The night after a white policeman shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tyron Woodley got on a flight headed for the area.
Woodley, 32, didn’t go there as a curious onlooker or a celebrity looking to protest. The UFC welterweight calls Ferguson, located in St. Louis County, his home.
Born and raised in the city of approximately 21,000, Woodley says his barbershop is located "two minutes" away from the now-looted and burned convenience store that has become a gathering site for protesters since Brown’s death Aug. 9.
Woodley (13-3), who is scheduled to fight Dong Hyun Kim at a UFC Fight Night this weekend in Macau, drove past the familiar convenience store on West Florissant Road before he left the U.S. last week and was disheartened by what he saw.
In addition to feeling heartbroken for the victim's family, Woodley was saddened by the extent of rioting that has hit his hometown in the aftermath of the shooting. He still has family in Ferguson and is encouraging those in the area to protest peacefully.
"I think people are trying to protest peacefully now, but the looting really reflected on us in a negative way," Woodley said.
"I drove down that street the next morning. It wasn't just the [convenience store] that got hit. It was [auto parts retail store] Autozone, beauty supply stores and meat markets.
"These are local businesses, many of which are black-owned, with employees that need those jobs. People are ripping them off. How does that do anything positive?"
Woodley is coming off a disappointing performance against Rory MacDonald at UFC 174 in June, which has (at least temporarily) cooled his title hopes at 170 pounds. A win over Kim (19-2-1), who has won four in a row, would be a major rebound.
To that end, Woodley's coaches have confiscated his phone to prevent the nonstop barrage of updates from Missouri to weigh him down. He flew to Singapore on Aug. 13 and then to Hong Kong last weekend. He will fly to Macau on Wednesday.
With media obligations looming, Woodley knows the situation in his hometown will be a talking point in coming days.
"The bad thing is when I hear [the UFC] needs a last-minute interview, I knew what it was about," Woodley said. "It's about the Ferguson situation. It's not about a fight I have coming up on Saturday, which is tough. Yeah, it's a distraction.
"I'm from the area. I've had to try and block it out and stay positive. At the end of the day, I can't block it out. My whole life, I’ve spent there."
Simply talking about this weekend's matchup is a welcome distraction for Woodley, who took the fight when Kim's original opponent, Hector Lombard, withdrew because of injury in June.
Ranked the No. 7 welterweight in the world by ESPN.com, Woodley believes his one-sided loss to MacDonald hasn’t set him back significantly and a win over Kim would get him back to where he was after knocking out Carlos Condit in March.
"I didn't fall too much,” Woodley said. "When I started doing my research on Kim, he fought Karo Parisyan, Matt Brown, Erick Silva and TJ Grant. He's got a lot of wins on his record. I believe he's a top-five welterweight and the UFC agrees, otherwise it wouldn't make sense for this fight to happen."
Once the fight is over, Woodley plans to put his status in MMA to some positive effect back in the U.S.
For a professional athlete who has dedicated time to teach the youth of Ferguson that they can achieve what they want, it's been frustrating to see those taking advantage of the situation and adding grief to innocent victims.
"To see a riot where I grew up -- it's just crazy to see it being put on the map in such a negative way," Woodley said. "A lot of people have pride living there. It's not riff-raff like it's made out to be.
"I have friends there who are engineers, a pilot -- a friend who just went to France, a Grammy-winning trumpet player. Being from a rough area isn't an excuse to [loot]. This is an opportunity to rise above and do something positive."