Since 2013, UFC fans have anticipated who would replace Georges St-Pierre as the undisputed king at welterweight, or Anderson Silva as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. With a few more victories, Tyron Woodley may finally be able to lay claim to both titles. Already the welterweight champ, Woodley certainly looks the part (we thought of describing him as a Roman statue, but then decided that made him sound skinny)—and he boasts wins over MMA household names like Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, and Josh Koscheck. He doesn’t have any gaping holes in his fight game, and after two wars with welterweight contender Stephen Thompson, Woodley has shown that he can handle adversity and learn from his mistakes.
But what may bode best for his ultimate status as an MMA legend is his desire to grow beyond the sport, impacting the world as an entertainer, philanthropist, and teacher. Onnit caught up with “T-Wood” as he prepares to take on Demian Maia at UFC 214 to find out if he is in fact, “the chosen one.”
Onnit: Your next fight is against Demian Maia, a submission specialist who’s riding a seven-fight win streak. But you’re a wrestler first and foremost, and it seems like good wrestlers are able to beat jiu-jitsu players more often than not. Why do you think that is?
Jiu-jitsu is more of a casual game, like chess. Wrestling is a sport that you do a little more aggressively. And I think guys who have a wrestling background are used to drilling over and over, and that programs your mind and body to go out there and do things reactively.
Do you think wrestlers are the toughest fighters, mentally?
I think I am. Maia gets an opportunity to fight for a world title and, from what I heard, he goes, “Aw, I wanted to do a seminar.” He started claiming he wanted to do a lot of things that were not fight related. I think that’s a big sign of where his head’s at and his mental toughness.
What are your workouts like these days? Is it true you’re doing all your exercises with a backpack on to prepare for Maia’s potential back mount?
That was never a joke. If you have the right training partners who are heavy enough, they can become a backpack too. I didn’t get a ton of notice for this fight, so I’m doing a lot of conditioning and drilling. I’m gameplanning ways to make him go into survival mode.
The exercises I do depend on the kind of fight I have coming up. For this fight I’m doing a lot of plyometrics, agility, making sure I’m mobile so I can move around. I don’t work a lot of super heavy lifts. If I’m working on strength then that means I’m planning on being close to him, and being close to Maia is not really a smart game plan.
“I’m hard to take down, I’m hard to submit, I’m hard to out-endure, and I punch harder than anyone in the UFC.”
Because if he’s close to you he can take you down.
The only way he can beat me is if he takes me down, so it doesn’t make any sense to put him in the one position where he can have success. But obviously I’m working on getting back up if I get taken down. But it would be arrogant to think I’m going to take him down and submit him.
You took this fight with Maia on about a month’s notice. How ready are you?
I weigh 184 now. I usually don’t weigh that until a day before the fight. My body is really lean. My conditioning feels good. Had I not been using the Onnit supplements and staying lean I probably would not have accepted the fight on one month’s notice. If I needed to make weight this week, I’m real confident that I could do it and not be affected by it.
What are your favorite agility drills?
I like to do ladder drills, unilateral bounds—where I’m jumping on one leg. I do box jumps, sprints, and sled pushes. I do anything where I have to explode and then recover again and again. So if I explode and my opponent is still trying to take me down, I have to be able to attack.
You’ve been called the “Chosen One,” in part because you seem to have everything a fighter needs to be great. What are the attributes that make a legendary fighter?
The mind is the strongest muscle you can have. MMA is one sport where you don’t have to be the most athletic, the fastest, or the strongest. If you have the will to train and the ability to be honest with yourself and say, “This guy is better than me in this position; I have to stop him from hitting me there,” you can succeed. If you can do that and grow as a martial artist, you can be one of the best. You know, in the NFL, you get drafted. They look at what you’ve done in the past and that determines your future. But in MMA you can actually get into the sport and not be at your best and still grow within that sport.
What about physically?
Physically, you have to have at least two skill sets. When I was coming up you had jiu-jitsu guys, strikers, and this and that. Now you have to at least be proficient in striking and wrestling, or submissions and boxing, to have a chance. And you have to have takedown defense.
“It’s important to have people around you who have no other reason to be. I have a small circle. There are not a lot of vacancies for people who want to come in at the last minute and ride my coattails.”
Some critics have suggested that being as muscular as you are is a detriment in a fight. Why do you think it hasn’t been for you?
Most critics aren’t even athletes. Look at guys like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield. These guys were never known to not be able to go the full 12 rounds or 4 quarters. You have to understand how you’re built and be able to explode and recover over and over. It’s just about being honest with yourself and knowing what you have to do to stay in shape. I’ve learned my body pretty well.
What is a typical day of eating for you?
I’m making a Hemp Force shake with some greens right now, and putting some Total Strength and Performance pre-workout in there. I throwAlpha BRAIN® in my coffee, which I know sounds weird but it tastes pretty good to me. I eat eggs, turkey bacon, bananas, strawberries, cereal. I take krill oil and Shroomtech, which is another form of pre-workout that helps get oxygen to your muscles. When I’m in shape, my resting heart rate is like 38. So I don’t want to take something crazy that makes my heart beat all weird. I don’t use pre-workouts that have stimulants.
You went off supplements for two years. Why?
The truth is I was spoiled. I had been sponsored by some big companies and I stopped working with them. I had gotten so used to getting supplements as a part of the deal, I said, “I’m not buying supplements now. Somebody should give them to me free.” But then USADA was strongly evaluating supplements and some of the guys that I knew who were taking over the counter stuff were getting flagged, like Yoel Romero. So I didn’t want to chance it. I went off them.
Then I said, “Let me find out who makes the cleanest supplements and I’ll go talk to the owner to see what the company is about.” I tried Onnit’s products and I was a fan. I flew myself out to Austin, Texas, on my own dime, and talked to Aubrey [Marcus, Onnit’s founder]. I wanted to see where they made the supplements. I wanted to talk to the staff. I wanted to see what kind of testing they did. We really clicked, and I found out Aubrey was a fan of mine so we had a lot of mutual respect.
You have a smart fighting style but fans haven’t always been satisfied with your victories. Do you think you can win them over without risking too much?
Well, look at my record. I have some of the most vicious knockouts in history. Of 17 wins, 11 of them are finishes. So I think fans know I have the ability to explode and finish. But I think what’s smarter is my ability to not be egotistical in the Octagon. If I’m fighting someone who’s a karate guy, it wouldn’t make sense for me to jump into his world. Just like Stephen Thompson wouldn’t try to wrestle me.
I think my style is probably the most exciting style in the UFC when you think about it—I’m hard to take down, I’m hard to submit, I’m hard to out-endure, and I punch harder than anyone in the UFC. And I can go from 0 to 100 without batting an eye. Sometimes when people see what you’re capable of doing—they see the Hieron knockout, the Koscheck knockout, the Dong Hyun Kim knockout—they expect the same formula every fight, but some guys aren’t built that way. To be the best welterweight who’s ever fought, sometimes you have to fight a fight in a way that you can’t finish, but there’s never been a fight that I did not try to finish.
You’ve said life was better before being champ. Have you adjusted any better to the pressure since then or is it still the same?
It depends on what day you ask me. Some days are better than others. Some days the pressure and the politics consume me. But I’ve always had a strong circle of people that hold me accountable and they tell me to chill out. It’s important to have people around you who have no other reason to be. I have a small circle. There are not a lot of vacancies for people who want to come in at the last minute and ride my coattails.
“The fact that I can be a world champion and one of the best fighters pound-for-pound in the world and this ain’t even my favorite thing to do speaks volumes about how I can detach myself and do what I have to do when it’s time to fight.”
Do you ever see yourself just walking away like Georges St-Pierre did?
Georges St-Pierre is a different animal. I don’t think it was the pressure that made him leave; I think it was his obsession with the sport. I love fighting but it’s not my favorite thing to do and sometimes I don’t even like fighting. The fact that I can be a world champion and one of the best fighters pound-for-pound in the world and this ain’t even my favorite thing to do speaks volumes about how I can detach myself and do what I have to do when it’s time to fight. When it’s time to do something different, I’ll do that. I think, for a lot of fighters, their identity is so buried in the fighting that when they finish fighting they don’t know what else to do.
If GSP comes back and you’re able to fight him, would you be satisfied beating him even if he wasn’t at his best anymore?
I’d be satisfied beating him no matter what because he was the greatest welterweight of all time. But I won’t get my hopes up about him coming back. I don’t know what his intentions are. What I have to do right now is focus on Maia because if I let him jump on my back the chances of me fighting GSP are non-existent.
What did you learn from your two wars with Stephen Thompson?
I learned that I can be patient. That I can not listen to the fans and my natural urge to go out and fuck this dude up. I had to be smart and do what I had to do to win the fight. He was smart; he’s a counter-fighter and he was waiting. His body language was telling me “if you come in on me, I’m going to do this.” And I was telling him, “No, you come in. I’m the champ.” A lot of people hadn’t seen me go five rounds before, so it was good for them to see me not blitz somebody in the first round. I got to show people that someone who’s built like I am can last for five rounds. But he was an annoying opponent, it was an annoying training camp, and I’m really glad that chapter is closed.
You’ve said you don’t want to be like Conor McGregor. What do you want your career to stand for?
I want to be remembered as somebody who came in with a clear mission to be the best in the world, worked his butt off to do it, and never really lost himself. We all lose ourselves a bit but what matters is if you can get back on track. I want to end my career fighting for the things I’ve always fought for. I want to leave as one of the best who ever fought. My end date is when I’ve accomplished everything I set out to accomplish. I don’t want to be the guy who’s still taking fights for the money. There’s a lot of other stuff I can do. If my body gives out or if I finish what I set out to do or these young guys become too fast, too skilled, or too much, it will be time to pass the torch.
But what’s left for you in the sport? You’re already champion. Where else can you go?
I want to defend the belt as many times as I can, win superfights, win trilogy fights if I have to. Create as much separation as I can between myself and everybody else. There’s Tyron Woodley, and then everybody else is fighting for second place.
Do you still plan on opening a center for troubled youth?
When I retire, that’s definitely something I plan on doing. Two things kept me on track when I was a kid: my mom and God. My mom was a good example for me, and I walk very closely with God. I think He’s had this planned for me since I was a kid. Fighting is a small piece of my life. It’s not even a speck compared to what I plan on my life becoming. This is just one chapter and it will open up doors for other chapters.
“Fighting is a small piece of my life. It’s not even a speck compared to what I plan on my life becoming. This is just one chapter and it will open up doors for other chapters.”
Like acting? [Woodley has had several small TV and film roles already]
Yes, I got into it through stunt work, and I worked my way up from there. It’s something I wanted to do since I was 10. I’d watch comedies and say, “That dude is funny; I’d like to do that.” But acting is really hard. I like the challenge, and it’s something I’ll focus on in the future. It will be a natural transition for me.
You’ve also talked about becoming a motivational speaker and writing books. What do you want your message to be?
I want to inspire people by talking about things that everybody can relate to. It’s important to me to be real. I used to run by these really expensive homes in St. Louis and I told myself I would own one of them some day, and that motivated me. I would draw on my childhood a lot when I talk to people. My mindset hasn’t changed.
See Woodley defend his title at UFC 214 on July 29, 2017. Follow him on Instagram at @twooodley.