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Tyron Woodley’s victory at UFC 214 will make you think about what it is you want to see in a fight

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the byproducts of UFC 214 was the sudden renewed interest in seeing Georges St-Pierre versus Michael Bisping for the middleweight title come November. A lot of people had grown cold on the idea, given that St-Pierre is in the process of coming back from a four-year absence and Bisping hasn’t defended the title against a top middleweight contender yet. So what happened to make those two principals — neither of whom were active Saturday night — materialize as a suitable pairing?

Tyron Woodley defended his title, that’s what. Or, perhaps more accurately, he defended 20 plus individual threats to his title, in thwarting Demian Maia’s every takedown attempt. It was an impressive feat of stubbornness to keep the fight standing against a guy so well versed in making people play the game within his single most sublime dimension. Maia had nothing for Woodley, and that was the whole story. Shoot, thwart, try again. Every time Woodley resisted Maia’s advances the heat turned up a couple degrees to help thaw the idea of GSP-Bisping rather than GSP-Woodley. After 25 minutes the idea of a fight that had no merit base — that was in fact dead on arrival in the minds of many all those months ago when announced — felt like the lesser of two evils.

Only in MMA can so many scenarios and attitudes be shaped by a series of defensive sequences. UFC president Dana White wasted no time in declaring GSP-Bisping back on after having watched Woodley stifle Maia in a big co-main event spot on the year’s biggest pay-per-view. It turns out the GSP-Bisping ship hadn’t sailed after all! It just did a hot lap around the harbor.

Woodley’s fight with Maia is one of those strange occurrences, the kind of event where you start quibbling with people about what it is you want to see in a fight. And more specifically, what it is you want to see out of a champion. There are those who saw Woodley’s performance as a thing of beauty, a strategic gem executed to perfection. What Woodley did out there was pragmatic for somebody interested keeping his title. Why would he want to engage with Maia and make himself vulnerable?

Yet there’s another (far bigger) lot who saw it, on some unspoken level, like this — forget strategy, 25 minutes of Demian Maia as a failed offensive showcase is more like a bad trick the universe is pulling. Woodley punished Maia’s aggression, and that was about it. The game plan to shut down the game plan. What would have happened had Maia not wanted the fight bad enough to sacrifice his own face with so many entrances? Let’s just say that a pay-per-view model doesn’t usually support such things.

Woodley’s fight with Maia — in some ways similar to his second fight with Stephen Thompson — felt unfinished. Incomplete. Like we weren’t getting the whole story. He neutralized Maia and kept the fight away from Maia’s danger zones, but he never seemed interested in taking Maia into his own deep water. It was as if the thought didn’t occur to him to enact his own game plan (or to at least fill us in on what it is). If it were a game of Russian roulette, it was as if he were saying, “here, you go first, keep pulling the trigger until you empty the chamber of its bullet — then I’ll go.”

The boo birds were out in Anaheim because what it saw — in the most basic understanding of the action — was Maia trying to win, and Woodley trying not to lose. Dana White was among those who didn’t appreciate that fight narrative. As it’s not hard to see why Woodley would do what he needs to do to get it done, it’s also not hard to see White’s point of view. Imagine if everybody had a mindset to shut down an opponent’s best offensive move as the entirety of a plan? There would be a crisis in the UFC. The Octagon has never been a good place for instinctual self-preservation as the primary motive. It doesn’t have to be a brawl, it just has to be interesting. When champions are involved, that is especially true.

Part of what bummed people out about Woodley’s performance was that we’ve seen him destroy guys. His title-winning victory over Robbie Lawler was a detonation in the welterweight division that left patch of scorched earth. He did the same thing to Dong Hyun Kim earlier on. Yet in his fights against the most compelling contenders — Thompson (in the second fight) and Maia — he has succeeded in shutting off the excitement valve. It should be impossible to make a “Wonderboy” fight a futile beholding, but Woodley figured out how. He installed the brake pads. His follow-up with Maia didn’t do him any favors, either.

Truthfully, you can’t fault Woodley for simplifying his approach. The money is better when you show up to the gig wearing the gold accessory, and in the interest of empathizing with fighter motives that’s not too hard to understand. But everyone knows there’s a little more to it than that. If Woodley isn’t the most popular champion, it’s because of how he’s playing the game. The UFC banks on a shared experience with its fan base. Woodley’s title defense appealed to a specified audience that appreciates, above all else, execution above a tempest. And on Saturday night, he had at least two fans that cheered louder than the rest.

Bisping and St-Pierre were very thankful for what they saw.

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