Black UFC athletes talk importance of Juneteenth and why systemic racism must end

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Friday is the 155th anniversary of the day — June 19, 1865 — when Gen. Gordon Granger read aloud in Galveston, Texas, federal orders that made all slaves in Texas free. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, formally freeing enslaved people.

The news, though, didn’t travel to Texas, where there weren’t many union soldiers who had fought and won the Civil War. It wasn’t until Granger read the orders in Galveston that all slaves were officially free.

The date has become known as “Juneteenth,” a combination of June and 19th. It’s a state holiday in Texas, and the UFC is now recognizing it as a holiday. It’s an important moment for African Americans, but even a socially aware athlete like Tyron Woodley didn’t know of the significance of the date until a few years ago.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she’s going to introduce a bill to make it a federal holiday, a move Woodley supports.

“I have to be real and say what I feel, and honestly, this has kind of gotten swept under the rug,” Woodley told Yahoo Sports. “The first time I celebrated it, I was doing something [a promotional appearance]. There was an [UFC] event the same weekend and it was a Juneteenth deal. There were so many people there and I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ I never learned about it in high school or college.

“But I did my research and these slaves, if you can imagine, were free for damn near three years before they found out. It’s a significant day in the history of Black people in this country and it should be celebrated.”

More than 150 years since the slaves have been freed, Black people are still facing systemic racism. Woodley, UFC heavyweight Curtis Blaydes and lightweight Roosevelt Roberts said they’ve dealt with it repeatedly.

Blaydes, who fights Alexander Volkov on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) at UFC Apex, said he was recently racially profiled when he was walking around his neighborhood in Lakewood, Colorado.

“In my opinion, people have been able to see the disparity between the Black and the white communities for a long time, but it took the George Floyd incident to occur before people got fed up enough and said, ‘This has to stop,’” Blaydes said. “I’ve never had a gun pulled on me [by police], but I have definitely been racially profiled. Less than two years ago, after my [second fight with Francis] Ngannou, I was walking around my neighborhood at nighttime and I was on the phone. We had people over watching the fights and it was loud so I went outside to talk.

“I lived on that block for several years, and I was just walking around the block on the phone. But a police officer pulled up on me and he said to me, ‘Yeah, we have reports of a man fitting your description trying to break into cars.’ So one of the white people in my neighborhood had called the police on me. ... I was being accosted by the police because I was a Black man in a white neighborhood. But this is my reality.”

Curtis Blaydes reacts after his knockout victory over Junior Dos Santos in their heavyweight fight during UFC Fight Night at PNC Arena on January 25, 2020 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Blaydes, whose father is a police officer, cooperated and didn’t encounter any trouble. But he said those kinds of incidents make it incumbent on people to try to end systemic racism because so many gave their lives in the Civil War fighting to end slavery.

Woodley said his 16-year-old son, Tyron Jr, had football practice the other day. He wanted to get his car washed before practice, but ran out of time. The fighter told his son to take his car, but his son was hesitant. Woodley drives an expensive Audi RS7 that is customized. His son was fearful a police officer would see him driving the car and would stop him.

Woodley is working on putting together a coalition and has enlisted the help of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek; Kevin Weaver, the president of the West Coast division of Atlantic Records; and filmmaker Nate Parker to help combat the problem.

“I have great confidence and belief in myself and I don’t let what people say to me or about me affect my view of myself, but a lot of people don’t have that,” Woodley said. “I get called a [racial slur] 10 to 15 times a day, every day. But I don’t give a [expletive] because I know what I’m about, but it’s tough for a lot of people who don’t have that confidence and face that.

“I was blessed to have a strong mind and a pretty intimate relationship with God. I feel given how blessed I’ve been it’s my job to be the person who orchestrates or rounds up or is in the forefront of making things like this better. I have four sons and I want to leave this world better for them than I found it. My 16-year-old son cries; he’s a pretty mature, smart kid, and he cries because he’s terrified to drive and maybe get pulled over.”

Roberts said he’s been racially profiled frequently and has been beaten up by police for no reason. He said he’s seen police turn their dogs onto his friends without provocation.

“This holiday is a sign to us how far we have come, because from then to now, it’s tremendous how far we have come,” Roberts said. “But we’re still having to fight and try to push forward because of the system and how it is. We have to speak out and say, ‘It’s not right; this isn’t OK any more,’ because the people who came before us went through so much and sacrificed to make it better. We need to do the same to make the world fair for everyone.”

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