Back in February, former Strikeforce welterweight standout Tyron Woodley needed just 36 seconds to make his presence felt in the UFC, leveling veteran Jay Hieron with a blistering right hand. In a year filled with impressive first showings, Woodley’s debut might be the best of the bunch so far.
Now, he’s ready for his encore.
Saturday night at UFC 161, Woodley welcomes Jake Shields back to the 170-pound fold in a matchup destined to have an impact on the divisional standings. After the two former Strikeforce competitors both lobbied to fill the void left opposite Carlos Condit at UFC 158 when Rory MacDonald was forced out with an injury, Woodley pushed to get the pairing made for March, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Three months later, the 31-year-old product of the University of Missouri wrestling program will finally share the cage with Shields, and he’s hungry to prove that his breakthrough performance against Hieron was just the beginning.
“I think if he had stayed at (welterweight), he’d be ranked in the Top 10 in the world, just based upon him fighting for the title before, holding the Strikeforce middleweight belt, he’s fought GSP. He’s only lost two fights at welterweight, so he would still be up there. And everybody was matched up.
“He wanted to fight Condit; I wanted to fight Condit,” Woodley continued, explaining how the matchup with Shields came together. “I really pushed for this fight to take place in March, just because if he was prepared to fight (Condit) at that point, he should be prepared to fight anybody at that point, but this worked out better.
“The way the card’s developing with these injuries, this is probably going to be the best fight on the card.”
Much like when the UFC debuted in Calgary, Alberta last summer, Winnipeg’s first event has been marred by changes to the lineup. Three of the five bouts originally penciled in on the main card have been altered, including both the main and co-main events.
Despite the shuffling, Woodley and Shields have remained positioned as the final bout on the preliminary portion of the card, a decision some fans and critics view as curious, but one Woodley understands completely.
“Two million people – hopefully more – are going to be watching this on FX,” estimated Woodley, whose record stands at 11-1 overall following his UFC 156 triumph. “Trying to build my name and get the UFC following behind me, it makes sense for me to be on FX. This is the last fight on the FX show – I’m going to put on a ridiculous performance and get everybody pumped up for the Pay-Per-View show.
“Anybody that’s watching the Pay-Per-View is most likely watching on FX, and some people that are watching FX aren’t necessarily watching the Pay-Per-View, so I think this is the best of both worlds. I’m going to get the chance to set myself apart, let my performance speak for itself, and I think after this fight you’ll see me on Pay-Per-View for the rest of my career.”
While his emphatic finish of Hieron catapulted him to greater recognition with the UFC audience, Woodley says his July 2012 loss to Nate Marquardt was the true catalyst for his climb towards the top of the division.
“I earned that shot,” Woodley said of the Strikeforce welterweight title fight with Marquardt. “Beating all these guys to put myself in a position where I could be fighting for a world title, and being patient with Nick Diaz leaving. When I got in there and I lost, I was really confused. I didn’t understand how or why, but the comeback I made, and the goal I made to myself after that fight has really improved me as a fighter.
“My sons were there. My sons had never watched me fight live, ever. I was thinking I’m going to be a world champion, and even in that fight when I dropped him, I was like, `I’m the champ! I’m the champ!’ I did stuff in that fight that I’ve never done before and that I tell my fighters not to do.
“Having those things happen, for me, it put me in a different spot. I’m not protecting anything like an undefeated record or not getting knocked out or losing in a world title fight. The worst that could happen has happened. For me, the weight is off, and now I can be the amazing athlete God created me to be, and I’m going to do that from now on.”
In addition to being one of the few welterweight names without a fight and their joint interest in fighting Condit back in March, the pairing with Shields also made sense to Woodley on a stylistic level.
Shields is one of the few remaining specialists competing at the highest level in the sport. The former Strikeforce middleweight champion and American Jiu-Jitsu pioneer is a monster on the mat, especially from top position. Between 2005 and 2010, Shields won 15 consecutive contests, using his dominant grappling prowess to get the better of established veterans like Mike Pyle, Robbie Lawler, Dan Henderson, and Martin Kampmann during that time.
But the way Woodley sees it, grappling is all Shields brings to the table, and with his pedigree as a Division I wrestler and more diverse all-around skill set, Saturday’s contest is a nightmare matchup for the returning welterweight, and a golden opportunity for himself.
“This is a terrible matchup for Jake Shields,” Woodley said bluntly. “He can fool himself all he wants - act like he’s going to knock somebody out, and act like he likes this fight,” Woodley continued. “He didn’t like this fight. Cesar Gracie didn’t like this fight, because I don’t match up well with him. I’m compact and explosive. I’ve got great wrestling. I’ve got good takedown defense, and I’m a good grappler. I punch as hard as the top guys in the division. With all those things together, if I can keep him out of his element, I win the fight.
“I think this fight is mine for the taking. I just have to be patient, wait for the right opportunity,” Woodley offered in assessment of Saturday’s showdown with Shields. “I need to stay busy, make sure I’m not getting out-worked. I know Jake is going to be coming out hard. He has to win this fight; this isn’t a fight he can lose, so he needs to come forward, pressure me, try to make an ugly fight, try to get into this grappling war where we’re clinching and against the cage.
“He’s hoping to get me on my back, so I’ve got to stay light on my feet, I’ve got to stay fresh, and I’ve got to stick to the game plan. If I do those things, I don’t think we’ll see it go 15 minutes.”
Whether it’s this weekend against Shields or any fight in the future, Woodley has a stern warning for all those who sign up to face him in the Octagon.
“Anyone who is in the way for my post-Strikeforce world title attempt, it is bad news for them. That wasn’t just a one-time deal (against Jay Hieron) – that’s something I plan on repeating. I can’t commit that I’m going to knock everybody out in under a minute, but I’m gonna dang-on try. I’m going to go out there, take everybody’s head off, and make a great performance.”