August 10, 2016

UFC: Tyron Woodley's Focus On One Kind of "Prize" Blinds Him To Others

By Michael Ford

Tyron Woodley is the world champion of a division that has long been considered one of the deepest and most talented weight classes in the sport -- the UFC welterweight division. Hall of Famers Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre are synonymous with this division's greatness, and Woodley, one would assume, hopes to carry on the tradition of greatness that these two legends established. Or does he?

The term "champion" comes from the Medieval Latin campio, or "fighter," and denotes "a person that has defeated or surpassed all rivals" in competition, according to the OED. In practice, it has come to mean not only the best, but one who is suited to represent the group of competitors he or she is the champion of. It very much has become synonymous with "standard-bearer." This is even more important in individual sports than team sports, because the best athletes are pushed to the forefront and shape the way that the mainstream fan views that sport at a given moment. And thus, it's no surprise that the champions of sport who do this well become the biggest and most marketable stars.

Which brings us to Tyron Woodley. He overcame the idea that he was a "boring" fighter in Strikeforce -- an idea that kept him out of a title fight with the promotion's meal ticket Nick Diaz -- as well as a devastating loss to Nate Marquardt in the first title fight he received. The way that he did that was by winning UFC fights in devastating fashion. However, his Octagon losses -- all by decision -- raised questions about his endurance that despite his thundering UFC 201 victory over Robbie Lawler remain unanswered. He's the new welterweight champion, but he has a lot to prove.

It is against this backdrop that Woodley, who often moonlights as a Fox Sports 1 analyst, has become a lightning rod for criticism. He called out Diaz and GSP, neither of whom are active UFC welterweights, and bypassed the consensus #1 contender in Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson, and was roundly criticized for doing so. As a member of sports media, he is well aware of the importance of narratives, as well as the "hot take" culture that permeates his world. His colleagues level pointed critiques that shape the perceptions of athletes and profoundly impact their marketability. In the case of African-American athletes, they're often scrutinized even more harshly by the fanbase than their white counterparts, and even if he himself does not participate in that, he has to be aware of it.

There's no denying that professional sports is typically as much if not more about money than competition. However, part of the appeal of sports is in eliding that fact. It isn't quite pro wrestling in that it doesn't ask you to suspend disbelief, but star athletes who can properly compartmentalize the fact that they are professionals who deserve to be fully compensated and the idea that they have insatiable thirsts for competition and the attainment of greatness tend to be most popular. And even the stars that don't, they typically go about their business in such an entertaining way that their "haters" enjoy rooting against them, in part because they respect how great they are; that too is a performance. In combat sports, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor play those roles well. And it's hard to say that anyone in MMA parlayed the ideals of class and professionalism into lucrative outside-the-cage opportunities better than GSP did.

Woodley, one must suppose, is trying to be more Mayweather than GSP, and that's a shame. Fans want to have fighters they can root for even more than they want fighters to root against. And in the case of Woodley, who hasn't earned championship-level respect, the negative attitude he elicits isn't going to earn him the truly big bucks that stardom should afford him.

While it's true that the popularity of both St.-Pierre and Diaz dwarf his, Woodley's transparent talk of seeking "money fights" will undercut the sporting draw of the best welterweight of all time facing the top welterweight right now. He's not fighting to test himself against the greatest, and if he goes back and says that now, we fans won't believe him. And in the case of Diaz, a fighter whose last win was in October 2011, whatever contrivance the promotion bases the matchup on will be poisoned. From a competition standpoint, Woodley would be in a no-win scenario -- a victory over a past-prime, ring-rusted Diaz who didn't even deserve the shot, or a loss to him, which he'll never live down. How big does the check have to be for Woodley to justify that risk?

Clearly, of the two options, a matchup with Georges St-Pierre is ideal. Hardcore fans who have soured on Woodley will shower him with boos, and GSP will be viewed as a returning legend who never lost his belt. He'll be the sentimental favorite, and the path to victory -- survive Woodley's initial onslaught, then outlast him over the course of 25 minutes -- favors the Canadian. If Woodley can score that bout, he will definitely earn a big paycheck. If he can win it, he might just earn big respect. But regardless, because of the way he went about his business, he'll be hard-pressed to earn more fans. And that might cost him more "prizes" in the long run.

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