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Last week Chuck Mindenhall and Shaun Al-Shatti debated UFC 230’s main event, or lack thereof. This week, the two look ahead to Dallas and wonder what should happen if everything goes wrong: Should UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley be expected to agree to defend his title against back-up fighter Kamaru Usman on one day’s notice if Darren Till misses weight at UFC 228?
Al-Shatti: Let me start by saying there is a simple answer to all of this. No, Tyron Woodley should not be expected to fight Kamaru Usman on one day’s notice at UFC 228, if only because he’s made his feelings abundantly clear that it’s not an option he’s willing to entertain. Speaking to our old friend Ariel Helwani this week, Woodley was adamant he is fighting Darren Till on Sept. 8, regardless of the number that reads on the scale when the Scouser strips down to his skivvies in Dallas, and regardless of the lack of championship stakes the fight would carry as a non-title affair.
Will an uproar be made about Woodley’s decision to not defend his strap against Usman and save the championship prestige of UFC 228 by a vocal contingent of the MMA fanbase and perhaps a certain UFC president? Inevitably.
But this is an inherently selfish game.
In this sport of stature and often Sisyphean self-sacrifice, those 12 pounds of gold are the only conduit allowing Woodley to reliably secure the financial futures of his family, his wife and his four children. The reigning UFC welterweight champ is 36 years old, and his time at the top of the mountain is ticking, just as it is for any man or woman who reaches the pinnacle of this world. To shepherd his own fall off that peak simply to do a favor for a promoter who couldn’t care less if he loses it all would be to do a disservice to himself.
I write all of this in spite of my enthusiastic support when the UFC booked Usman as an official back-up for UFC 228.
I am glad the promotion did, and I hope that is a trend that continues long into the future, especially in this age when it feels impossible to navigate the muddy waters of a major fight week without some sort of problem arising with one of the card’s featured attractions. A back-up fighter who cuts weight in case disaster strikes could become a necessary evil. At worst, it’s a worthwhile shot at solving an increasingly glaring problem. And hey, who knows — if the worst case scenario hits, maybe the UFC could sweeten the pot enough to sway Woodley into changing his mind on Usman after all.
But in this case, it is hard to fault the champ’s resolve.
Think about his past two years. Woodley defended his strap four times over a 12-month span, only to have that strap undermined at UFC 225 by the creation of an interim belt less than a year after his most recent title defense — this, despite Woodley making very clear that he would be healthy enough to return to action just one month after UFC 225. Now, because of the demands of the UFC’s busy pay-per-view schedule, Woodley is being asked to defend his strap against a different man entirely, one with whom he has no personal rivalry, one who also has badly missed weight in 33 percent of his Octagon appearances, including the No. 1 contender fight that quite literally earned Till the title shot to begin with.
If you’re Woodley, that already is frustrating enough. Now consider having prepared for Till — a massively built, lanky, southpaw striker — for two months only to be asked to defend your title against a completely different manner of opponent — Usman, an orthodox, tank-like power wrestler — on one day’s notice at UFC 228, simply because someone other than yourself failed to do their job in a way that, in this case, would be farcically predictable.
Same life-altering stakes, except the replacement has been preparing strictly for you, while you have 24 hours to cram for a test that you never even knew for sure was coming.
Tyron Woodley is one of the longest reigning champions in the UFC today, and we’ve reached a point where he could genuinely not know which opponent he is defending his title against two days out from his fight. That’s inexplicable. But this is the bed the UFC made for itself by ignoring Till’s struggles on the scale, and this is the bed the UFC will have to lie in if a nightmare scenario plays out next Friday.
Of course, I really, truly, hope that doesn’t happen. I hope UFC 228 fight week is an uneventful, smooth sail and Woodley vs. Till erupts into a battle for the ages.
But if disaster strikes next Friday and Tyron Woodley decides to fight the man he’s dedicated the past several months of his life preparing for, title stakes be damned, his decision is entirely justified.
Mindenhall: Let me start by saying that the simple answer you’ve inserted here — “no” — is technically correct. I know that’s skirting a bit, but it’s not lost on me that Woodley fighting Usman on one day’s notice is fairly absurd on many levels. As you alluded to, Usman’s presence in Dallas is a precautionary measure against Darren Till coming in overweight, which has nothing to do with Woodley. Why would our “Chosen One” be made to compromise an inch based on Till’s (hypothetical) incompetence? Honestly, as a tenured champion, Woodley shouldn’t feel obliged to put himself in a disadvantageous situation.
However — and again, I say this delicately, for I am not just some uncaring subhuman with an unquenchable bloodthirst — it’s not out of the question for the UFC to turn a title fight into a kind of ménage à trois in case of an emergency. This is a pay-per-view that truly hinges on its main event. The women’s flyweight bout between Nicco Montaño and Valentina Shevchenko is not what you’d call a “main event.” It’s not even an “event.” It’s just a showcase for Shevchenko to physically take possession of the belt she’s destined to have. Montaño? Most people don’t even know who she is. With no welterweight title fight, UFC 228 as a PPV has all the allure of vacationing in Wichita.
Again, none of this is Woodley’s fault.
But the question is should Tyron Woodley fight Usman if Till shows up a few custards many, just to preserve the sanctity of a title fight at the top. I think he should. It’s unfair to insist, but from the point of view of winning over some fans — of going against expectations, and recasting himself as a savior — it’s not the worst idea. What I’m arguing is a big picture should, the kind that’s interested in kick-starting a drowsy title run.
Let’s face it, the Woodley business could use a boost right now. Saying “Darren Till, Kamaru Usman, I don’t give a damn who!” is the kind of transformative moment that Woodley could desperately use. It would double as a declaration of the ultimate belief he has in himself. Does that stuff matter? People fell in love with Conor McGregor because he was too stubborn to not fight when opponents fell out. That kind of instinctive willingness — combined with the escalating sense of greatness, playing out in real time — is hard not to fall for.
Of course, I’m well aware that everything I just wrote is idealized hooey. To switch from Till to Usman would be taxing, if not outright foolish. They are different beasts, and over the years Woodley has proven himself to be a most meticulous planner. He’s not one to be peer pressured, and he isn’t likely to throw caution to the wind just to save the UFC’s ass on a PPV that should have been stacked with better talent. So long as he’s on top, Woodley’s long view is always going to give the myopic UFC trouble. Everyone knows this.
I am merely expressing the ways that I wish Woodley would look at things, given the general aloofness of his audience during his title run. I want him to be bigger, because I feel like he can. I’m forever interested to see what would happen if he did something so out of character that suddenly he achieves a “can’t miss” vibe. I am waiting for his transcendent moment, when matchmaking doesn’t have to be hard math, and the business side of things so publicly groused over. In other words, I want the Woodley that doesn’t exist, which is the exact goddamn thing that Woodley is sick of.
That doesn’t win me this argument, but I will say this: At least Woodley’s willing to fight Till no matter what weight the Englishman comes in at. That’s the kind of resolve we don’t give him enough credit for. He’s measured, but he’s not above risk. The problem is, in a scenario like that, there wouldn’t be a belt in play. If there’s no belt in play, Woodley fighting just to fight becomes somewhat of a lost adventure.
Anyway, like you said, here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.