As UFC 205 blesses New York City tonight, I must issue a big thank you to one of its unsung champions and heroes of mixed martial arts, Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley.
I have been very critical of mixed martial artists of color my whole career, in part because as a former fight promoter and integral part of the growth of the UFC , I have real knowledge of the inner workings of the sport.
The pressure on athletes of color in MMA is immense, and any one of them that is willing to stand for issues that involve social injustice and race relations is a true hero in my book.
Of all the black UFC champions to ever be crowned, Woodley is the only one that has stood up firmly for issues affecting his community. When the unrest with the police happened in Ferguson, Missouri, Woodley was the only MMA fighter to stand with the protestors and expose the economic and social hypocrisy of the Ferguson community.
Continually marginalized and disadvantaged, the people there have experienced low employment rates, high incarceration and are the poster children of the pipeline to prison system that dominates poorer communities in this country.
During the height of the exposure of this unrest, Woodley, a Ferguson, Missouri, native was unafraid to speak out.
Consequences from the politically correct MMA establishment (an extremely oxymoronic statement) can range from a loss of sponsorship to the disappearance of much needed promotional pushes by the organization. Examples of such can be Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal, one of the most outspoken critics of social injustice who was expelled from the former Zuffa-controlled UFC system and has never captured the full love of the predominantly white MMA audience.
Woodley threw caution to the wind and stood up anyway, and as someone who has been critical of champions like Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones and Quinton Jackson, Woodley needs to be lauded as the courageous champion for his work in the ring and outside of it.
In a capitalist system, athletes are marketed with fervor when they sell tickets. That selling point can be love, hate, intrigue or a mix of both. One need to look no further than Chael Sonnen or Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in boxing to understand this principle.
MMA fans seeking drama, controversy and an emotional attachment to a fighter, have not chosen a reason to rally around Woodley yet as he is a classy champion that avoids sensationalized fight beefs and prefers to let his work in the Octagon speak to his value.
Although he is from the heart of the Midwest, where a great section of MMA fans live, his greatness is not lauded or promoted properly due to a fan base that still refuses to praise a black champion that is both confident and conscious.
Think back to the build-up for Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans at UFC 114, where the main sticking point for their beef was that Evans considered Jackson an “Uncle Tom.” This type of race shaming in MMA is rare, but when exposed reveals a deep divide in a sport that is growing more globally popular by the minute.
With football players like Colin Kaepernick protesting the national anthem, there comes a time when we must ask today’s black mixed martial artists what they stand for. And so far, the only one to answer is Tyron Woodley.