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It’s become a habit for Tyron Woodley, one he hopes his peers will follow. This ritual has nothing to do with training camp prep, media obligations or anything having to do with being the UFC welterweight champion of the world. It’s more important than that.
Mr. Woodley has to meet the kids.
“I don’t care if I’m in the hardest part of my training, but we’re going to talk to and impact some kids,” said the Ferguson native, who defends his title for the second time against Stephen Thompson this Saturday in the main event of UFC 209 in Las Vegas.
So there he was at Saint Rose's in Milwaukee on Feb. 21, taking time out from his work at the Roufusport gym to tell his story. Speaking at schools has been a part of his schedule for a long time now, ever since he realized that he had a voice, a platform and something to say to children who needed to hear him and know that their start doesn’t determine their finish.
“This is what we’re supposed to do ... I don’t think it’s optional. You should make giving back a priority and part of your routine.” --Tyron Woodley
“This is what we’re supposed to do,” Woodley said. “Who came and talked to me when I was a kid? No one. What father figure was there for me to look up to and for me to learn how to be a man? The streets, my mom, sports. That’s where I learned it from. So I think it’s our duty. I don’t think it’s optional. You should make giving back a priority and part of your routine.”
It’s a statement not made often enough in professional sports, and if it is, it’s usually followed by a string of photo ops and press releases. Woodley doesn’t publicize such visits. He just makes them.
“I’m not perfect,” he laughs when commended for his work in the community, but he is an athlete intent on making a difference; not just to the world around him, but to the one he occupies, namely the one in Missouri where he and his wife raise their four children.
And despite being a world champion on top of the mixed martial arts universe, as well as a respected FS1 analyst, with all the perks that come with both gigs, Woodley is aware that the world can often be harsh, and it hits a lot harder when it affects his children.
“We live in an extremely nice neighborhood, we’ve only spoken to two or three of our neighbors (Laughs), so it’s not like we’re not living a good life. And even with the great school district and people knowing that my kids’ parents are in professional sports, the kids told my eight-year-old son (Darron) on the bus, ‘I hate you.’ He said, ‘Why,’ and they said, ‘Because of your skin color.’”
Woodley goes on to tell how his 13-year-old son Tyron Jr., was subjected to similar treatment when recruited to a wrestling league where no one would drill or warm up with him, and then was matched up with an opponent in the room that was 15 pounds heavier.
“For me, that’s not a big deal, but for a 13-year-old wrestling somebody with way more experience and 15 pounds heavier, that’s a big deal,” he said.
Even six-year-old Dylan saw the ugly side of this world when told by one of his classmates, “I don’t want to play with you and I’m not your friend.’”
So when Woodley talks about the state of his world, just as he did in 2014 in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in his hometown of Ferguson, he’s not trying to make headlines. Like giving back to the community, he believes it’s an obligation.
Of course, in the midst of everything going on, the 34-year-old does have a fight coming up, a rematch with a man who held him to a draw on the historic UFC 205 card at Madison Square Garden. Woodley believes he won the first one, so heading into bout number two, he expects to mix a little bit of what he showed last November with a lot more of what his team expected him to do in New York City.
“I was able to win that last fight without even completely executing the game plan and we added a few things,” he said. “I’m just more comfortable with the style (of Thompson) and I’m so motivated. I’m blessed that I could be this motivated for a fight that I feel I won the first time.”
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Notice there is no mention of the draw verdict, even if that’s what the official result is. It’s a champion’s mentality, and even if he feels he was shortchanged the first time and in the build-up to the rematch, he won’t let anyone see him stray from that winning mindset. And when the dust settles, he says he won’t be declaring “I told you so” in the Octagon.
“I’m the best in the world and this is another day in the office for me,” he said. “I don’t need to go crazy. I’m just gonna go out there and win.”
If he does, he will not just retain his title, but his platform as well. Though when it comes to Tyron Woodley, no matter what happens this weekend, it looks like he’s already gotten his message across.
“My eight-year-old was on the local news and was talking about it (what happened to him on the bus), saying, ‘What he said makes me feel bad. He said something that was extremely negative and he shouldn’t have said that. Nobody should be treated any different because of their skin color,’” Woodley recalls. “That’s an eight-year-old speaking. And my oldest son went out there and kicked that kid’s butt that weighed 15 pounds heavier than him and he said, ‘I didn’t like the way it felt, but I wasn’t gonna let that kid beat me.’ And he decided not to wrestle in that league. So the choices that they’re making tells me as a father that it’s not for naught. I’m doing these things for a reason.”