Tyron Woodley has been extremely vocal of late about racism in mixed martial arts, his perceived lack of promotion from the UFC and the potential correlation between the two.
Demetrious Johnson, Woodley’s close friend, isn’t sure about racism in the sport, but he believes Woodley’s personal experience cannot be discounted, the UFC flyweight champion told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour.
“Everybody just misunderstands Tyron when he talks about that,” Johnson said. “But I understand where he’s coming from.”
Johnson said others have told him that he’s not as popular or as big of a draw as he should be, because he’s black. “Mighty Mouse” isn’t sure if he buys that — “That’s a crazy statement,” he said — but that doesn’t mean he necessarily disagrees with Woodley’s assessment. Everyone has their own experiences, Johnson said.
“I don’t want to say it’s an issue,” Johnson said of racism in MMA. “Because obviously I’ve been promoted very well as the flyweight champion. But can I say that people might feel there is? Yeah, probably people feel it. But I don’t think [UFC president] Dana White has ever been like, ‘I’m not gonna look at that [expletive], he’s black. Get somebody else in front of me.’ I don’t think Dana White is doing that. But I’m saying if people feel that way, it’s possible that some people feel that way. That’s just how it is.”
And Johnson cannot say he has never felt that way. It has cropped up, he said.
“If I were to say that’s never came into my mind, I’d be lying to the world,” Johnson said.
Woodley, the UFC welterweight champion, raised eyebrows in an interview with ESPN in January, saying he felt he was the worst treated champion in UFC history. A back and forth with White in the media ensued.
“Let’s put the cards on the table, real is real,” Woodley said on ESPN. “If I was a different complexion I think people and fans would treat me a different way. Demetrious Johnson, African-American male, completely a Tasmanian devil. Why don’t he have the big endorsements? Why isn’t he making the most money?”
Johnson, arguably the pound-for-pound fighter in the world, is far from the biggest financial draw in the UFC. His next fight will be the headliner at UFC on FOX 24 against Wilson Reis on April 15 in Kansas City. Not on pay per view. There are many things that could be owed to, Johnson said. Not just race.
“Mighty Mouse” said prize fighting is all about the drama. He joked that the viral-video “Cash Me Ousside” girl from Dr. Phil, Danielle Bregoli, would be a top earner in MMA.
“I guarantee you if you get her some gloves and put her in the Octagon, she would be the highest selling pay-per-view fighter in the world,” Johnson said. “She’d probably do way more numbers than Ronda. Just because she brings drama and negativity to wherever she goes.”
Johnson, though, said he gets why Woodley would wonder about these things, why someone like Conor McGregor gets an incredible amount of promotion and Woodley can’t has a difficult time getting the UFC to promote him talking to under-privileged children or giving back to his community.
“As an athlete,” Johnson said, “you have to sit back and think like, ‘Why won’t they push my work? I’m an analyst, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I don’t do drugs. I never disrespected anybody on a big level. So why won’t they promote me, but they’ll promote this guy? … Do you think it’s because I’m black or is it because he’s white?’
“That’s where he’s coming from. I totally understand it, because as an athlete and as an African-American, you have to sit back and think about that.”
Johnson, 30, said Woodley and he are good friends and talk often, bouncing ideas off each other. Johnson was at UFC 209 earlier this month to watch Woodley defend his title against Stephen Thompson in Las Vegas.
Even before they were close, Johnson said he looked up to Woodley when he was competing in Strikeforce. Johnson said he named his son Tyren after Woodley.
“He’s a huge inspiration to me in my career, just the way he carries himself,” Johnson said. “He just says whatever he wants and I respect that. And you have to respect his opinion and how he feels about things.”
Sometimes, Woodley’s desire to be vocal gives Johnson pause, but “Mighty Mouse” also said he at times envies his friend and his willingness to speak out.
“I always ask him, ‘You sure you want to do that?’” Johnson said with a laugh. “He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it. This is how I feel, that’s what I’m gonna say.’”