ST. LOUIS — UFC welterweight Tyron Woodley is back in the gym, the first extended break of his career over. This was a real rest, too. “I was lazy,” he said. He ate pizza and ice cream and did nothing in the gym for two months.
“I’ve been in a sport consistently with no breaks, no gaps in competition or training, since I was 9 years old,” said the 32-year-old Woodley, who admits those first few days back on the program were not much fun. “I was overweight, I was out of shape,” he said recently at his gym in Rock Hill.
But two-and-a-half weeks after returning, an hour of sparring followed by five-minute sprints on the VersaClimber told him earlier this week he’s back on his game. Now it’s time to raise the intensity for a seven-week training program before his Jan. 31 bout against young Kelvin Gastelum.
Just more than a year ago, Woodley was beginning a charge up the welterweight rankings that has lifted him to No. 3. Now he’ll be the big name trying to hold off the up-and-comer in a co-main event on the UFC 183 card, scheduled for the Saturday before the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. The 23-year-old Gastelum has yet to lose in 11 pro MMA fights.
“When you fight these young spunky kids, they make you want to train hard,” Woodley said. “I used to be that guy. I was the young-and-hungry one trying to bite everybody, trying to get that big-name fighter.”
When the year started, Woodley’s goal was to have fought and secured the title by now. But a unanimous-decision loss to Rory MacDonald in June set back his plan, though he regrouped in impressive fashion with a first-round knockout of Dong Hyun Kim in August. That was his fourth fight in 10 months, an ambitious schedule certainly worthy of some time off.
While Woodley took a respite from the gym, he was busy out of it. He shot a movie in Los Angeles, moved his wife and three children (with a fourth on the way) into a new home and made numerous promotional appearances around the world.
But much of his time was occupied by what has happened in his hometown of Ferguson, Mo., on Aug 9.
Woodley grew up near what is now called Ground Zero and still frequents the area. When I talked to him shortly before he left for Thailand for his August fight, he was driving through the streets of Ferguson surveying the damage following the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson two days earlier.
Like everyone, Woodley was upset about the damage that had been inflicted in the area. But unlike most of us, he did not get his perspective only from watching the news and checking social media. Woodley lived it. He said he has witnessed and experienced racial profiling in Ferguson.
“I’ve been pulled over and harassed by the police in Ferguson,” said Woodley, an African-American. “I’ve seen my friends beat up and slapped by police officers.”
But he also understands there is another side to the story. “The police department didn’t make the profile up,” he said. “They didn’t make the stereotype up. We made that up.”
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He has seen the authority defied without real cause and he doesn’t understand why Brown didn’t get out of the middle of the street as he was told by Wilson. “Why didn’t he just go to the side of the street?” he said. “Would it have hurt?”