Opinion: Tyron Woodley’s coaches cannot ask him to do the impossible

“I need you to reset, alright? Let’s start this over. Let’s start moving forward, get back on that jab. The low kick is there…

By: Connor Ruebusch | 2 years ago
Opinion: Tyron Woodley’s coaches cannot ask him to do the impossible
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

“I need you to reset, alright? Let’s start this over. Let’s start moving forward, get back on that jab. The low kick is there as well, alright? But we gotta start putting some combinations together. You gotta get him to open up, alright? Soon as he opens up the shots gonna be there for you, but you gotta start attacking. Alright? Feint more, too.”

Such were the words trainer Din Thomas gave to Tyron Woodley last year, following a disastrous first round against Gilbert Burns. The said round was the sixth straight in a skid that today extends to 15.

Thomas was there for all of them – right beside fellow coach Duke Roufus – watching helplessly from the corner as Tyron Woodley, a former champion with four defenses to his name, failed again and again to heed his instructions.

Now Woodley is slated to take on Vicente Luque, a ruthless pressure fighter with a fearsome punch. Already 15 rounds in the hole, it’s starting to feel like the only thing standing in the way of an even 18 is the possibility that Luque puts him away sooner.

From champion to stepping stone in less than three years. To say that something in Woodley’s process isn’t working would be the heavyweight champ of understatements. So why doesn’t he listen to his corner?

There are two things about the above quote which we should note.

Tyron Woodley struggles to get off the cage against Gilbert Burns.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

First, it was good advice. Patience is what makes a counter puncher, and Tyron Woodley, a man who observes even his own drawn-out defeats with an attitude of implacable forbearance, is a counter puncher to the core. But patience requires an opponent who is either fearful or foolhardy to work on its own, and the Gilbert Burns who started tearing into Woodley seconds into the fight was neither. So Thomas was right: the openings Woodley needed could not be waited upon; whether through aggression or deception, Woodley had to create those openings himself. Jabs, feints, forward pressure. All good ideas.

The second thing we should note is that it was never going to work. For all that Tyron took its meaning, Din’s advice may as well have been delivered in French.

A fistfight is a stressful experience. “Everybody has a plan,” Mike Tyson famously said, “until they get punched in the mouth.” But what happens when that first punch connects, and the man with the plan tastes his own blood, is far from random—and not all plans are as thin as lip skin. As fight fans, we have all seen gameplans go up in flames, but we have also seen bloodied fighters stick to their strategies with grim-faced determination no matter how many punches they have to eat in the process.

The question of whether or not a plan survives contact with the enemy has little to do with the strength of its ideas, as demonstrated by Din Thomas’ sound advice. Rather, it comes down to how deeply embedded those ideas are in the fighter—the deeper the hooks, the harder they are to knock loose. Those hooks need something to latch onto, however.

We have already noted this, but it wouldn’t hurt to emphasize: Tyron Woodley is a very patient fighter. Probably the most patient fighter in all of MMA. Patient to the point of madness. Next to his legendary power, nothing defines Woodley’s fighting style more than his dogged willingness to wait (and wait) for the opponent to walk into it.

Any gameplan Woodley could follow would have to account for who he is. And Woodley’s entire professional career to this point has demonstrated pretty damn clearly that who he is is not a man who feels comfortable attacking, or putting combinations together, or staying on the jab.

To equip Woodley with the right tools to win, we would have to understand why he is so patient. More than that, we would need some understanding of who he is, on the most fundamental level, for that is where a fighter’s style buries its roots. Fighting style, after all, is nothing more than an expression of the personality. Which is why it’s so awfully hard to hide who you are in a fistfight.

So what makes Woodley so patient? And what makes him such a prisoner to that patience, to the extent that he can lose 15, five-minute rounds in more or less identical fashion without once trying something radically different, even by accident?

Back in 2015, I interviewed Woodley together with my old co-host, Dr. Patrick Wyman. Not yet welterweight champ, Woodley was very candid about his struggles as a developing fighter. He told us that he had been completely terrified of getting hit when he was just starting out. “You would think I was getting stung by an entire beehive,” he said, pretending to cringe in fear. “Even throwing a jab… you’re like, ‘If I step in with this jab they might throw a right hand, or they might counter it, or they might…’ You know what I mean?”

The stuff of nightmares.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Later, he spoke about his fight with Rory MacDonald: “That fight was… like a bad dream. You know, I was wanting to punch and didn’t punch, wanting to—you know what I mean? Wanted to do something and didn’t. But [MacDonald] really didn’t hit me very much. He just kept me contained.”

Looking back, his words are like a more confident echo of the things he’s been saying throughout this current skid. Appropriate, as the loss to MacDonald would prove to be the prototype of every loss to come: not poised against the cage but trapped, cornered, contained by offense too fluid to beat back with a clubbing right hand and nothing else.

But there was a confidence there, all the same. Woodley was immensely proud of how far he had come as a fighter, carrying that pride like a chip on his shoulder. And he wasn’t entirely wrong about the MacDonald fight, either. Though Rory outstruck him 49 to 26, they were 49 out of 150 strikes attempted, the better part of which were deflected by Woodley’s underrated defense.

I don’t think Woodley is afraid of getting hit. It wasn’t a fear of getting hit that kept him “contained” by Rory MacDonald, anyway. If it were, we would have a hard time explaining his insistence on continuing to fight after three of the most lopsided beatdowns in UFC history. No, it’s not a fear of being hit but a fear of being flummoxed that haunts Tyron Woodley. Of being made to look like a fool. And everyone knows a fool always makes the first move.

It’s a style/personality like any other: full of paradoxes. Woodley doesn’t want to be outflanked, so he traps himself in the corner. He doesn’t want to make a mistake and get slapped down, so he allows himself to be picked apart. He doesn’t want to waste an opportunity, so he throws everything into every punch and runs himself ragged.

If Woodley’s coaches want to help him reverse his fortunes this Saturday, they cannot simply call out cues from the Better Boxing Handbook. Tyron cannot and will not do the things he has never been able to do, for simple lack of experience if nothing else.

Woodley’s coaches need either to help him effect a deep, fundamental change – all but impossible for many people, whether inside the cage or without – or to embrace Woodley’s nature and find new tactics that make sense to his way of thinking.

Still beating good heavyweights in 2020.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It can be done. The great Alistair Overeem was always a bully in a fight, but when those tendencies started to betray him the way Woodley’s patience and pride have likewise, he found another way to bully. Now, instead of trying to shove the other kid into a locker, he hops into his mom’s sedan and lobs piss-balloons from a safe distance. In other words, Overeem made the nuanced shift from brawling to pestering, and for a while there, it brought new life to the final years of a long career.

Maybe a similar reinvention for Woodley would look like an increased focus on handfighting into the clinch. Or an improvement in lateral movement, like the small one he showed against Kelvin Gastelum. Maybe it looks like reactive takedowns into classic, straight-up lay and pray.

But whatever the solution, it cannot be anathema to who Woodley is. Arming Tyron Woodley with pressure fighting tactics is like slapping wood glue on stainless steel. He will not do that which feels inherently risky to him, and he will do nothing if it seems the safer option.

Patience won Tyron Woodley his first shot at the title – quite literally – and pride kept the belt on his waist. Good luck convincing him to give up on either.

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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