Another chapter in the on-again, off-again feud between Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White and welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley played out publicly this week.
True to his reputation, White unleashed a profane verbal attack on Woodley during an episode of “UFC Tonight” on Fox Sports 1. Woodley responded with a comparable level of venom via social media and in interviews with “The MMA Hour” and TMZ. This song and dance has become all too common with White. Other promoters, athletic commission officials, current and former champions, media members, contracted fighters and even fans on Twitter have found themselves in the crosshairs of the UFC figurehead. However, Woodley stands out in a crowded group in a rather unique way. He’s a reigning champion with multiple title defenses under his belt and remains a consistent presence on Fox Sports 1, yet he has become a more frequent target than others. This dates back to a failed attempt to pair Woodley with former Bellator MMA champion and American Top Team stablemate Hector Lombard in 2014.
White’s word not too long ago was considered the gospel among many MMA fans. How many of them jumped on the Greg Jackson “sport killer” bandwagon after UFC 151? Fortunately, times have changed and White’s inconsistencies have largely caught up to him. However, Woodley is one of the few subjects on which White still seems to be believed. He has been allowed to write the narrative for the most part. Where does that leave Woodley? There’s no simple answer.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the backlash against Woodley has typically followed the direct public criticisms from White. Observers have been all over the map with their feelings. Woodley’s knockouts of Jay Hieron and Josh Koscheck are two of the most memorable finishes in recent memory. The criticism he faced in regards to the Lombard situation and lackluster losses to Rory MacDonald and Jake Shields mirrored White’s words and simultaneously ate away at the goodwill afforded Woodley following his wins over Hieron and Koscheck. Some of the talking points adopted by his critics: “He dodges opponents. He chokes in big fights. He refuses to take risks and go for the knockout.”
It’s possible the inverse is true. Maybe the fans have impacted White’s stance on Woodley. Compare his response to Woodley’s tactical win over Stephen Thompson at UFC 209 to that of his infamous title defense against Demian Maia at UFC 214. Whatever the case may be, a quick analysis of the perception surrounding Woodley is clear: He is held to an obvious double standard.
As White took the podium for the UFC 214 post-fight press conference, he wasted little time before skewering Woodley over a successful but less-than-entertaining title defense against Maia. During the fight, the crowd showed its disapproval with loud boos and by waving cell phones in the air. White added fuel to the fire afterward: “Who’s going to pay to see Tyron Woodley?” In doing so, the UFC president ignored some key factors in the bout. He did not even entertain the statistical significance of Woodley stuffing all 24 of Maia’s takedown attempts and keeping the fight standing against a world-class grappler. Did White acknowledge the role that Maia’s game plan played in the results, a strategy similar to that which he employed against Anderson Silva at UFC 112? Where was the vitriol when Georges St. Pierre went on a string of decisions that covered seven of his title defenses? His run included two fights -- against Koscheck and Shields -- where St. Pierre followed similar strategies to Woodley at UFC 214? White heaped praise on St. Pierre for staying on the outside, peppering his opponents with shots and avoiding takedowns. More recently, Stipe Miocic retained his heavyweight championship against fellow knockout artist Francis Ngannou at UFC 220, where, in White’s words, he did “what he needed to do” against such a heavy hitter.
When Woodley captured the welterweight belt in spectacular fashion against Robbie Lawler at UFC 201, he used his platform to call out St. Pierre and Nick Diaz for a sought-after “money fight.” While his demands were largely met by shrugs from White and many onlookers, there was little talk about the company’s changing culture and the role it played in Woodley’s move. Ahead of his battle with Lawler, Woodley undoubtedly took note of the shadow of Conor McGregor, a shadow that loomed over the welterweight division at the time. Before Nate Diaz replaced then-lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196, there was plenty of talk about McGregor making a run at the 170-pound title if he proved victorious. That discussion was put to bed when Diaz choked the Irishman into submission. The idea that Woodley could be overlooked in favor of a featherweight champion indicated that meritocracy was no longer a significant part of the UFC’s business model.
While Woodley fields criticism for now targeting Nate Diaz for a nonsensical bout, did we forget that St. Pierre returned from a four-year layoff to face Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship without ever having had a fight at 185 pounds? Keep in mind, all three of Woodley’s title defenses have come against the rightful No. 1 contender at the time. Demetrious Johnson may be the only active UFC titleholder who can relate to the double standards and criticism coming from White -- the man who is supposed to promote him. I wonder what else Johnson and Woodley have in common.
We live in a world where “CM Punk” is a UFC veteran perhaps on the verge of making his second appearance inside the Octagon and Roufusport teammate Ben Askren “needs experience” to fight under the promotion’s flag. Is Woodley really the problem? It’s only natural for prizefighters to seek out the biggest prizes possible. That urge led Bisping, St. Pierre, McGregor, Chael Sonnen and others to their pots of gold. When Woodley seeks only to do the same, why is he given the “drama queen” label? I’m all for preserving the sport’s integrity, but let’s not crucify someone who wants to benefit as much as he can financially from the sacrifices he makes physically.
Instead of directing frustration at Woodley for trying to navigate through the culture in which he competes, it would make more sense to direct it at the forces driving that culture. After all, this is the world White, Endeavor and others in high places have created. Woodley is simply living in it.