Maybe it is due to Dana White’s constant aspersions of his welterweight champion Tyron Woodley that the 170-pound class hasn’t quite seemed to be the glamour division it used to be under longtime ex-champ Georges St-Pierre. In reality, the collection is about as interesting as it’s been in the last decade.
As we learned at Thursday’s UFC 235 press conference, Woodley has a real challenger on his hands, both in name and in spirit. Kamaru Usman, who leapfrogged the rest of the contenders in 2018 with three wins during the year, definitely seems game.
“This is one thing you’ve never seen from me, I ain’t backing up,” he said. “You hit me, I’m still coming. And I’m coming all night long, T-Wood. Don’t back up. Don’t back up, my man.”
That set off an exchange between the pair that lasted longer than a regulation MMA round. For six minutes, challenger and champ traded barbs of fire and declarations of greatness.
Woodley compared Usman to LL Cool J and called for an ambulance to be on standby; Usman promised him his time is up. It was fun with a side of peril.
Usman also verbally sparred with Ben Askren, and was apparently a step from physically sparring with him backstage as well. As Usman told it, given their previous online exchanges, he wasn’t there to make friends. That led to this frisky exchange:
Askren: “We fight in a cage. I don’t understand what more there can be. Do you want to introduce weapons, or what do you want to do?”
Usman: “Listen, young man.”
Askren: “I’m older than you.”
Usman: “Congratulations. You made it here. You get to be up here with your favorite fighters. Maybe after this we can all sign something for you so you can take it home to your family.”
There was just enough sneer in Usman to make it menacing, just enough joy in Askren to make it amusing, just enough emotion between them to make it tense. And maybe a little something for down the road?
The day also brought out the feisty side of Woodley, a decorated champion who often gets derided on social media by fans for being boring, this despite his 10 career UFC knockdowns. The backlash begins with the tone from the top. White and Woodley rarely see eye to eye, so White says things like “The guy never wants to fight” if he’s not ready on the UFC’s timeline, “Who wants to pay to see Tyron Woodley fight again?” when Woodley doesn’t win in spectacular style, and calls him “full of s—t” and threatens to sic the UFC’s lawyers on him when Woodley tries to push big fights the UFC doesn’t want. And that’s all within the last two years!
While White has been busy being Woodley’s anti-promoter at times, Woodley has been out in the world trying to build his profile, doing a regular TMZ show, recording songs, doing movies. While the disconnect between the two has been glaring, this budding rivalry with Usman shows promise.
Then you had Askren, the man that was head-scratchingly ignored by the UFC for years, who languished under-appreciated overseas and then in retirement before being acquired in exchange for an unwanted piece — the flyweight great, Demetrious Johnson.
In his first time on a major stage, Askren showed off the charisma that packaged up with his undefeated record, could — could! — make him a draw. He’s got a fast entry shot and a faster tongue, and with the right opportunities, the former Olympian could fascinate the masses.
At UFC 235, Askren is scheduled to fight Robbie Lawler. He spent little time actually trying to create attention for that fight. In most instances, that would seem like a wasted opportunity to light a spark, but what Askren did was far more valuable: he pulled himself squarely into the crosshairs of the title picture.
By interjecting himself into that scene, Askren sends a message to those who may not know him of where he belongs, and where he’s headed. Of course, it becomes dependent on him to beat Lawler, but if he does? Calling your shot against Lawler is not something nobodies do. It brings credibility. It brings weight. It brings gravitas.
That triangle of heat expands further when you expand it to include young and mouthy contenders like Colby Covington and Darren Till. The American Covington was bypassed for a title shot but possesses the credentials to be next in line: he has a six-fight win streak and an unfiltered audaciousness. Half of the fight world laughs at what he has to say; the other half can’t wait to see him get whooped. That latter group might include White, who Covington has savaged in recent interviews while publicly requesting a release from his contract. It’s an abnormal situation, but it also serves to keep Covington in the news without actually competing.
Till seemed on his way out of the division after missing weight in May of last year, then struggling to make championship weight in his title fight with Woodley. For now, he’s staying at 170, where his mouth has the capability to ignite a rivalry in no time.
If you would have listened to White over the last two years, the welterweight division would have sounded like a mess, but it’s somehow led us all to now, and now sounds pretty intriguing. There’s an established and confident champion. There’s sniping from those ready to usurp the throne. There’s good times ahead.