight Woodley next at welterweight, as he promised days earlier, White changed course to allow St-Pierre to move up to middleweight to fight champion Michael Bisping. In the following weeks, a fight was officially booked for UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
And Woodley sat in the bowels of the Honda Center in Anaheim in late July, microphone in hand, defending himself after dispatching the unquestioned No. 1 contender for his title. He's an unappreciated champion with the third-longest active title reign in the UFC, in number of title defenses.
After Woodley’s first two title defenses against Stephen Thompson, the champion’s team scrutinized his performance in the locker room after the fight. Not after Woodley soundly defeated Maia, however. The coaches praised his ability to stick to the game plan despite a shoulder injury.
For the first time in his title reign, his coaches were pleased with his performance.
“The only thing I could've done differently in this fight is try to knock him out more,” Woodley said.
But over the course of his tumultuous reign as champion, Woodley has learned to block out the critics.
“I purposely chose not to be affected, not to read, not to listen at all,” Woodley said a few weeks after UFC 214, reflecting on the fallout of the fight..
Fans are fickle. They’re supporting one fighter one day, and another one the next. Conor McGregor was universally loved until he faced Nate Diaz at UFC 196, when a large contingent of anti-McGregor fans emerged, a faction that grew after he lost.
“It's always something, it's never going to be something that's pleasing,” Woodley said. “People will always find something to say and once you become comfortable with that, you can walk away and smile.”
Woodley’s had detractors his entire career. His endurance has been questioned because of his physical stature, while his skills as a martial artist have been downplayed and chalked up to his “explosive athleticism,” a lazy description of him as a fighter.
“If it would of made it to the second, third, fourth round, ‘Tyron would of got tired’” Woodley said, recalling analysis of his previous fights.
“Three fights in a row. Three, five-round fights in a row, one on four weeks notice... no one should ever bring my muscular build up and think it is going to have something to do with my output in the fight.”
But in victory at UFC 214, Woodley lost a financial windfall and opportunity to enhance his legacy.
"I wanted to fight one more time, I was being greedy,” Woodley said. “I wanted to go out here and beat this dude and I wanted to fight Georges-St Pierre in November in New York City. This would've been the greatest year competitively and after I beat Georges, there is no question that I'll be Fighter of the Year. I fight five title fights in 18 months and beat the greatest welterweight of all time, nobody has done anything like that in our sport.
"God does things on his time. He wanted me to sit down and wanted me to get some other aspects of my life back in order.”
His quest to find balance is aided by a medical suspension due to his torn labrum at UFC 214.
After UFC 214, Woodley set off into the wilderness to get away from things, a short two-day stay in a remote cabin in Colorado without cell reception. His hectic schedule and numerous obligations wouldn't allow him to take any longer, but it gave him enough time to turn his attention inward. As he rested and rehabbed his shoulder, he read and listened to spiritual music, stopping to pray and meditate four times a day.
"I know when you do things systematically, non-stop, and repetition, that's how you make things happen in your life. It's the same thing in faith," Woodley said
“I came back motivated. I came back eager. I came back with a positive attitude. I know the things in my life I got to shake and correct. I'm going to be okay. I'm going to be what God wanted me to be, and that's exciting to know."
Balance is the immediate goal of Woodley’s transformation. A week before UFC 214 he was working for Fox covering an event in Long Island.
"There is no balance for me yet. That's part of my life I need to get together,” Woodley said. “I had to go pray and really put myself in line and figure out my priorities because I work, work, work. I don't sleep, I don't rest. I finish and I'm on a plane right to the next thing. There have been weeks where I may have had 12 hours total of sleep. Not even exaggerating.
"I heard a long time ago that 50 Cent said sleep is for broke people, and I took that way too close to heart and I've been running myself into the ground.”
Woodley was in Los Angeles prepping for a movie in mid-August before boarding a plane to head to Las Vegas as part of the Fox team covering the fight between McGregor and Floyd Mayweather. Then it’s back to Los Angeles for movie prep before he finally returns home to St. Louis and takes his son to football practice on Tuesday.
All these opportunities are blessings, and Woodley recognizes that.
"If I do decide to get surgery, it's going to kill me cause I'm so used to moving, but it's going to be a couple months where I have to sit down," Woodley said.
But the idle time would allow Woodley to focus on personal projects including numerous book ideas, investment opportunities and movies.
"Some of them are spiritual, some of them are motivational, some of them are part spiritual, motivational and financial books because at the end of the day, I am a man of God but I'm a businessman as well,” Woodley said. “You can lose yourself. There has been a point in my career when I started feeling it a little bit. I started feeling the thoughts and literally getting too accustomed to the lifestyle. All the free stuff, all the exposure, all the access.
“I had to take a step back and say 'Hey, let me get back to the person who started the sport' and remember my original reasons I got into it."
In the weeks leading up to UFC 214, Fox Sports aired a feature titled “In The Clinch” focusing on Woodley’s roots in Ferguson, Missouri, and his journey in MMA. The show was raw and authentic, even it if was a milder, PG version of the actual events.
“For once, people can get a piece of why I fight,” Woodley said. “Why it's so important that I'm the champion. What it took for me to get here. How many opportunities did I have to veer off and get into negative things in my life. How was I able to focus through all the adversity, all the temptation, all the distraction, all the crime, all the injuries, all the nay-sayers. How am I still here?
“And guess what... I'm still getting the haters and the nay-sayers. And guess what, I'm not going anywhere.”
Woodley plans to write an autobiography that promises to be more revealing than the Fox show, which the network believes could net them some awards.
“They're going to look back and a lot of people are going to want to apologize for comments they made,” Woodley said. “This dude is a survivor, this dude is a warrior, this dude has a mind that is only from God. That he was able to even compete, that he was even still alive... That's what I'm waiting on.”
Now, Woodley is moving forward with a clear mind and eager to improve in all aspects of his life, not just the cage.
“I've been scared to have a clear mind,” Woodley said. “I'm so used to dealing with drama, chaos and pressure that I'm used to it. I'm scared I won't perform the same way. It's almost become part of the deal. Like I'm looking for the injury, conflict, the crazy schedule.
“I'm looking for something I have to fight or deal with because training becomes the escape. When I'm training I don't have to think about this. So training has been my escape. If you need so many hours and minutes of escape to get away from the chaos, damn, you're going to be in shape, trained well, sharp and focused.”
Woodley can't live his life in a cabin in Colorado and so training has become the tool for pursuing mindfulness and balance
“That's my one place of freedom,” Woodley said. “It's like a piece of art because I love training. I don't even love fighting, I just love training, and I love winning and I love being at the top.”
"Tyron Woodley is going up to middleweight to face Georges St-Pierre if he beats Michael Bisping," is a headline Woodley says he would like to see.
Woodley’s next UFC opponent hasn’t been announced yet, though White has pegged Robbie Lawler as the man waiting in the wings.
"My brother-in-law just asked me that question and I said you know what, if he wins I'm going up there to fight him cause you can't keep running from me."
Woodley would consider moving up to fight whoever wins. Champion vs. champion fights are marketable, earning both fighters and the UFC big paydays.
“I would fight Bisping as well, to be honest,” Woodley said. “I'm not just saying I want to move up to middleweight because at welterweight I'm a larger size and I feel comfortable at the weight. I have no issues making it, it's not easy but I always get it done.
“To fight Bisping or Georges, I'd love fight either one. But mainly I want to fight Georges.”
The middleweight title picture is murky, though. Robert Whittaker is the interim middleweight champion, but he won’t fight Bisping in a unification bout. Instead, St-Pierre is jumping the line for a shot at the champ, a marquee fight with big names in an iconic venue.
St-Pierre said he is contractually obligated to defend the middleweight title if he wins, presumably against Whittaker. Woodley disagrees.
“There is no such thing as a stipulation, you're a sub-contract worker,” Woodley said. “You're not obligated or required to do anything."
Woodley added: “What about when Johny Hendricks was the clear-cut winner and it was time for him to fight for the title and he got passed over by Nick Diaz who lost to Carlos Condit? It's a game of what fight makes money, that's all it is.”
The public spat between Woodley and White is no longer an obstacle to Woodley’s aspirations as a champion. The two have talked and are on good terms, and have even discussed a timeline for Woodley’s return, but it’s a lesson learned.
With a renewed sense of inner peace and a quest to find balance in his life, Woodley is ready to pursue the best fights and business options for himself. That includes a super fight with a big name opponent, even outside of his weight class. Not fighting the unquestioned No. 1 contender to his welterweight title would be a departure from Woodley’s trend of fighting the next man up.
But there might not be a clear-cut top contender in the wings.
“There is no No. 1 contender, I've fought them all, right?” Woodley rhetorically asks. “At the end of the day, you don't get rewarded for beating someone whose claim is the No. 1 contender, the No. 1 guy outside the champion. There is no reward for that. Some of those fights are going to be close, some of those fights are going to be chess matches. It's a game of inches. But you don't get rewarded for that.
“But guys can go out and fight guys that aren't even in their weight class, aren't even ranked in the top-10. Bisping's last fight against Dan Henderson, was Dan Henderson even in the top-15 at the time? Conor fought Nate Diaz at 170 and neither one of those guys are true 170-pounders. It's not a matter of No. 1 contendership anymore. It's a matter of money and business.”