The former welterweight champ has looked listless, out of step, and repeatedly frozen in a trio of outings, all of which ended in lopsided losses. All of them, he said, were a product of a mind focused on the wrong things before a fight.
Woodley said his career can’t end this way. He vows to turn things around.
“Life is not always a straight path,” he told reporters at the media day for UFC 260. “It can be, but we make choices, and I made choices in my life that veered me off that path. Those are things that I have to deal with, and quitting is not an option. I’ve got to go out on top like I plan to do.”
It took time – and a few months of bedrest while recovering from a serious rib injury suffered in a previous loss to Colby Covington – for Woodley to realize where he’d gone wrong.
There was a tendency to underestimate his opponents, to see ulterior motives in every interaction with the UFC, to focus on proving everyone wrong, to be comfortable in the gym, to overindulge in excesses outside the cage, he said. All of these things kept him from taking the steps he needed to take to be at his best.
Everything inevitably caught up to him, and it produced the slide the world saw.
“I think karma’s real, and you’ve got to pay the piper at the end of the day,” he said.
But after all the heartache suffered in his losses, Woodley said he never lost sight of the foundation that had gotten him to the top of the UFC welterweight division. He spent much of his time rebuilding that in preparation for Saturday’s fight with Luque, a knockout artist who rebounded from his own setback to stop his previous two opponents. He moved to Southern California to work with MMA veteran Antonio McKee, a well-known turnaround artist to MMA veterans on the skids. He took up with training partners that offered to die with him in training (at one point, he joked, he almost took that seriously).
Athlete falls and comeback stories are a dime a dozen. But Woodley believes his will be one to remember.
“It didn’t kill me,” he said. “It didn’t decapitate me from the sport. I think the story’s better when someone comes back, when someone didn’t quit.
“I’m still on top. I’m still fast. I’m still probably the best mind in our division, as far as knowing what’s going on.”
In turning things around, Woodley also took a different stance toward his promoter. For years, he was known as a reliable foil to UFC President Dana White, and the two repeatedly clashed in interviews and behind the scenes. But he eventually decided to stop trying to swim upstream with the most powerful figures in the sport.
“Sometimes, in the past, I had to recognize that I didn’t run the organization, whether I thought they should have promoted me in a certain way or did certain things, they’ve got 600 athletes to think about,” he said. “It wasn’t always about me. I may have figured that out a little too late in the game, but at the time, I never really trusted a lot of people. I grew up in the street, I grew up gang-banging, and trust and respect is earned. My head is always on the swivel. I live in the murder capital of the country, and I move a certain way.
“I connect dots and I put things together, and I’m thinking this is what the intent is, and I always want to prove it wrong. So if I could look back, maybe I could have focused more on performance and the things I can control. I can’t control what’s behind the scenes.”
Woodley may be saying that because he runs the very real chance of being released from contract in the wake of a loss. But he points out that if the promotion really wanted to get rid of him, it could have done so a while ago.
“Could have gotten let go before this,” he said. “Could have let go after Gilbert [Burns]. Could have gotten let go after [Kamaru] Usman. Could have let go after [Darren] Till. It’s not up to me. It’s up to the organization, and I’m grateful that I got another chance to show myself, and in doing so, you guys will watch what I am, how great I am.”
There was a point at which Woodley was not only considered the best in the world, but also one of the most active UFC champs on the roster. Both he and ex-light heavyweight champion Jon Jones defended their titles four times in a calendar year. One of those showings, Woodley said, he got close to perfection when he submitted Till at UFC 228.
Woodley is still convinced that fighter is not only still around, but capable of reaching greater heights that ever in the octagon. All he has to do is perform.
“I see myself controlling the variables that I can control,” he said. “I don’t know even know I can say it in a different way. I’m trying to draw more fans here, $50 words for you here. But that’s all it really boils down to. Every fight is the biggest fight, and then after that, it’s the next biggest fight in performance. If I can do that, I think I’ll be fine.”
The chip on his shoulder is still there, he clarified. But it’s now been “redirected,” shifting from proving people wrong to proving right the family that’s believed in him and seen him go through all of his ups and downs. For them he plans to show he’ll end things on his terms.