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If Aug. 29, 2021 was Tyron Woodley’s last night with the spotlight of a high-profile main event fight, it was a fitting coda to a highly successful but often frustrating career. After a boxing match with a young man of improbable noteworthiness in Jake Paul—a bout in which the former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder was outlanded in six of the eight rounds and saw his output doubled in half of the eight—Woodley was left in the ring ostensibly begging the YouTube star for another payday.
In one sense, Woodley’s proposal hardly seemed ridiculous. It wasn’t as if Paul showcased clearly superior boxing skills, and the most telling offense in the fight came from Woodley in the fourth round. There wasn’t anything that landed over the course of the fight with anything close to the impact of Woodley’s hook that sent Paul into the ropes and should have been ruled a knockdown. The problem for Woodley, as it almost always has been, was that he just didn’t get off enough punches. His corner was left imploring him to let his hands go as Paul locked up rounds in large measure because Woodley simply wasn’t throwing.
Of course, who wants to see a rematch on the promise that the low-output loser of the first fight is going to do more in the second? Paul’s degrading offer that he’d give Woodley the fight if Woodley went through with tattooing Paul’s name on his body reflected the dismissive attitude Paul had towards another fight with him. The bout might conceivably still happen, if only because prospective opponent Tommy Fury was so uninspiring on the same card, but it seems more likely that Woodley’s foray into novelty boxing ended shortly after its beginning.
There are few happy endings in combat sports. Fighters are invariably tempted to continue long past their peaks, and the consequences are often disastrous. Iron-chinned knockout artists are finished by glancing blows from much less accomplished strikers. Jiu-jitsu masters have their limbs broken by younger opponents who will never reach the same rank. Powerful wrestlers are muscled around and beaten up. Woodley’s decline, unlike so many other great fighters, was not defined by his own strengths as a fighter turning against him. Rather, his strengths were no longer strong enough to cover up his preexisting shortcomings.
Woodley has always been at his best when exploding with offense. While his predecessor Georges St. Pierre’s most impressive performances were often disciplined, dominant decisions over dangerous opponents, Woodley typically struggled in longer fights. He wasn’t as good at controlling fights defensively while securing safe margins of victory. Instead, Woodley was successful at protecting himself defensively but wasn’t able to land enough in the process to be confident when the judges’ scorecards were read. As a result, Woodley often found himself in narrow split and majority decisions that could go either way.
By contrast, Woodley has tended to do better the more action there is in his fights. His best UFC performances were mostly short, such as the brutal knockouts of Josh Koscheck and Robbie Lawler or the one-sided two-round domination of Darren Till. Some fighters grow cautious out of concern about their chin or submission defense, but Woodley’s best run of finishes came after he was stopped for the first time by Nate Marquardt. Woodley’s hesitation didn’t naturally grow out of certain fights, nor did it suit him particularly well.
Counting his loss to Paul, Woodley is now only 7-5-1 in decisions while sporting a 12-3 record in fights with a finish. That’s quite unusual for a great fighter, as great fighters’ skills tend to show over the course of longer fights. From St. Pierre, Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko to Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes and Jose Aldo, elite fighters tend to lose a lot more by knockout or submission than by decision. It’s easier to capitalize on one mistake from an upper-echelon competitor than it is to get the better of them over the course of an entire fight, just like it’s easier to score an upset in a one-game playoff than a seven-game series—unless the superior talent settles into stalemates that come down to the end.
If Woodley didn’t get an explosive knockout or secure a submission, he often settled into paralysis and let fights get closer than they should have been. It was frustrating to watch, but it was simply a part of who he was as a competitor. It affected him when he was on top and it still lingers now in a different sport. Woodley accomplished plenty in spite of that trait, but it left you wondering what more he might have been able to accomplish.
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