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Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley turned in a superlative performance opposite the then-undefeated Darren Till just three months ago, submitting the 25-year-old phenom in the second round of a fight where the challenger didn’t land a single significant strike. Over the course of nine minutes and some change, “The Chosen One” nullified the Englishman’s vaunted muay Thai offense, comfortably controlling him in the first round before dropping him with a left hand in the opening minute of the second. From there, he softened “The Gorilla” with a hellacious sequence of elbows and punches before sliding in a brabo choke and closing the show. Woodley walked into the Octagon as an underdog against whom UFC President Dana White was actively rooting and momentarily silenced his many critics with the showing, earning his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the process.
White skipped the post-fight press conference that night, a rarity that many interpreted as a refusal to give Woodley -- who had defended his title for the fourth time and earned a performance bonus for the third time in five fights -- his due. An Instagram post promoting the champion’s rap single was the closest thing we got to a communication on the subject of his 170-pound champ since September, and one suspects it was authored by a public relations representative rather than White himself. That radio silence continued until last weekend, when he was asked about the state of the welterweight title picture at the UFC 231 media scrum. It gave White the only excuse he needed to get back to the promotional vandalism.
“When is Woodley ready to fight anybody ever?” White asked angrily, after suggesting that the division might “move on” with a new champ in the near future. When pressed on the fact that Woodley had fought less than 90 days ago, White doubled down on his petulance. “[I]t took us forever to get him to fight that fight,” he said. “Guy never wants to fight. You want to be a world champion, but you don’t want to fight anybody. That’s a problem.”
It seems unlikely that the UFC would actually strip Woodley, who currently has more defenses of his title than any of his championship contemporaries. However, this latest indictment seems to mark a departure from White’s by now customary repudiation of his obligations as Woodley’s promoter to an act of sabotage that is equal parts malicious and absurd.
Of the UFC’s Top-15 pound-for-pound fighters, there is only one who has fought more frequently than Woodley in the past two years. Since November 2016, the welterweight champ has notched four defenses of his title, while dual light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier has fought five times over the same period. Tying Woodley for activity is lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, featherweight kingpin Max Holloway, recently installed flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and reigning 185-pound champion Robert Whittaker. After them comes T.J. Dillashaw, Stipe Miocic, Cristiane Justino, Tony Ferguson and Rose Namajunas, who have each fought three times over that time. Conor McGregor and Georges St. Pierre have fought twice and once, respectively.
It goes without saying that none of the aforementioned names have attracted anywhere near the kind of criticism for their fight calendars. “Cyborg” received the exact opposite kind of treatment midway through this year, when the company forced her into a six-month hiatus to accommodate its plans for a superfight opposite Amanda Nunes on Dec. 29. Likewise, White has consistently failed to reprimand McGregor for his self-imposed absence from the Octagon, much of which was attributable to his criminal behavior. That’s not to say that this is the first time White has used the fighter-X-is-too-scared-to-fight card to bully someone into accepting the UFC’s terms. However, even by his hypocrisy-laced standards, the animus for Woodley seems as counterintuitive as it is incoherent.
What’s even more disappointing are the circumstances surrounding White’s outburst. Moving the originally planned UFC 233 main event to the promotion’s debut on ESPN a week prior left the pay-per-view card in need of a late replacement headliner. When offered the slot opposite longtime antagonist Colby Covington, Woodley said he needed more time to confer with his doctors regarding injuries he sustained in the aforementioned Till fight. That is exactly how one would expect a professional athlete to respond to a request to render his services.
Given the proximity of White’s comments to the return of Max Holloway at UFC 231 on Dec. 8 -- the Hawaiian’s road back to the Octagon was dominated by concern for his health after a string of unsettling injuries characterized the first three quarters of 2018 -- the prudence of this course of action shouldn’t need repeating. Quite apart from the economic impact promotions wear when fighters pull out of fights after the posters have been printed and tickets sold, the potential for fighting injured to snowball into more serious health woes can’t be overstated. Whereas it’s impossible not to admire Holloway’s courage (seriously, who the [expletive] else would be willing to fight Nurmagomedov on a week’s notice?), the fact remains that this freewheeling approach has forced him off three separate events this year alone; Woodley doesn’t appear to have ever pulled out of a fight under the promotional banner.
By White’s own admission, Woodley has all the trappings of an athlete that could permeate the mainstream consciousness. In the lead up to UFC 228, White in an interview with BT Sport went on the record as follows: “Tyron Woodley is good-looking, has the perfect physique, he’s got the record and he’s got knockout power in both hands, but every time [he] opens his mouth, he shoots himself in the foot. He’s a very unlikeable guy to fight fans.”
The problem with that argument -- that Woodley would be a star if he just stopped saying disagreeable things -- is that White is the one leading the chorus condemning the things Woodley says. Whether it’s characterizing the champion as a “drama queen” for his comments on racism in MMA, calling him “full of s---” for talking about a fight with Nate Diaz that the UFC was actively trying to sign or putting him on blast for trying to pick his title defenses (i.e. the exact same thing many of his counterparts seems to be doing), White’s vendetta against Woodley serves nothing and no one but his own ego. That his criticisms have crossed over from gratuitous to outright specious is a stain on the entire UFC brand.
All signs point to Woodley being booked in the first quarter of 2019, and in all likelihood, he’ll leave the Octagon with the belt firmly in tow. At this point, though, the real question isn’t whether Woodley will be victorious inside the cage; it’s whether White will ever let him be a winner outside of it.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.