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Tyron Woodley explains why he’s starting to speak up about racism

UFC 205 photos
Tyron Woodley has gotten heat for speaking about about racism in MMA.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tyron Woodley was quiet about issues facing his life and the lives of other black athletes before. He’s not going to be that way any longer.

Woodley told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour that the death of Muhammad Ali last year made him realize that he has something of a responsibility to speak out when he sees injustice. That is why, he said, he spoke openly about racism last week in multiple interviews, including one on ESPN where he described himself as the “worst-treated” UFC champion ever.

“It was never convenient,” Woodley said of those who have spoken out in the past. “It was never comfortable. It was never the right time. Same thing with any other freedom fighter. Martin Luther King. I’m not comparing myself — because I know some people are gonna take this to left field — I’m not comparing myself to the great Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King, what I’m telling you is that at that time they did not know they were going to be Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. They did not know that they were going to be figures that did so much outside of their field to impact change. They did it because it was right.”

Woodley, the UFC welterweight champion, said he has three sons, one or more of whom might eventually become MMA fighters. He said it would be not be right for him to remain silent about issues that he has seen multiple times in his career, going back to his days as a college wrestler.

“What is our platform for?” Woodley said. “Is it for me to make all this money and showboat and talk about how great I am, or is it to speak to a large group of people all at once, knowing that everybody won’t receive it, but the fact that some will?”

Last week, Woodley said he believed he was the “worst-treated champion” in UFC history and that the color of his skin contributes to how fans see him. Since making those statements, there has been a notable amount of anger toward Woodley on social media.

“This is a sensitive subject,” Woodley said. “A lot of people aren’t gonna like it. I can explain until I’m blue in the face, some people still would never agree with me. They would still think that I’m playing the victim.”

Woodley, 34, said it’s difficult for others to understand what he has gone through, because they have not experienced it themselves. “The Chosen One” defends his title against Stephen Thompson at UFC 209 on March 4 in Las Vegas. Thompson was present during those interviews last week and said he just didn’t see racism playing a part in how Woodley is perceived.

“He won’t understand it,” Woodley said. “He won’t get it. Because it’s not him. … That does not mean it does not exist. I think what we have is, is individuals who have not participated and individuals who have not done it themselves. Since they have not, they feel like it’s not happening.”

Woodley (16-3-1), who fought to a draw with Thompson at UFC 205 back in November, said he did not want to bring up specific things that have happened to him. He did take umbrage with those who pinpoint his success as having to do with him being a “freak athlete” and questioning his gas tank in the later rounds. Woodley believes there is latent racism there, that maybe people don’t even understand. He said he has worked hard to be the fighter he is and his accomplishments should not be credited to just him being a “freak athlete.”

“If you look at the history of our sport — and it’s not even just our sport — the history of the American culture, certain things are subliminally racist that people don’t understand are racist,” Woodley said.

The UFC contacted Woodley after he made those statements last week, he said, and wants to work with him to amend the perceived slight.

“If it wasn’t a problem and if it wasn’t a current situation that exists in the sport, why would my promoter be contacting me on how to solve the problem?” Woodley said. “Now, hats off to them, because they didn’t have to do that.”

Woodley said his friend was talking to him today about his wife just got back from the Women’s March on Saturday, which drew millions of people — women and men — to cities all over the world to walk for awareness of women’s rights. The Ferguson, Mo., native, who has been very active in his community, said he’s beginning to understand that these are multi-layered issues.

“It’s not about black and white,” Woodley said. “It’s about pointing out things that are not right, that are unjust. Things that are not equal. Nobody should be treated any type of way because of their color, their race, their gender, their socioeconomic status. We’re all human.”

Woodley wants everyone to know that he’s not trying to play “the race card” as some would call it. This is real, he said. Not race baiting or trying to stir up attention. Woodley is coming out now because he believes, though some will be upset by his words, that he can help people who are going through the same things.

“Then it’s worth me doing it,” Woodley said. “It’s worth me risking maybe missing out on something that could have happened if I didn’t speak out on it.”

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