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When Winning is Not Enough

Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday evening, UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley retained his title against number 1 Welterweight contender Demian Maia in his third defense of his belt. Though the victory furthers Woodley’s quest to being the best Welterweight of all time, his desire to win might be his greatest road block.

UFC 214 was a historic night in many regards. Fans saw Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier finally fight after two prior attempts with a knockout victory from Jones. They witnessed the return of Cris Cyborg to the UFC with an electric performance against Tonya Evinger in the inaugural women’s Featherweight Division. Amidst this action however, the fans also witnessed the most inactive title fight in UFC history between Woodley and Maia.

Woodley and Maia’s bout set the record for the least number of strikes thrown in a championship fight with 60. The previous record for this unfortunate statistic was 130. Woodley started off the fight strong against the most dangerous Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner in the UFC.

In the first seconds of the fight, Woodley caught Maia with an uppercut as Maia attempted a take down, causing Maia’s left eye to swell shut for the remained of the fight. Woodley was able to connect with a few more powerful punches and dropped Maia once.

Despite the early action, the rest of the fight consisted of Woodley successfully defending against Maia’s 20 take down attempts. The fighters were booed throughout the fight and at one point, fans began waving their cellphones back and forth as they would at a concert during a slow song.

After the fifth round finished, Woodley won the fight by unanimous decision and retained his belt. He then called out Former Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre (GSP) for his next fight. GSP was slated to fight Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping in his return to the UFC after a hiatus.

UFC President Dana White stated that there was a chance that the winner of the Woodley-Maia fight would face GSP. In the post-fight press conference, White stated that it will be Bisping who will fight GSP in his UFC return, stating “I know that Michael Bisping will actually fight.”

When asked about the fan’s reaction to his fight, Woodley explained that true MMA fans would respect his game and although fans may want to see bloody fist fights back and forth, he is there to win. Woodley’s explanation is similar to that of Floyd Mayweather Jr. who for years has had to defend his defensive style of boxing.

In Mayweather’s case, casual fans of boxing see him dodging punches from the ropes while hardcore boxing fans marvel at his reactions and boxing knowledge. Despite this disconnect, Mayweather is still slated to make $100 million dollars with his headlining fight against Conor McGregor in August while Woodley has all but solidified himself as a co-main event headliner.

What drives Mayweather’s popularity with fans despite his “boring” style is his undefeated record of 49-0. Fan’s love to see a titan fall and Woodley has yet to reach titan status. Simply winning isn’t enough, you need to win a lot before you reap the rewards. In an era where Flyweight Demetrious Johnson is about to defend his title for the 11th time, Woodley has a long way to go before he’s won “a lot.”

Also working against Woodley is the fact that he is a Welterweight. The 170lbs division is a fan favorite with a perfect mix of speed an power. A prime example was the Welterweight bout between Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone earlier in the night that was a three round brawl with both men nearly collapsing in exhaustion by the end.

Woodley won the fight, there’s no debate there and he also signed a fat check. But at what cost? There is a risk to being risk adverse and that is that you don’t always deliver the fan’s the performance that they want to see.

There’s no salary in fighting, just large checks based on the numbers of tickets sold and pay-per-view buys made. Currently, Woodley doesn’t have enough of a draw to attract the amount of fans to a fight card with him as the headliner. This is nearly unheard of for a Welterweight Championship fight.

Woodley has two options from here; he can embrace his risk aversion and become the champion fans want to see knocked out or he can start bringing some energy to his fights. If he continues as he is, he risks missing out on millions. In a sport where you’re in your prime for such a short time, he cannot afford to do that.

Expect Woodley to face Robbie Lawler in his next title defense. It was Lawler who Woodley beat to get his belt and the UFC can profit off the redemption story line of Lawler. If Woodley prevails, there might just be something to his “win by avoiding risks” tactic.

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