Tyron Woodley had been out of the Octagon for 18 months, not necessarily by choice, but because his opponents kept falling out. When he finally returned to the cage, it was against welterweight champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 201.
He dispatched him in a matter of minutes to win his first UFC title.
“It hasn’t had an opportunity to sink in,” Woodley told Sports Illustrated by phone. “The demands of immediately giving the fans [news of] who you are fighting next, what you are going to do next, kind of takes away from the moment.”
Part of the hysteria surrounding his first title defense was his own doing. Woodley called for a fight with welterweight legend Georges St-Pierre, who was teasing a return to MMA, or Nick Diaz, who was coming off suspension and has a loyal fanbase that drove up pay-per-view buys for his younger brother, Nate. Both options were wise and savvy moves that would’ve been beneficial for Woodley.
In the end, Woodley settled for top-ranked contender Stephen (Wonderboy) Thompson at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden.
For Woodley, calling out Diaz and St-Pierre wasn’t an effort to slight Thompson, despite a minor exchanging of words in the media.
“I say this very humbly, but I called and asked for the toughest matchups that were most problematic for me before I was champion,” Woodley said. “It wasn’t to take easy fights, I had a very strategic way to the top, and those guys that are left are contenders; they are all specialist in one thing: Demian Maia is a specialist in Jiu Jitsu, Stephen Wonderboy is a specialist at striking, those are the two guys that are standing out right now.
“If Georges comes back, I think I am a 2.0 version of Georges. I think I am as well-rounded as him, I am faster, I am stronger. I think I am more explosive and I think I am more vicious, and I just think with that said, I’m not saying this world is going to be easy. But as long as I stay focused and prepare and train, I am the highest ranked fighter in the UFC that is just now realizing his potential. A and I believe that is a scary for the division and I believe that will help cement my legacy as one of the greatest in the Octagon.”
Still, when Woodley called for a fight against St-Pierre, some suggested he was ducking a tougher challenge. As if a fight against St-Pierre, one of the greatest of all time and the best welterweight of all time, would be easier than one against Thompson.
“I think fighting the greats makes you great,” Woodley said. “If we are acting like Nick Diaz is not a given top-five welterweight, he just is. Secondly, George St. Pierre is the No. 1 overall. We know if Nick Diaz comes back he’s going to have a big fight. No matter if he is on three losses, no matter if he hasn’t fought anybody, no matter if he is one in three, he will come and he will fight a big fight, and that fight will produce a lot of traffic, and make a lot of money.
“George St. Pierre is the greatest that has ever done it in our divisions; one of the top 3 that has ever competed in our sport; so if I want to say that I am the best in the world, and this guy is still around, still talking about competing, and I don’t want to step up and face him, then that is not a true champion, and I’m trying to knock out people on my list.”
And while a fight against St-Pierre would’ve helped Woodley capitalize on his new belt financially, it wasn’t a fight he eyed because of money.
Woodley wanted to fight St-Pierre for his legacy.
“If I have a resume that says I beat Carlos Condit, I am the first person to have finished him, I knocked out Robbie Lawler, only the second to do that,” Woodley said. “I knocked out [Josh] Koscheck, the first one to completely put him unconscious. I’ve had several guys consider retirement after they fought me. Andre Guevara retired. He was the best grappler on the planet at that time. He retired, Jay Hieron, after I knocked him out, retired, and Koscheck considered retirement. He didn’t fight for a year after we fought, so with that said, you know, adding George St. Pierre and adding Nick Diaz to that list, it is hard to deny that I am a Hall of Famer at that point.”
Woodley was never averse to fighting Thompson; Woodley knew Thompson was a rising star that could help nudge his profile in the right direction. That much is evident in that this fight is ultimately the one that came to fruition.
But Woodley is looking to cement his place in history. He knew he would win the belt and described it as watching the “moment that we thought was going to happen, finally happen.” Still, walking around as the UFC champion is a dream come true and Woodley isn’t resting on his laurels as he prepares to etch his name among the greats.
“I always imagined that I would be world champion in the UFC,” Woodley said. “I worked very hard towards the goal. Sometimes it felt so far away. It wasn’t really an outstretched goal, but you know, we always want something to happen in the time frame that we think should happen, but God has a different plan. So, this time it happened, it happened in crazy fashion.
“A lot of people are still in shock, a lot of fans can’t imagine that I was able to take him out like that. I think after the shock, people realized I was the most well-rounded fighter in the division, I’m the fastest, most explosive. I punch harder than Robbie Lawler, which I didn’t know that I did, but you know, when you add all those things together, with my collegiate wrestling background at a high level, and jiu-jitsu, I just have all the tools that I started believing in myself.
“I think this is only the beginning, I expect to do more and do better.”