Everything was perfect for Tyron Woodley until the Octagon gate shut on March 2, 2019.
Fresh from a blistering second-round finish of Darren Till six months earlier, Woodley was closing in on three years as the UFC welterweight champion, and as he prepared to face Kamaru Usman at UFC 235 in Las Vegas, there was plenty of talk about “The Chosen One” joining the conversation as the best 170-pound fighter of all-time.
“I do remember being ready for it,” Woodley said of the lead-up to what he hoped would be his fifth successful title defense. “I felt good when I walked out, I felt good when we tapped gloves and I told myself, just go out there and hit him as hard as you can. Let him feel it so he knows who’s the alpha male. And we got close, and I’m like, okay, it’s time to go and I just felt like a battery pack got snatched out of my back.”
There probably isn’t a better description for how Woodley fought that night against Usman. Sure, “The Nigerian Nightmare” put in a dominant five-round performance as he shut Woodley out and took the belt, but the Missouri native just wasn’t there. Listless, seemingly unconcerned or unable to pull the trigger, it was a far cry from the fighter who had already dominated much of the weight class.
In the days, weeks and months after his first loss since 2014, Woodley would see clips of the Usman fight but wouldn’t go past that.
“My shell was there,” he said. “My body was there, but me, the ingredients that make Tyron Woodley, none of that was in the Octagon. I couldn’t swing like I wanted to, I couldn’t punch, I couldn’t defend. It was like a nightmare happening in real life. I had to get rid of that moment, block it out.”
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So what happened? Maybe it was just one of those nights when everything goes south. Woodley had lost before. Not like this, but he felt the sting of defeat and he didn’t like it, especially since it cost him his title.
“It was heartbreaking just to lose because I never anticipated losing a world title fight,” he said. “Losing the belt made me realize that I was human.”
And as a human, you can be waylaid by the distractions come with being a world champion. Friends and family members you never know you had show up. Opportunities appear and multiply. And the hunger you had to reach the top can start to fade when you’re there, even if you don’t see it. Woodley went to work after the Usman fight to take care of any issues he thought were taking him away from his goals.
“I had to evaluate my workload and the things I had going on outside the Octagon and evaluate my relationships and see what was benefitting me and what was not. It forced me to evaluate myself, my circle and really get back on top.”
That’s not easy, but Woodley was mature enough to march forward and get it done.
“I really went through a lot of different emotions,” he said. “I went through a state of depression, I went through a point where I was mad, I went to the point where I was blaming people and circumstances and things for me losing. But I had to be honest with myself and know that I control my own destiny. I went through ups and downs, but where I’m at right now, I’m just driven.”
Where he’s at is in Las Vegas, a day away from his return to active duty against surging contender Gilbert Burns. The 38-year-old’s first fight back was supposed to be against Leon Edwards in London in March, but the COVID-19 scrapped that bout. Now he’s in with Burns and it’s an equally tough matchup for Woodley. But you get the impression that it doesn’t matter who’s in the Octagon with him, as long as he’s there – mentally and physically. And if that’s the case, he expects to deliver a statement to the world that his best days are still ahead of him.
“My goal is just to go out there and viciously remind everybody what I’m capable of, about the power, the explosiveness, the well-roundedness, the wrestling, the striking and the grappling and the IQ that I possess. That’s my goal,” said Woodley, who has also altered his plans regarding his place in MMA history, saying that being the best welterweight isn’t good enough anymore.
“I gotta be the best ever (regardless of weight class),” he said. “That’s a big task, a big bar, and I’m gonna chase it down.”