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Not all champions are held in the same esteem in the UFC. To be sure, reaching the championship level is an accomplishment in and of itself. However, there are now nearly 25 years of history upon which to draw. The number of weight classes has continually expanded. Interim titles have become increasingly common. The sport itself naturally lends itself to turbulence. Thus, there is no shortage of men and women who have held Ultimate Fighting Championship gold. That carries a certain cache. There is then an even higher status that comes with being a great champion in this sport, someone that fans think about when remembering the trajectory of each division.
For years, it has been apparent that Tyron Woodley wants to be regarded as a member of this second and more selective group. In interviews, he talks more about legacy than the average champion. He thinks about opponents in terms of how a win or loss would be perceived. He has actively sought out big-name fights -- and largely failed to get them -- that would elevate his stature in the long term. Fighters compete for all sorts of different reasons: money, fame, love of competition and so on. For Woodley, legacy looms larger than it does for most.
In spite of Woodley’s desire to be perceived as an elite champion, he has struggled to reach that status, even as he has built up wins. When he received his title shot against Robbie Lawler, he was a deserving challenger but hardly an undeniable one. Thus, when he emphatically knocked out Lawler, there was still a sense that Woodley had more to prove. That wasn’t necessarily even in a hostile sense, although Woodley to be sure had his detractors; fans had seen the title bounce around, so they naturally assumed that was likely to continue. Woodley didn’t jump out as significantly more likely than other recent champions to buck the trend.
A big part of the problem was also the way that Georges St. Pierre still towered over the division. With St. Pierre never having lost the welterweight title, Woodley emerged at a time when GSP was still the fighter most associated with the UFC crown at 170 pounds. Woodley could not get a fight with St. Pierre and so it was naturally going to take time for the two-time NCAA All-American to distance himself from the legacy of perhaps the most accomplished MMA fighter of all-time.
On paper, Woodley’s fights with Stephen Thompson should have been significant resume-builders. Thompson is exceedingly difficult to look good against. Woodley hung with Thompson on the feet, where “Wonderboy” excels, drawing with Thompson at UFC 205 before beating him in their rematch four months later. That sounds good, but the problem is the way the fights went. It wasn’t just that their second fight was a stinker; it was that Woodley was significantly more impressive in the draw than in the win.
The first Woodley-Thompson fight was justifiable as a draw because of the nature of the 10-point must system, but in totality, Woodley clearly got the better of the fight. He landed significantly more strikes, did much more damage, dominated on the ground and seriously threatened with a submission. It was an excellent performance by Woodley, but it is now largely forgotten because the second fight was so bad.
Demian Maia then extended the problem, as Woodley won another dull bout at UFC 214. Fans will excuse dull performances against tough opponents if there are showcase wins mixed in. A list of title defenses looks impressive, even if some of the performances weren’t that memorable. What fans do remember are the spectacular victories. Woodley just needed that showcase win, and that’s exactly what he got against Darren Till in the UFC 228 main event on Saturday in Dallas.
There was good reason to believe Till would present a lot of problems for Woodley. Till was younger, bigger, undefeated and hungry. As such, Till slowly turned into the betting favorite as money came in on him to win. The credibility Till had as an opponent going in made the nature of the champion’s victory more meaningful as Woodley took the Englishman apart. Woodley managed to take down Till, rock him standing and submit him on the ground inside two rounds. It was an emphatic statement as Woodley continues to accumulate title defenses.
Following Woodley’s win, there has been discussion about where Woodley ranks among all-time great welterweights like St. Pierre and Matt Hughes. We’ll have a better sense for that in a few years when we have greater context. However, Sept. 8, 2018 was the night that clearly became the conversation. At UFC 228, Woodley went from a champion to a great champion. Regardless of where you place him, even if he loses the title in his next fight, he now has to be a part of that conversation. Just like was predicted for him when he was the hot undefeated prospect in Strikeforce many years ago, Woodley has proven his class.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.