• Tyron Woodley grew up with a mother who opened her home to anyone who needed a hand. Now that he's an established UFC star, the welterweight champion plans to help kids who are in similar situations.
By Karl Bullock
March 30, 2018

The kinship between sports and mentorship is seemingly conjoined at the hip. At-risk youth are susceptible to peer pressure when surrounded by drugs, gangs and other elements. In this digital age of sports and media, the omnipresence of athletes in the community bestow an ingenuous perception of support. Their representation as role models in the communities where the youth are vulnerable is imperative.

Tyron Woodley knows this well.

Throughout the MMA community, Woodley is revered for his punching power. His lightning-quick speed generated through powerful lower-body form can turn the most rock solid of a jaw into shattered glass.

But behind that is a man who harvests multiple talents. Woodley, 35, is a fighter, actor, businessman, and stuntman as well as the reigning UFC welterweight champion. He’s compiled an 18-3-1 record in his mixed martial arts career.

Yet, these acts haven’t prevented Woodley from envisioning his final act, and an integral part of his lasting legacy: helping at-risk youth.

Woodley understands his responsibility in mentoring others, and it’s a position he’s more than willing to embrace because he was once the type of youngster he now yearns to guide.

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Much of the earlier part of Woodley’s childhood materialized inside a four-bedroom home in Ferguson, Mo. Alongside 13 brothers and sisters, his mother, Deborah Woodley, opened her home to a host of scattered guests in addition to raising her own children. In order to support her household, Deborah worked double- and triple-shifts at two hotels—Wyndham Garden and Drury Inn & Suites—and sold cosmetics for Mary Kay.

Home is where the deed of giving and helping others made an impact on the young Woodley. Accessible to all, their home was open to any individual moving from one spot to another or in need of a hot meal when times were rough. Sell drugs? Not an issue. Involved in gangs? It could be overlooked. With Deborah, there was no reservation or fear to talk to people about the error of their ways or find the goodwill inside them. One of the reasons Woodley gives his mom the title of “universal mom” is because she has an ability to touch the roughest of souls with the warmest of hearts.

“It takes a special kind of person to be able to untap a street person, a gangbanger, a drug dealer or someone that’s robbing,” Woodley said. “My mom’s a gangsta man. I think how authentic she is when she talks to people and where she comes from gets their attention and their respect.”

Benevolence resonated with Woodley. His home became a stronghold for himself and others until it came crashing down when he was 13. Unable to keep up with the mortgage, Woodley, his mother and his siblings were evicted from their home.

Imagine growing up in the only home you’ve ever known, only to be forced out and the premises deemed off-limits. It inevitably dispersed Woodley and his family.

Deborah and Woodley’s two younger sisters settled in with a friend in a two-bedroom apartment. The rest of his siblings, fortunately, were off to college or living on their own. Woodley moved in with a friend across the street from the home his family was evicted from. Every day after school Woodley walked past the house he once called home. Woodley admits the experience caused him separation anxiety.

“It was embarrassing,” he says. “I had been living there for 13 years since I was a 1-year-old. I thought it was a dream or wasn’t a part of my reality. I disassociated myself from the truth.”

Coming of age in Ferguson proved difficult for the many youngsters in the area. For Woodley, doing so without his family under one roof was no different. Lacking positive role models, Woodley instead looked up to those he saw on the street each day in the cycle of drugs and violence. While in middle school, he joined the Gangster Disciples. In a world where survival of the fittest was the battle, it was a dangerous path to take. Woodley’s options were bully or be bullied and he had no intentions of becoming prey.

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Despite that, Woodley would find himself to be an exceptional athlete on the football field and the wrestling mat. He saw a ticket out.

During his junior year at McCluer High School, his mother found a place on the south side of St. Louis and he moved in with her. While he wasn’t interested in sports initially, Woodley was nudged by his mother to utilize sports to do something better in life.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford college [because] there wasn’t that much money coming in,” he said. “I figured if I could control what I did academically and if I can push as hard as I can athletically then I would put myself in position to be successful.”

At McCluer, Woodley used his talent to mold himself into a two-time All American wrestler and state champion in 2000. He enrolled at the University of Missouri, setting his sights on building the prestige of the school’s wrestling program. At the conclusion of his collegiate career, Woodley was a two-time All American as well as Mizzou’s first Big 12 conference champion in individual competition. He also received his degree in agricultural economics.

After college, Woodley worked as a wrestling coach at his alma mater. In between downtime, he and the other coaches would put on a series of competitive stunts using a punching bag. During those moments, Woodley realized his stamina, energy, and power lasted longer than his fellow coaches. Young wrestlers on the team challenged him to fight in local amateur bouts upon witnessing the stunts.

“I found out when the next fight was, walked into the guy’s office [American Top Ten gym] and said ‘Aye man, I wanna be on your fight card in two weeks,’” he said. “Like no training, no boxing or coaching. I wanted to get in there, wrestle, swing and hit people.”

What began as a fun challenge to test the waters transitioned into Woodley defeating his first two opponents by quick knockout (20 and 30 seconds). Woodley’s thinking transitioned into a potential career path as a mixed martial artist.

“I thought I could kill somebody, Woodley says of those earlier fights. “I never felt that with any other sport. It just felt wrong for me to go in there and basically hurt people.”

The gamble paid off.

Though somewhat unappreciatively, Woodley carved out a stellar career atop the throne in the UFC’s welterweight division. Sitting at the apex of the sport, he’s still as hungry as ever inside and out of the octagon, fueled by the streets he grew up in and the journey he’s traveled to get here. A fervor sustained thanks to the sacrifice his mother inspired him with throughout his life. It's allowed Woodley to keep a promise he made her in his youth to buy her a house, which he fulfilled this past Christmas.

It’s also driving his passion to take everything he’s learned to uplift those vulnerable groups of youth he relates to. Woodley is aware of the negative thoughts creeping into the minds when no clear path to escape the situations he’s experienced early in life.

“There’s the addictive mindset that I’m always going to be here or someone is holding me down from being successful,” he says. “You have to develop a process where you go outside and prove everybody wrong, but prove your loved ones and supporters right.”

Woodley talks up the mental toughness required in sports. In many ways, it can be the gateway to improving confidence in real-world skills. He points to past examples of success including the work he’s done at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis.

“We trained their mind and spirit first then we trained them in wrestling techniques,” he said. “How to push, how to endure, how to fight the feeling that you go and do something comfortably and confidently.”

Expressing interest in a non-profit is easy for one to talk about, and Woodley aims to let his actions represent his intentions. He’s filed for his 501(c)(3), a document that qualifying entities submit to the IRS when trying to establish charitable organizations, with hopes of getting his foundation off the ground.

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In addition, Woodley has teamed up with EAG, a sports management and public relations firm, to help him networking opportunities and organizational structure.

“Once you start something in the community you want to have consistency,” Woodley said. “I don’t want to start something and leave the kids high and dry.”

It’s a necessary precaution as Woodley understands he needs to be committed for his startup in Ferguson, where he wants to launch, in order to increase his platform to help other communities if the opportunity arises.

In theory, Woodley envisions himself similarly to the iconic and legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali. Not as a comparison in fighting, but in his approach to revolt against the status quo.

“He used his platform very cognitively,” Woodley says. “He used boxing to become one of the greatest public figures we’ve ever seen.”

Woodley’s fighting career is far from over, and his vision for his non-profit is still merely that, but he’s confident that he can be just as impactful outside the octagon as he’s been on the inside.

“Why can’t I be somebody that kids look up to?” he said. “ When you come to the realization that you can be that person, then you can be.”