It's almost time again for the Summer Olympics, also known as the time when many of MMA's former collegiate wrestlers feel the slightest sting of regret as they glance at that old singlet in the closet. As UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen likes to say, a wrestler who doesn't win an Olympic medal never really retires from the sport, he just quits. Bring up the Olympic games to former NCAA standouts like Chad Mendes, and you see a man's eyes glaze over with dreams of what might have been. Bring them up to Daniel Cormier, the captain of the 2008 USA squad who missed his chance to compete after suffering from kidney failure following a difficult weight cut, and you see him wince at the painful memory of how close he came.
But you won't hear any of that talk from undefeated Strikeforce welterweight contender Tyron Woodley. The former All-America and Big 12 conference champ from the University of Missouri has no regrets about never making it to the top of the sport. Now that he's a few years into a successful MMA career, he's discovered that he likes this life just fine, especially when compared to his old one.
"I never want to re-live college," Woodley told SI.com in a recent phone interview. "Wrestling is a brutal sport. It's the toughest sport I've ever done, much harder than MMA. I would never want to re-live that. Every wrestler's dream is to be an Olympic gold medalist, but I don't regret getting into MMA when I did."
Among the things he doesn't miss: the weight cut (at 5'9" and with a stocky, muscular build, "me making 163 [pounds] is not a pretty sight," he said), the constant injuries (Woodley wrestled with a torn labrum in college, which was "not a good experience" for him), the money (there is none), and the politics of USA Wrestling (there is some).
"For me, it was an easy decision to make," Woodley said. "Do I continue to wrestle, deal with the politics, deal with injuries that I don't have enough money to get fixed, or do I go into a sport where some of the guys with average wrestling are seen as great wrestlers? It was pretty easy for me to decide."
You can't argue with the results. Since making his pro debut in 2009, Woodley has racked up a 10-0 record and will get his first crack at gold this Saturday night in Portland, Ore., when he takes on former UFC contender Nate Marquardt for the Strikeforce welterweight title on Showtime.
It's a significant step up in competition for Woodley, who worked his way up through the ranks of Strikeforce's now-extinct Challengers events and now finds himself in by far the biggest fight of his career, against an opponent more experienced and well-rounded than any he's ever faced. The question the MMA world is still waiting for an answer to is, against such a qualified, all-around fighter, does Woodley have more than just his wrestling to fall back on?
It's a question that's been asked of him more and more recently. In his first five fights as a professional, only once did Woodley need more than one round to stop his opponent. But lately, as the competition has gotten stiffer and the fights have gotten bigger, Woodley has relied on the judges more and more. His takedowns and top control win decisions, but they don't always win fans. That's because, to hear Woodley tell it, the fans put too much stock in what they saw last, missing the bigger picture altogether.
"People in MMA have a very short-term memory," he said. "They don't remember when I was 5-0 with all finishes, one of the best athletes in the sport, a rising prospect in the welterweight division and everybody better take notice. Then you get one or two decisions and you're boring, you're laying and praying. The people I train with and people I've competed against, they know the reality. The reality is I've been able to make adjustments, to out-strike the jiu-jitsu guy, out-strike the wrestler, and out-wrestle the striker. I have multiple dimensions of fighting."
That may be so, even if he hasn't had to show it of late. Opponents like Paul Daley and Jordan Mein may have had no answer for Woodley's wrestling skills, but Marquardt has seen his share of double-leg attempts over the course of 13 years in this sport, and Woodley knows it. If anything, Woodley said, Marquardt might be a little too confident in his ability to match mat skills, which is why Woodley wouldn't be surprised to see Marquardt try to use his own game against him.
"I think he's going to try to put me in unfamiliar territory, just like I'll try to do to him. And where do you never see me fight from? My back. I think he might try to put me down, go for a takedown, and put me on my back, take me into the later rounds and get me to fatigue. ...That's what I think he's planning, but he's going to be in for a rude awakening."
There may not be an Olympic medal on the line on Saturday, but there is still a hunk of leather and gold at stake. It's the kind of fight that could be a major career turning point for the winner and the loser. So far in his MMA career, Woodley's only known one side of that equation. Regardless of what some people think about the way he's gotten there at times, he's yet to meet an opponent who's been able to do much about it.