ANAHEIM, Calif. – What Tyron Woodley pulled off at UFC 214 on Saturday night will be admired in coaches’ offices at the biggest mixed martial arts gyms around the world for some time to come.
The UFC welterweight champion executed a flawless gameplan and stymied one of the sport’s greatest submission specialists on Saturday night. Demian Maia, who entered the match with the welterweight champ on a seven-fight win streak, was stuffed on all two dozen of his takedown attempts at the Honda Center.
When Maia attempted to close the distance and strike, he got belted with Woodley’s heavy fists. When Maia lost confidence in his ability to implement his own gameplan, Woodley was content to stay out of range and make Maia chase him.
Maia, who has 12 career submission victories, never came close to putting Woodley down for a submission attempt.
But while such an approach should draw respect from the tiny percent of the audience who get their jollies from the X’s and O’s of the sport, the audience in Anaheim told a different story.
The sellout crowd had grown restless with what turned out to be Woodley’s unanimous decision win by the third round. They openly jeered by the fourth. In the between the fourth and fifth, the wave broke out in the stands at the Honda Center.
Midway through the round, thousands of fans turned on the lights to their cell phones and waved them around, similar to what you’d see at a rock concert. By the time they were done amusing themselves, they again turned hostile, as a chant of “This is boring” thundered through the arena in the fight’s waning seconds.
As Woodley had his hand raised following a technically brilliant fight, the boos rained down, and ultimately drowned out his postfight interview.
That scene sums up Woodley’s reign, which celebrated its first anniversary on Sunday, better than anything: You can intellectualize fighting a smart fight until your face turns blue, but you can’t make the fans love it.
Woodley, for his part, is unapologetic about his performance.
“I thought it was a great performance,” Woodley said at the post-fight news conference. “You’ve got a guy on a seven-fight win streak, he’s taken out all seven opponents, world class guys, gotten on their backs, submitted them. Very resilient, very persistent on his attack – how many takedowns did he try? Twenty-four tried, 24 denied. So I think we need to look at the different stats.”
UFC president Dana White, for his part, didn’t seem to think there was much to enjoy about the matchup. Earlier in the week, White said that the Woodley-Maia winner would meet former longtime champion Georges St-Pierre next in the latter’s return bout after a nearly four-year absence.
Afterwards, White said that GSP will instead go back to fighting middleweight champion Michael Bisping, which was a bout announced earlier this year and then shelved after Bisping suffered a knee injury.
And White wasn’t exactly hiding the fact that the fans’ reaction to the Woodley-Maia fight was a factor in his decision-making process.
“[If] you ask fans if they want to see Woodley fight again, I think that will be a flat-out no,” White said. “Who wants to pay to see Tyron Woodley fight again? He’s an absolute physical specimen, the guy could’ve finished the fight at any time he wanted to but, you know, he didn’t want to take the risks. [If] you take no risks, you get no rewards.”
This was the second consecutive Woodley fight that’s been booed. His previous title defense, in a rematch against Stephen Thompson at UFC 209, was basically a 25-minute standstill and was similarly poorly received.
“Stephen Thompson, I’m not going to sit out there and try to out-spin-kick him,” Woodley said. “I’m not going to try to take down Demian Maia and prove that, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to get a black belt, the brown belt is gonna to take you down and go for the submissions.’ So I felt like it was a very tactical fight, I felt like I did everything, stuck to the gameplan, and I walk around with my head up and the belt still around my waist.”
Woodley has been vocal about his perceived lack of promotional support from the UFC. But on two of his last three shows, he was in the co-feature spot on two of the biggest shows of the past year (UFC 205 and UFC 214), and in between, he was given the opportunity to carry the show on his own.
The champ was put on the big stage, and it was up to him to put on a performance that would make his future fights must-see TV. The UFC can’t do anything further for him once the cage door is locked.
“I know our fans, they want to see blood, they want to see cuts, they want to see a back-and-forth exchange,” Woodley said. “You also have to recognize that I’m fighting specialists.”
Like so many other things in life, you can be right while simultaneously being so, so wrong.
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