On a night where former Strikeforce competitors shone in their UFC debuts, Tyron Woodley was the brightest new star to step into the cage.
In just 36 seconds on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the former University of Missouri standout announced his presence as a contender in the welterweight division, becoming only the second person to stop durable veteran Jay Hieron, and the first to put away the Xtreme Couture stalwart in more than five years.
While Woodley used his wrestling pedigree to carry him to victories over the likes of Jordan Mein, Paul Daley, and Tarec Saffiedine over the last few years, last Saturday night, the 30-year-old St. Louis native opted to show off the finishing skills that allowed him to earn stoppage wins in six of his first seven professional bouts. After being criticized for his suffocating top game, the now 11-1 welterweight contender plans to make performances like the one he delivered at UFC 156 his new normal.
“I didn’t have any intent of that fight going beyond the first round,” explained Woodley in an interview with Sportsnet.ca. “I went out there with a chip on my shoulder, and said, ‘God gave me these gifts, and I’m going to showcase them on this platform.’ I’m going to use them every fight from here on out. If I lose, I’m going to lose big, and if I win, it’s going to be devastating. That’s the new me, and that’s what you guys are going to see from now on.”
Like many of his former Strikeforce colleagues, the last few years have been challenging for Woodley. He wasn’t able to fight nearly as much as he would have liked, and when match-ups did come together, they didn’t always make sense. As a then-unbeaten fighter looking to put himself on the map, Woodley says he probably dialed back his aggression and played it safe from time-to-time out of necessity.
“When you’re fighting, you try to tell yourself to fight to win, not to fight to “not lose,” but when you’re told, `Hey, we need you to fight Tarec Saffiedine on three weeks’ notice on this free Showtime weekend. You guys will be the main event. If you win, you’ll fight the winner of Paul Daley and Scott Smith.’ That’s a crappy situation to fight a kid that’s tough when we both are up-and-coming.”
Woodley defeated Saffiedine, who went on to upset Nate Marquardt and enter the UFC as the final Strikeforce welterweight champion, but it took months before the bout with Daley came together.
“The fight with Paul Daley didn’t come until way after the fact — he had to go to BAMMA to fight and avoid me, and then fight Diaz before me, and then Diaz leaves. Then I fight Jordan Mein after I fought Paul Daley. Mein is stupid-good, but he doesn’t have the same name recognition as Paul Daley has, but he’s probably a tougher opponent for me. It was kind of confusing, kind of frustrating for me, but now it all makes sense.”
Having endured the slow and drawn-out demise of Strikeforce and made the most of his short-notice opportunity to enter the fray in the UFC last weekend, Woodley is focused on making up for lost time in 2013.
At the UFC 156 post-fight press conference, the engaging American Top Team representative let UFC president Dana White know that he’s ready and willing to step in for any of the welterweights competing at UFC 158 next month in Montreal, just as he was when Hieron’s original opponent, Erick Silva, came up injured.
“If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see I was campaigning with the hashtag #StayReady — stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. I was running five miles a day, sparring 12 rounds; I was already in camp, and I didn’t even know it. I was kind of frustrated, and was really just getting my mindset right because I felt a fight coming on.
“I didn’t know where it was going to come from — I didn’t know if anyone was going to get injured on the last Strikeforce card, but I wanted to be ready and in shape just in case — and then this opportunity came, and I had four weeks to prepare for Jay Hieron.
“I’m back in the gym now,” continued Woodley, adding that the “#StayReady” hashtag is still in effect. “When we get off the phone I’ll be starting my workout. I feel good; I didn’t take any damage, and my weight is under control.”
If another short-notice opportunity doesn’t materialize for the Montreal fight card, Woodley will still be paying close attention, as a number of the best fighters in his division will be stepping into the cage, including one he would like to face off with next, Rory MacDonald.
“He’s actually a tougher opponent than (Demian) Maia in my opinion,” said Woodley of MacDonald. “I think he’s probably the toughest opponent for me right now, so why not fight the toughest guy while I’ve got my groove rolling, I’m motivated, and I’m pumped up? This kid is just going to continue to get better, man. If you’re sleeping on this kid — you think he’s an easy win — you’ve got another thing coming.”
Woodley sees a potential pairing with the surging Canadian contender as a win-win opportunity. With MacDonald already positioned in the top 10 and receiving a strong push from the UFC, sharing the cage with the 23-year-old standout would give him increased exposure, and a win could put him in the running for a shot at the welterweight title.
“If he’s not going to fight Georges St-Pierre, and you know that openly, I would rather intercept that opportunity, and use that bout as something to catapult me into the running to fight Georges St-Pierre, who I would definitely fight. It’s no disrespect to Rory either; he’s a stud. After he beat BJ Penn, I went back there and said, `That’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in my life,’ and I meant it. It’s no disrespect; it’s no downplaying — it’s not like I see something that’s a glitch in his game that I can come and exploit. It’s a tough fight, and I’m asking for war.”
Whether he gets his ideal pairing with “Ares” or another opportunity against a different opponent, Woodley is focused on continuing to make his presence felt in the welterweight division, and giving the fans more highlight-reel finishes later this year.
“(People have only) seen a glimpse — they didn’t even see everything I’m capable of doing; they saw 30 seconds of what I can do — and now everybody is interested. I think everybody in the welterweight division is taking notice; guys know I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. You guys are going to see a lot of fireworks from me in 2013.”