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One of the most commonly known and boringly worded axioms is that patience is a virtue. Patience in the midst of trying circumstances demonstrates a mastery of self and an authoritative willpower over one’s emotions, those torrentially fierce kneejerk responses that demonstrate how our most complex human capacities are still subject to our most base animal instincts. To overcome such reactions and maintain a level of composure when everything in us is screaming to burst out is a virtuous feat indeed. However, virtues often have another side. As writer Ambrose Bierce said, patience is “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”
The UFC 228 main event on Saturday in Dallas demonstrated how patience can simultaneously be a virtue and a vice. In the aftermath of the title fight between Darren Till and Tyron Woodley, it was clear how it can both aid and impede a fighter’s progress -- sometimes at the same time.
Let’s start with Till. In the leadup to the fight, he was brimming with confidence: “My rise has been a lot faster than people expected, even myself. I’ve just run through everyone.” The first part of that statement is evidently true. Nobody but the most diehard Scousers saw Till getting a title shot as quickly as he did. The second part of that -- the bit about running through everyone -- takes a bit of mental gymnastics to appreciate, unless “running through” encompasses a majority draw and a controversially close decision. Does “everyone” mean six people, three of whom no longer fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? Regardless, Till’s sentiment was true enough: The 25-year-old was placed on the phenom track despite a dearth of genuine welterweight accomplishment.
Still, Till is an exciting and confident fighter, and his self-belief was earnest. Sometimes all someone needs is the opportunity. Yet after six minutes in the cage against Woodley, it became abundantly clear that Till needed much more than the opportunity. At his age, what he really needed was more experience. In hindsight, it’s safe to say he was rushed into a title shot before he really earned one, and at the rate he’s improved from fight to fight, he may have been ready to truly test the champ had he taken an extra fight or two against more top-flight opponents.
Till also ran into the wrong side of patience in the cage. While it’s never a good idea to be overly aggressive against Woodley’s mammoth power -- just ask Josh Koscheck, Dong Hyun Kim and Robbie Lawler how that worked out -- Till erred too much on the side of caution. At his best, Till balances patience and aggression by walking down opponents and picking shots without extending himself. Against Woodley, however, Till threw a grand total of seven strikes and only landed one of them. It was a performance that showed just how easily patience can slide into timidity.
On the other hand, the defending champion exemplified the virtuosity of patience, both in the cage and in a larger sense of career trajectory. Woodley has always been patient, often to a fault. He tends to back up in fights and doesn’t seem to mind putting himself against the cage to lure opponents into a crushing right hand counter. Against Till he did that, but he also initiated a lot more exchanges than he has in his last few fights. Again, the stats tell the story. He landed 9.5 significant strikes per minute against Till, compared to 2.3 per minute in his last three fights or 2.6 for his career average. That difference is a direct result of his willingness to engage.
Yet that decision was tactical. After the fight, Woodley described his more proactive performance as “unconventional”: “I had to go on a blitz technique. I saw it [was] successful with (Stephen Thompson), but ‘Wonderboy’ doesn’t possess the power that I have, so he blitzed [Till and] he hit him, but it didn’t hurt him. I hit [Till] hard a couple times, and it did hurt him. When I saw that, I just knew I needed to be composed and relax and wait for the finish to come.” Thus, this is unlikely to be a turning point in Woodley’s style, but rather a singular approach to an opponent’s specific weakness.
In a larger sense, however, Woodley’s career patience has paid off. He won the belt in 2016 with a sensational knockout of Lawler, but in the three subsequent fights as champion, he did little to win over any new fans. Woodley caught an undue amount of criticism for performances that, while undeniably boring, were at the very least only half his fault. Both Thompson and Demian Maia tend to be in either dominant, one-sided fights or ugly, uneventful ones, the former happening when they win and the latter when they lose. UFC President Dana White publicly criticized Woodley on several occasions. The 36-year-old Woodley shrugged it off, remained champion, took relatively little damage against dangerous opponents and has now put on another impressive performance. While most of his peers from the same era have either retired or embarked upon career declines, Woodley continues to be elite, and his win over Till was enough to score new fans and remind embittered ones why they liked him in the first place. “The Chosen One” kept a cool head and has only progressed because of it.
A bright future awaits both men. For Till, his age and the newfound experience of fighting -- and losing to -- one of the best welterweights of all-time will only help him take that next step in his career. For Woodley, a grudge match against Colby Covington looks likely, and that’s both an easily sellable fight and a favorable matchup. Plus, with a Wiz Khalifa collaboration dropping soon, he may just have a burgeoning rap career on his hands. If he raps like he fights, the song is sure to be a banger. Also, if he raps like he fights, we’ll just have to wait and watch.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.