Tyron Woodley’s demeanor on Monday was a far cry from his boasts of being the greatest welterweight of all time. The former UFC welterweight champion, brought down to earth after two successive defeats, said on Instagram: “If you lose a fight you don’t be coming out of the gate like, you ain’t really in a position to call anybody out. You kind of just got to take a seat, sit down, be humble, get back on the grind, get ready to beat somebody up. But you don’t really get to call the shots like that, at least I don’t think you should.”
Woodley, after all, didn’t just lose decisions to Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns, he was more or less marched around the Octagon in a headlock, hearing two 50-44 verdicts against him in each outing. The 38-year-old looked bereft of ideas against Usman, as if 25 minutes was not enough time to decipher the Hard Knocks 365 wrestler. He appeared even more out of his depth against Burns as he was dropped twice.
His fall from grace has been remarkable to see. When a champion is moments away from losing their prize in such a limp manner, time seems to speed up. You start to look at the clock, mystified at how the king is slipping away before us. You start to doubt your own following of what you’re watching: “Is this really round five?” Woodley has evidently developed a sense of perspective since succumbing to Usman and Burns but when he was champion – running through Robbie Lawler, Stephen Thompson, Demian Maia, and Darren Till – he was adamant he was the finest 170 pounds athlete to grace the cage.
Look over history, though, and you’ll find Georges St-Pierre of course holds that accolade. The inimitable Canadian schooled a welterweight murderer’s row including Matt Hughes, Josh Koscheck, Nick Diaz, BJ Penn, and Carlos Condit, defending his title a record nine times in his second reign. Hughes, to name another, defended the belt five times. Woodley, on the other hand, made four defenses – one of them a razor-thin draw against Thompson.
That’s not to discredit Woodley’s skills. On his day, he’s a forward-rushing ball of aggression, his knockout blows detonating on the chins of the likes of Lawler and Koscheck. His combinations fly like an uncoiled spring and his physique is as impressive as any in the UFC, Yoel Romero included. His issue is that he waits and waits to make his move, cases in point being his dour decision over Maia and his tedious rematch against Thompson.
He should be applauded for owning the joint-third most title defenses in UFC welterweight history but in future his reign will always be colored by a sense of disappointment, a feeling that he could have done more. He boasts all levels of MMA pyramid – standout wrestling, excellent leg kicks, and precise boxing – but his time as champion will perhaps be remembered for his staring contests rather than how he devoured Till inside two rounds with a wicked D’Arce choke.
Many analysts, Dan Hardy included, have asked whether Woodley still has the fire. Does he have the tunnel vision required to compartmentalize family life and get past in-form contenders such as Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards? Will he be able to shelf interests such as his rap and acting careers? It’s hard to stress how seriously a career in MMA should be taken and you’d hope a veteran like Woodley would understand this.
The American will carry on fighting, though, if his Instagram post is anything to go by. He could revive his career by defeating his former American Top Team training partner, Colby Covington. The two have traded verbal blows over Woodley’s accusation that he’s already accepted a meeting with Covington, while “Chaos” had earlier claimed he’s not interested in the bout because of Woodley’s slump in form.
Woodley against Covington would be intriguing, though, a case of like-for-like wrestlers with useful striking. Woodley has the greater power, but how would he cope against the way Covington pushes the pace, ramping up the output and volume? Woodley has the stronger track record of welterweight victims, yet Covington boasts one of the best gas tanks in the promotion. Let’s not forget Woodley also has history with Edwards. He was meant to face the Brit in London in March until coronavirus scuppered that event.
Whatever he does next, it seems he’ll bring a degree of humility that wasn’t there beforehand. Although it was shocking to see how easily Usman and Burns knocked Woodley from his perch, perhaps he needed it. To view it was to experience one of those “pinch yourself” moments that only sport can bring, so perhaps Woodley needed to train like a contender, forgetting what had happened before. He must nurture that philosophy if he is to join Hughes and GSP as one of the greatest.