At first glance they have nothing in common. Ahmed Zayat, owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh, grew up in Cairo, Egypt before coming to the U.S. for college and eventually calling Teaneck, New Jersey home. The horse is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert who grew up in Nogales, Arizona and is now based in the Los Angeles area. UFC welterweight contender Tyron Woodley is from Ferguson, Missouri who fights out of Coconut Creek, Florida for American Top Team.
It’s not certain any of these men follow the other’s sport though I know Baffert is acquainted with fighter Ryan Bader and is a fan of champion Ronda Rousey whom he met at the ESPY Awards.
What all three have demonstrated this year and continue to do so is sportsmanship. The kind that extends far beyond the extending of a hand after an event is completed; more than offering a hand up after a fall; far past lip service of how tough the opponents will be. Without reservation, all are willing to take the chances that captivate the senses and thrill the hearts of true fans. They run toward challenges with grace and confidence welcoming all comers.
This Saturday, American Pharaoh runs in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in New York. It is a picturesque setting that is misleading. A bucolic beauty of a place suspended in time much like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, but it has earned the nickname “The Graveyard of Champions,” for good reason. Among the major upsets that have taken place here, the widely considered greatest horse of all time Secretariat lost in 1973. Decades before him the horse widely considered the next greatest Man O’ War also lost, beaten by a horse appropriately named Upset.
It is significant that Zayat and Bob Baffert are laying it all on the line in a race where only one Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway in 1941, has won the Travers a.k.a. “The Mid-Summer Derby.” They weren’t obligated to do so, nothing mandatory in the books their great horse had to be at Saratoga. Most thought he would have one more race in September then go to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in October to finish his racing career before the next career as a prized stallion. That would have been the natural spacing of races and few could argue otherwise.
Sportsmanship is why they are doing it. We think our horse is the best and we are willing to fly him from California to give the rest of the group a shot at him. That’s not an exact quote, but it could be for that is exactly what they are doing.
Zayat knows the odds are against him historically but he wants American Pharaoh to be remembered as one of the greatest and is not backing down from any challenge. He is being a “good sport,” as it used to be said when someone was up for the try regardless the risk. This risk could have a tremendous reward to beat the field and the curse of the “Graveyard” in one afternoon and in these play it safe times it is refreshing to see unwavering commitment to a sport such as Zayat and Baffert are showing.
In one of the most magnanimous gestures in fighting history Woodley showed the essence of sportsmanship when he declined the 30% of the purse rightfully due to him from Kelvin Gastelum who failed to make weight for their UFC 183 showdown earlier this year. He certainly didn’t have to do that, but recognized almost every fighter is only making a living bout by bout, let the other man provide for his family too. That combined with his visits to his much publicized and troubled hometown to offer support to its youth make Woodley a sportsman of the year candidate.
He is scheduled to fight former champion Johny Hendricks at UFC 192 in a few weeks. A few weeks later at UFC 193 Robbie Lawler will defend his title against Carlos Condit who last year was beaten by Woodley and in the loss tore his ACL requiring surgery. On Inside MMA Woodley basically predicted this would be the way the richly deep welterweight division match ups would play out, in what is essentially a tournament style figuring the two winners from the fights will meet with a belt on the line.
All three men have legitimate claims as to why they should fight Lawler for the title right now, but Woodley in a show of sportsmanship has maintained patience and actually seems to prefer settling a 10 year-old grudge with Hendricks from the Big 12 wrestling tournament when both were All Americans, Woodley at Missouri and Hendricks at Oklahoma State. It does appear to be the best case scenario for all involved in this “semi-final” round.
Woodley has helped the cause by accepting a “one more try to get there” attitude in a time when everybody seems to want everything now. I’m as good or better than any in the division and if I have to show it fight by fight to get the belt, so be it. That isn’t a direct quote but it could be as he never backs away. Sportsman like indeed.
How American Pharaoh does this weekend and how Woodley fares in October can only be anticipated now, but what should be embraced in the example of sportsmanship that in those camps are not a lost art and in that there is a certain triumph of spirit and dignity.
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