Tyron Woodley stood across the cage from Jay Hieron at UFC 156. Woodley was making his UFC debut after coming over from Strikeforce, and he had one goal in mind: To make a statement.
Woodley looked into Hieron's eyes and saw nothing. He felt like Hieron hadn't come to the cage to fight, which was strange given how vocal Hieron had been in the weeks leading up to the fight. Perhaps Hieron didn't take Woodley seriously enough, or perhaps he was just waiting for Woodley to use his wrestling skills.
Either way, he certainly didn't expect what happened next.
In just 36 seconds, Woodley decimated Hieron, knocking him unconscious and making the statement he sought. It was an announcement of sorts—to the UFC brass, to the fans and to the rest of the welterweight division.
"I was in kill mode," Woodley tells Bleacher Report. "I wasn't going to stop until the referee pulled me off of him."
Hieron wasn't to blame for expecting Woodley to come out and wrestle. After all, that's what had made Woodley so successful in Strikeforce, and it had historically been the most effective weapon in his arsenal.
But that was the old Woodley. That version of the former Missouri wrestler has been replaced by a fighter who says he'll only rely on his wrestling skills if they're absolutely needed.
"I think I'm getting to the point in my career where my wrestling is going to be optional. I'm going to try to take people's heads off," he says. "If I need to use it, it's there. But if I don't, I'm going to finish the fight with my hands or my feet."
Woodley is a changed man these days and not just in terms of his striking or wrestling in the cage. He's been more vocal in recent months about his career path and in declaring exactly what he wants and when he wants it.
It's a refreshing—not just for Woodley, but because so many fighters are content to allow UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby to guide their career and figure out their next opponents.
Woodley used to do the same thing back in Strikeforce. But he learned his lessons the hard way, continually being passed over for more high-profile shots because he mostly stayed quiet. Reflecting on his Strikeforce days, Woodley seems a little bitter at the way everything played out.
"I feel they should've done to me what they did for Ronda. They should've just given me the belt," he says. "Because I was literally the uncrowned champion. I was sitting there waiting for guys to fight, and Nate comes in for his first fight and we get after it."
Woodley was glad to fight Marquardt, because the former UFC middleweight was the biggest name available. And even though he lost the fight, Woodley says he's glad for the experience. He wanted to beat Marquardt, the best guy in the Strikeforce welterweight division, and he wanted to leave the promotion and come into the UFC after wiping the slate clean.
"I wouldn't have left anybody behind like Nick Diaz did. He never fought me. He left Strikeforce and went to the UFC. I'm not saying he should've stuck around to fight me," Woodley says. "I'm not Georges St-Pierre and I'm not these guys with the name recognition or the guys that make that kind of money to fight. But I could've said that I wiped out all of the talent in the division and gone over to the UFC to fight Georges St-Pierre.
"But luckily for me, the Hieron knockout did the same thing. I went out there and sent a message by smashing Hieron. The same thing that I wanted to get done just got done in a different way."
Woodley wanted to fight Carlos Condit or Jake Ellenberger after both fighters lost their original UFC 158 opponents due to injuries, and he wasn't shy about letting Dana White and the rest of the world know that he'd be willing to step up as an injury replacement.
But at the same time, he was in the process of finalizing his brand-new contract with the UFC and says he was only given 10 minutes to make a decision on whether or not he wanted to be an injury replacement. Because of the contract talks and the fact that he didn't have a new deal finalized, Woodley and his management team decided to decline the fights, prioritizing getting his deal done over making a quick return to the cage.
But upon finalizing his new contract, Woodley noticed that Jake Shields had also offered to face Condit, and he figured that if Shields was ready to fight Condit, well, he could be ready to face Woodley as well. And so Woodley started calling for the fight to be added to UFC 156, mostly because he wanted to get three fights done in 2013 and figured that fighting sooner rather than later would help him achieve that goal.
Woodley didn't get Shields at UFC 156, but he will face him at UFC 161 in June at the promotion's debut in Winnipeg. Woodley believes the fight can elevate him to the upper tier of the welterweight division and perhaps even put him just one win away from a title shot.
"I think I'll be right in there. The guy is a former Strikeforce champion with wins over Paul Daley, Dan Henderson and Robbie Lawler. He comes over, beats Kampmann and then fights GSP for five rounds," Woodley says.
"He lost to Ellenberger after that, but you can give him the benefit of the doubt because his dad passed away shortly before the fight. But I think Ellenberger still wins that fight, no matter what the situation is, just based on styles. And I think I match up with him similar to the way Ellenberger does."
If Woodley blasts Shields the way he plans, he won't stand in the cage and meekly tell Joe Rogan that he'll fight whomever the UFC puts in front of him. He plans on using that moment in the spotlight to its fullest by calling for a title shot.
"Hell yeah, I am. I might not get it, but I am calling for it. Because it's not about waiting in line anymore. It's not a tournament. It's who is going to sell the fight," he says.
"Who is going to get the most press for GSP? Who is the person the fans could see as champion? Who do they want to watch? I feel like my style, with the explosive wrestling and the heavy hands—along with my new confidence—when you add those things together, with me hungry and wanting it, that makes for an awesome fight with St-Pierre. I think I can get the fight on that alone, and I think I can jump the people in line. I've been jumped in line, and it's not something that I cried over.
"You'll never again hear me say, 'I'll do whatever the organization wants. I'll fight whoever they want me to fight,'" Woodley says. "Because they probably want you to fight someone who is super tough with no name recognition."
Name recognition is an important facet of mixed martial arts, especially in the UFC. But it's not one that many fighters seem to grasp. They're content to just go out and fight, without realizing that they have to go above and beyond the call of duty to connect with the fans. And connecting with the fans leads to opportunities like the one Nick Diaz got at UFC 158, where Diaz fought for the title despite coming off a loss and a year-long suspension for marijuana metabolites.
What a fighter does in the cage is obviously an important part of prolonging his UFC career, but it's what he does outside the cage in media opportunities that can truly take him to the next level. And that's something that Woodley now understands, even if that wasn't always the case.
"These guys see the star power in me. I can be well-spoken. I can look the part physically. I can wrestle and I can strike," he says with a smile. "Those are the champions that you want because they are going to promote the brand and the organization. That's my game plan."
I ask Woodley to sum up his plans for 2013 in one word. He stops to consider the question for a moment before answering.
"Mission. I'm on a mission this year. My goal is to put myself in a position to be fighting for the world title next year. And if it can happen this year, it will. In my mind, I'm going to go through Jake Shields," he says.
"So I will go through Jake like I plan on doing, and putting him away. And then there are like four or five guys that will be stacked up for me to fight. One victory over one of those guys, and I'm in there. I know that, and my management team knows that. And that's what we plan on. But if everything gets all mixed up? I might be able to petition for a title shot just off a win over Jake Shields."
Woodley admits that he may not get the title shot with a win over Shields. It's a long shot at best, with Johny Hendricks next in line and Ellenberger breathing down his neck. But he says he's not going to stop calling for title shots, and he's not going to end his new practice of calling out the opponents that he wants.
This is the new Tyron Woodley, after all, and he plans on making the most of his time in the UFC.
And if he does get a title shot in 2013?
"Either way it goes, I'll be mentally and physically up for the task."