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Just minutes after Tyron Woodley brutally clobbered Robbie Lawler to take the UFC welterweight crown at UFC 201 in Atlanta, I was preparing to do “Beatdown After the Bell” and quickly thought to myself, “What's next, where do we go from here?” since Woodley-Lawler hardly seemed to call for the oft-employed immediate championship rematch. Then, I remembered Stephen Thompson and his sensational seven-fight UFC winning streak were sitting in the Fox Sports 1 studio all night long. Whoops, my apologies to “Wonderboy,” just a simple slip of the mind.
And then, Tyron Woodley, not an hour removed from the nuclear right hand that melted Lawler and getting the belt put on his waist, did this:
From the studio desk, Thompson tried his best to call out Woodley for a title shot, despite his impeccable manners and slight embarrassment about picking Lawler before the bout. As he sheepishly finished his plea to the new champ, Woodley was all over him, interjecting with a defiant “Here's what I think!” before telling Thompson that he could have his wish of fighting Robbie Lawler on an undercard somewhere, because he wanted to fight Nick Diaz, who was still one day away from even being eligible to fight again after his UFC 183 debacle 18 months ago. On the live cable split screen, Thompson pursed his lips and grimaced slightly while Woodley used the microphone on his headset as a metaphorical hammer to smash the dreams of “Wonderboy” in front of his face on a TV monitor.
Normally, you can't say what an athlete will be like as a champion, promotionally or competitively, until they actually start trying to defend and reign. Within 60 minutes, I was convinced that Woodley's championship tenure, however long it might last, will be about getting paid.
As UFC welterweight champion, Woodley clearly sees his chance to go into business for himself and really, it makes all the sense in the world. First of all, it's highly rational and explainable from a personal perspective: Woodley started fighting as an amateur in 2006, has now been a pro for nearly seven years and he's 34 years old. He's got a family of his own and a giant extended familial circle, as Woodley was born the 11th of 13 children to his parents. He's UFC champion and has a regular gig on cable TV as an analyst to boot; there's never been a better time to cash in.
It also makes sense on a personal level that once getting some leverage over Zuffa and the UFC, Woodley would be all-too-happy to wield it quickly and forcefully. In recent years, few elite fighters have been publicly sewered as often or intensely by UFC boss Dana White as Woodley. From calling him a choke artist after he was subdued by Rory MacDonald's jab to saying Woodley wanted “no part” of Hector Lombard, Dana White has made it a habit to consistently undermine the man who now wears his title. It doesn't take a particularly savvy or cynical point of view to figure that Dana and Co. would've preferred a dramatic Robbie Lawler win in Atlanta. Instead, since Woodley has the title and took in such stark fashion, he gets to flip the double birds to Stephen Thompson, the UFC and their farcical rankings.
In an MMA world where we steadily bemoan fighters repeating the tired “I'll fight whoever the UFC says is next” tripe, it's outstanding to see Woodley's title reign begin with such gusto. To Woodley's credit, it's not just a stance that's rational and understandable for a guy pathologically crapped on by his own promoter, it's actually quite genius. As everyone has been keen to point out, Woodley's desire to fight Diaz fresh off an 18-month suspension, on three weeks' notice and not having won a single fight since B.J. Penn of all people almost five years ago, was not realistic. However, Woodley got to set his own narrative about his ethos as champion and plant the seed for a Diaz match whenever he may emerge from the sideline and win a fight.
Meanwhile, Woodley took to his own podcast on Tuesday and said that he had spoken directly to former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, and that “Rush” was interested in fighting him. Woodley went from the interesting but unrealistic callout of Diaz and segued directly into talking about facing arguably the greatest MMA fighter ever. Better still, it injects Woodley himself into the ongoing “Will and if so when will Georges St. Pierre return?” conversation. It's shooting for the stars; there's literally no bigger, more lucrative fight that he could hope to have in his entire MMA career. A GSP return, regardless of opponent, is a pay-per-view that will do a million buys. Even in a loss to St. Pierre, Woodley would make more money than he would in a whole handful of title defenses against the Stephen Thompsons of the world.
And, hey, maybe Woodley is the right guy with the right style to coax St. Pierre out of a retirement going on three years. GSP has been vocal about his concerns over PED testing and we're now amidst the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency era, as well as his concerns over taking head trauma after disclosing bouts of memory loss. St. Pierre never seemed especially keen to fight Robbie Lawler despite the UFC broaching it, and if you're concerned about chronic brain injury, yeah, maybe don't fight Robbie Lawler.
Yes, Woodley just brutally stiffened Lawler with his massive right hand, but concussive violence like that is an occasional feature of a Woodley bout, whereas that brutality is the very nature of almost any five-round Lawler bout. Even with the layoff, it's not crazy to think St. Pierre could jab and leg kick Woodley for 25 minutes, or perhaps even outwrestle him, with significantly less risk of damage. Again, Woodley's posturing is fantastic, even on perhaps unintended levels.
In the end, what's the worst case scenario? The risk-reward ratio is firmly in Woodley's favor. He stakes nothing by balking at the UFC's plans, creating his own hype and angling for Diaz or St. Pierre. The UFC isn't going to go full-blown fascist and strip him of his title because he's politicking to get paid against fighters that would draw for the company, hell, the UFC should probably laud him for it. No, the worst case scenario is that after all this talk, Diaz isn't viable, St. Pierre turns down an offer and Woodley is stuck fighting a great no. 1 contender in Thompson, a fight that he's already started hyping by making Thompson wince on Fox Sports 1.
A first title defense against Thompson for Woodley is obviously dangerous and should he lose the title immediately, he'll lose the bargaining power to fight the Diazes and St. Pierres while doing 300,000 pay-per-view buys and that might be optimistic. Even if it caught us off guard, Woodley's sudden shot calling is only common sense. Even if you're not a Woodley fan, the worst you can say about the UFC's new welterweight champion is that he wants to fight a legend in the biggest possible fight and payday he could ever reasonably dream of and that he enjoys getting to spite his boss. Who doesn't want to be rich, famous and spite our employer?