UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley is an African American athlete in the modern age of sports activism. He does not take this responsibility lightly. He grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and that fact alone gives him a voice on racial matters for it was his town, his neighborhood, his very street where Michael Brown was shot and his body lay for hours baking in the summer sun. As a young black man in he was racially profiled, pulled over needlessly by police and once thrown in a paddy wagon with a group of friends because he says: “We looked like we were up to something.”
He wrestled at the University of Missouri where last 8 November the football team went on strike in support of a black students and forced the school’s president to resign. He is proud of what the football players did at his alma mater, but more importantly, he sees the power their protest gives men like himself – African Americans with fame, money and success – to speak about topics like inequality. He believes they need to use it regardless of consequences.
In September he listened to Donald Trump rambling on about Ferguson as if it was some flaming ghetto and not the racially mixed suburban St Louis town he knows. This angered him and so he said: His comments were dutifully reported by TMZ who ran a picture of him with a clenched fist and a headline that said he Trump. His words made headlines and a few days later, a crowd of mostly white fans booed him in Madison Square Garden’s theater during a press conference for Saturday’s UFC 205.
Woodley seemed startled by gestions that he would sign for Aston Villa in the Premier League.But it appears the 24-year-old is bound for Italy, as the club have come closest to meeting Cagliari’s asking price.Cagliari-immagini?page=2#imgal2″>Gianluca Di Marzio claims the playethe reaction. Was he being booed for saying he might put is fist through Trump’s teeth? Or because he’s a diligent wrestler and therefore less exciting than his kickboxing opponent Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson? Or because he takes months off between fights, drawing criticism that he didn’t deserve the 201 fight against Robbie Lawler that got him the title? It leads some, like fellow welterweight contender Belal Muhammad to say: “I don’t know why the hate.”
Woodley can’t help but wonder if it is something else. Something deeper. Something that still holds back black fighters in a sport that should be colorblind.
“I think that – this is my personal opinion – but sometimes African American athletes are considered overly cocky,” he says. “I have some (things to say) that are blatantly true about African American athletes in our sport. And if I mention those thing then all of a sudden I’m whining, I’m playing the victim, I’m race baiting or it’s somebody else.
“But I don’t think it matters,” he continues. “Because at the end of the day, I’m the champion of the world. I’m a successful individual and maneuvering in a culture where there are some racists. I still find a way to get to the top, whether I go around or weave through.”
The Wonderboy fight is the biggest of Woodley’s career; billed as the co-main event of UFC 205 just below Conor McGregor v Eddie Alvarez and it has his name glowing on the Garden marquee. He’s exactly the kind of fighter the UFC should want to promote: a Christian family man with four children, a burgeoning acting career and a series of broadcasting jobs. And yet he can’t shake a feeling that as important as he’s become he isn’t as free as the lighter faces surrounding him on the card’s promotional poster.
At the UFC 205 press conference Woodley watched McGregor with torrents of profane Ranieri stepped in for Eusebio di Francesco last month.Murillo said, “It’s great to play regularly in a League I have already played in, know well and like a lot.”I’ve played in practically all the games. Things aren’t going as we would’ve liked, butinsults screamed into the roar of an adoring crowd that sees such bombast as part of McGregor’s Irish charm. McGregor’s act amused Woodley even as he rolled his eyes through some of the rants. McGregor is a good businessman and he respects that. He has a saying: “More drama, more commas”. So if McGregor wants to heap clever putdowns while the money falls all around them, by all means let him holler. But Woodley knows he can’t be McGregor, throwing bottles and spewing swear words. Doing so would only make him the angry black man and the boos would only come louder then.
“Name me one African American mixed martial artist who’s been able to get away with the amount of talk Conor has,” he says. “Name me one. You can’t. Rampage Jackson came to the UFC with a brain. He came to the UFC with a huge following from being in Asia with Pride. He was a personality before he came to the UFC. You don’t see them putting marketing money behind him to blow him up. Have you seen Jon Jones taken in any (marketing) direction? Have you seen any African American athlete that appeals to the urban market actually bring that market to the ?”
For years Woodley never made Ferguson a part of his identity. He figured nobody had heard of his hometown and he found it easier just to say he was fighting out of St Louis. But then Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown and a neighborhood erupted. There were riots and looters and buildings on fire. In some ways he was conflicted. He knew what it was like to be a young black man in Ferguson – the way the police come down hard sometimes, where the greatest crime an African American kid might have was the color of his skin. “Those things are true, they are happening and Ferguson is notorious for it,” he says. And yet it was also the place where he was raised, the community he loved. He knew every bit of that town, having lived in some of the poorest sections as well as the best. It hurt him to sit it burn.
He knew exactly the rage that many of the protesters brought to the streets, but he also knew that many of those running before the cameras, throwing rocks at windows weren’t from Ferguson or even St Louis. The damage they did was more than just physical. It left an emotional scar. Suddenly little Ferguson was a national flashpoint and the TV commentators were getting the town wrong. They portrayed it as the inner city, a predominately African American ghetto where crime lingered on every corner. That was not his Ferguson. His Ferguson a mixture of white and black spread through blocks of subdivisions; a place where people had to accept each other’s differences and where also those backgrounds collided.
“You go to Ferguson and you look at January-Wabash Park and other areas (they’re) extremely nice and it’s not a war zone,” Woodley says. “They way it’s portrayed is why I have an issue. That’s not Ferguson. I think more so (it is) the way way the community and law enforcement have been at odds for years. They respect hasn’t been there for the law enforcement and definitely there is profiling on the citizens.”
After the riots he added Ferguson to his biography – not to capitalize on the unrest but to show people that the town where he grew up was not an awful place. He wanted the world to know that good things and good people came from a community whose very name sparks the tinders of ugly debate. He is sensitive about the impressions everyone gets of a place most have never seen. “I wanted to show that hey, Ferguson is a place where a lot of successful people have been born and raised and built so I wanted to show Ferguson in a positive way,” he says.
Not long after Brown’s death and before the riots, Woodley contacted the UFC hoping to use the organization’s enormous platform to talk about Ferguson, Brown’s death and police relations in general. There needed to be a productive dialogue, he thought, and he wanted to start it. He remembers sitting in an airport, explaining his idea to someone who handles social media for the UFC. “That’s my street, I grconcerned about losing Jurgen Klopp.The Reds manager is being tipped to replace Max Allegri at Juventus this summer.”We don’t really want to discuss his situation publicly, especially so close to the final,” Werner told the Liverpool Echo.”But I thinew up on that street!,” he implored, expecting the UFC to leap at a chance to promote a top fighter with direct ties to Ferguson. They did nothing, he says. The same thing happened a year later when the Missouri players went on strike, he says.
“It’s crazy,” he says, then pauses.
“Let me stop myself,” he says, “I was about to go off.”
He shakes his head. For a moment he says nothing.
“I just thought those were good opportunities to make a positive stance,” he continues, then his voice trails off.
In some ways, the Missouri protest surprised Woodley. African American students at the school have long complained of feeling isolated but he was an athlete in a wrestling bubble and that kept him from the experiencing things that happened to other black students. He had to call his brother-in-law, a doctor, who went to school there. “He told me some stories that I didn’t want to hear,” Woodley says. A few weeks ago, he went back to speak to the wrestling team and was surprised to see that even though he was the school’s first All-Big 12 wrestler and their first top five recruit, his picture was not on the wall with other distinguished wrestlers in the school’s history.
“All of a sudden (the coaches said): ‘Oooh, we got to get a picture of you on this wall,” Woodley says. “It was kind of…” He paused again for moment and sighed. “But it is what it is and it’s about the athletes and thats why I’m there but it was really weird that people couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that these things can happen.”
He drove around the campus that day looking at all the giant new fraternity and sorority houses and couldn’t help that each mansion was only for predominantly white fraternities and sororities. “How many black homes are there?” he wondered. Where were all the big homes from the African American students? He glanced around and realized that even after what happened last fall and the racial awakening of his old college, Missouri still had a long way to go.
Sitting in an empty radio studio in late September, a few days after the Trump comments, about to promote the second biggest fight in the UFC’s biggest card ever, Woodley is probably at the apex of his career. Never will he have a larger voice in sports. Never may minority athletes have a more powerful voice than they do today. As a child of Ferguson he has the platform, he can be a kind of modern-day Ali. Boos be damned. If Donald Trump is going to fire off a shot at Ferguson well by God he’s going to talk about putting his fist through the man’s teeth. That’s not a right, its a responsibility.
“He needs to talk about (race),” Michael Johnson, another African American UFC fighter will later say, unaware of Woodley’s words about Trump. “He’s a champion and his voice needs to be heard. It’s very important to speak up with the things that are happening.”
In the studio Woodley laughs.
“I don’t read social media. Is (the Trump comment) getting buzz?” he asks, the idea Trump could actually be president probably the farthest thing from his mind.
Yes, he is told, his line about putting a fist in Trump’s mouth made plenty of headlines.
“Well hopefully it made it to him,” he says.
No need to hold back now.