Tyron Woodley’s Road to Redemption Starts With Gilbert Burns

Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

When Tyron Woodley steps into the UFC Octagon on Saturday night to face Gilbert Burns in the main event of UFC Vegas, he will do so without the “Champion” label next to his name for the first time since July 2016. After an impressive reign atop the welterweight division, the 5-time UFC champion succumbed to an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Kamaru Usman at UFC 235. The judges’ scorecards of 50-44, 50-44, and 50-45 highlighted just how lopsided the bout turned out to be.

The tumultuous relationship between the UFC and Tyron Woodley saw the promotional brass falling in and out of love with their former welterweight king during his championship tenure. Despite his own goals of reaching legendary status, “The Chosen One” didn’t exactly receive the fanfare usually attributed to a world champion from the UFC hierarchy. After successfully defending his belt for the third time in 2017 with a win over Demian Maia, UFC President Dana White berated Woodley for his performance in the post-fight press conference:

“You ask fans if they want to see Woodley fight again. I think that would be a flat-out ‘no’. Who wants to pay to see Tyron Woodley fight again?”

While several other UFC champions have been on the receiving end of criticism from Dana White, there is still comfort and power in possessing UFC gold. Tyron went on to dominate and finish Darren Till in impressive fashion in his next fight, and the train kept rolling. However, the bells and whistles associated with being a champion can just as quickly disappear, as Woodley discovered after his next loss to Usman.

“I went into a state of depression for a while. I really wasn’t talking to a lot of people. I was eating terrible. I wasn’t training,” Woodley explained at the media day earlier this week.

Photo by Esther Lin / MMA Fighting.

In an interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani in January, the former champion spoke about lifestyle differences between being a champion and not. “I was going to VIP clubs and all this shit, like, every other week and I just imagined making that amount of money for a very long time and they very quickly said, ‘Poof! Damn! You’re going to tell me, March 3rd, that this is different? It’s not the same?’ And it’s just a lesson learned.”

While Woodley believes that he should be competing for the title once again, any bargaining power bestowed to him as a champion is no more. Woodley has been booked to fight Robbie Lawler, Leon Edwards, and now Gilbert Burns since relinquishing his belt. Although the Lawler and Edwards bouts never materialised, it is clear that Woodley is in a very different standing than previous, and if he is to rise to the top of the welterweight division once again, his next performances will need to be his bargaining chip.

“For me, it’s not really about the opponent in the welterweight division right now,” Woodley told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani earlier this week. “In this situation, it’s really just about the performance itself.”

Woodley knows that subsequent losses to lower-ranked opponents will be hugely detrimental to his attempt at reclaiming welterweight glory: “If I lose to Leon Edwards. Bump, bump, bump. I’m all the way in the back of the line.”

Enter Gilbert Burns.

If Woodley’s logic applies to Edwards (#4), it certainly applies to Burns (#6). While Woodley undoubtedly needs a big performance, it is impossible to discuss his standing in the welterweight division without discussing his latest opponent. A fight versus “Durinho” is high risk and low reward, and it poses a number of questions. What does a win over Burns do for the former champion? Perhaps more importantly, where does Woodley go if he loses, especially after such a lacklustre performance against Usman.

Photo by Zuffa LLC.

Make no mistake, Gilbert Burns is no joke either. The former lightweight competitor is now 3-0 in the 170lbs division, notching a first-round KO over Demian Maia in his last UFC outing. A multiple-time BJJ world champion with dynamite in his hands, Burns has had 10 MMA & grappling bouts since Tyron Woodley lost his championship to Kamaru Usman last year. The saying goes that an active fighter is a dangerous fighter, and Burns’ approach of taking short-notice fights anywhere and against anyone has been rewarded with a shot at the former king of the division. With 4 subs and 3 KOs in the UFC, Burns is no one-trick pony, and you’d have to imagine that as far as momentum goes, it’s advantage Burns.

The big question I have—and one that I believe will dictate the victor of Saturday night’s main event—is which Tyron Woodley is going to show up?

We’ve seen the explosive knockout artist who commandeered the welterweight championship from Robbie Lawler. The same power puncher who knocked out Jay Hieron, Josh Koscheck, and Dong Hyun Kim in devastating fashion in his ascent to UFC gold.

Woodley’s tenure as UFC champion saw him further evolve into a calculated tactician with an insanely high fight IQ as he defended his crown against the likes of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Demian Maia.

What will post-UFC champion Tyron Woodley look like though? What can we expect to see in the cage on Saturday night in Las Vegas? What type of game plan will he and his team implement? These are the questions that can only be answered through his performance.

The road back to Kamaru Usman—or whoever holds the UFC welterweight championship—may be a long one for the Ferguson, Missouri native. Tyron Woodley knows this though. He knows he needs more than ‘just’ a win against Gilbert Burns.

“I’ve got to go out here and I’ve gotta embarrass him. I’ve got to outclass him. I’ve got to stop him. I’ve got to wipe him off the mat.”

If I’m a betting man, my guess is we see a Tyron Woodley hunting for blood when that steel cage door closes. I think we see the Tyron Woodley that took the fight to Darren Till. That is the Tyron Woodley that needs to show up. That is how Woodley can regain promotional clout in the UFC, and that is how Tyron Woodley can take one step closer to regaining his title.

Andy is a multimedia reporter, interviewer, writer, with a strong focus on Irish MMA. Co-host of The Auld Triangle podcast. Follow Andy on Twitter (@andyste123) and Instagram (@andystevensonMMA).

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