The welterweight division is the deepest and most competitive under the UFC banner, and Tyron Woodley is eager to get to the top of the ladder.
The former standout wrestler from Missouri University blazed a trail through the Strikeforce organization going from surging prospect to title contender in less than three years. The rapid progress put the 31-year-old on the radar as a fighter to watch, and judging from his performance against Jay Hieron in his Octagon debut at UFC 156, "T Wood" is looking to get into title contention in the sport's most successful promotion as well.
It only took Woodley 36 seconds and a nasty right hand to flatten the seasoned MMA veteran and make a thundering statement in the process. No sooner than Hieron hit the canvas in Las Vegas, the word around the MMA community was that Woodley had not only arrived, but was going to be a force in the welterweight division.
"The whole goal that entire camp was to make a statement," Woodley told Bleacher Report about his UFC debut. "I not only wanted to make a statement to myself but also the team I fight for and the promotion. The UFC needed to see that I was there now and put everyone on notice.
"I think I'm ready, man. I don't need to be powdered up. I've asked for tough fights on purpose. Feed me to the wolves. I already know who they are. It's not like they have some secret animal they are going to unleash inside the cage. I already know who the wolves are in the welterweight division and I'm ready to fight any of them."
The next step on his journey toward contender status will come next Saturday against Jake Shields at UFC 161. The former Strikeforce middleweight champion will be making his return to 170-pound waters where he hopes his unique blend of wrestling and jiu-jitsu will bring him back to title contention.
The Team Cesar Gracie fighter has one of the sport's most impressive resumes as he's collected victories over some of the top names to compete in mixed martial arts this past decade. While Woodley certainly acknowledges the past accomplishments of his opponent, the Missouri-native also believes he's prepared for everything Shields will bring to the table at UFC 161.
"It's a great opportunity for me," Woodley said. "Shields is a top-level fighter that has been around the game for awhile. He has a ton of experience and he's a true specialist at what he does. But at the end of the day, I feel my ability to be a complete mixed martial artist, with heavy hands, solid combinations, good takedown defense and great cardio; those things and elements are going to allow me to be victorious in this fight.
"This time around I'm in better shape than I've ever been to be honest. I've ran more. I've done more sprints. I've done more interval training. I've had more sparring and grappling sessions. I've had more weeks notice for this fight. Before, I was getting three or three-and-a-half weeks to prepare for an opponent. But in this fight, I've had eight, 10, 12 weeks to think about punching Jake Shields in the face. I've had time to think about stopping his takedowns and think about making it a miserable night for him.
"For me, that is a competitive edge. It's the first time I've had this amount of notice to properly prepare, to neutralize everything he does well, and to get everything I bring to the table sharper. I'm there. I'm ready to fight now and that tells me that I'm going to be able to push a little bit harder than I have in the past.
"I'm expecting the best Jake Shields," Woodley added. "I'm expecting his striking to be better. I'm expecting his conditioning to be good. I'm expecting his pressure to be there. If I'm mentally prepared for that and I'm equipped with the proper defense to get around those things, if he does come out and has does have some ring rust it is going to be a short night for him. If he comes out there and he's not at an A+ performance, then you are going to see me knock him out. That's what my goal is.
"I'm going in there to press him and press him and press him. Hit him with heavy hands on every shot. I want to make it an ugly night for him. If you start doing that to a person he is going to start getting desperate. He's going to start shooting from way out across town. And I'm going to make him pay for it."
Where a victory over Shields would move Woodley up the ladder of the divisional hierarchy, he's also looking at the bigger picture. The welterweight divisional race has never been hotter than it is in 2013, and Woodley is eager to put himself into the upper tier at 170 pounds.
That being said, the former Strikeforce title challenger understands there are fighters above him in the standings. But mixed martial arts is a game of uncertainty, and Woodley believes he can make a tremendous jump with a victory over the former Elite XC champion in Winnipeg.
"I'm not just looking for a win over Shields, but a dominant performance," Woodley said. "They need to see what I can do. They need to see the skills I posses. When they see me get the win by using those things, it will put me right in the picture for title contention. Johny Hendricks is next in line for the shot. Jake Ellenberger has won a few in a row. He lost a fight but climbed right back up. He's fighting Rory MacDonald. If Rory MacDonald wins that fight he's not going to fight GSP.
"A win in this fight can really put me right in that picture or in the next spot. But injuries happen. Positive drug tests can happen. There are a lot of unforeseen circumstances that can happen and you have to be ready to step up in the big show. Mentally, I'm just in the zone right now. I got my swag on. I'm feeling good about training. I'm feeling good about myself and everything I'm doing is with purpose. I'm running with purpose and I'm thinking about the fight. I'm sparring with purpose and when I get tired, I just push harder towards that purpose."
Walking into the Octagon to face Shields at UFC 161, Woodley is fully aware of the challenges ahead of him. He understands Shields possesses a skill set that has been a nightmare for many fighters who have come before him, but he also believes in the work he's put in.
Where other elite fighters have been competing for years on the biggest stages of the sport, Woodley just crossed over the four-year mark as a professional mixed martial artist. Nevertheless, while experience is something he can't produce inside the gym, Woodley believes the skill set he brings to the cage tips the scales of advantage in his favor.
"At the stage I'm at in my career it is a make up game," Woodley said. "I can't make up for lost time but I can really work my butt off. If you look at all the guys I've fought in [Paul] Daley, [[Nate] Marquardt, Jake Shields and Jay Hieron, those dudes combined and have probably 150 fights.
"Experience is something you can't make up. These guys have been hit and dropped. They have been submitted. They have been losing two rounds and had to come back strong in the final round to win. They've had those experiences in the cage and they can bring that in there with them. That's their advantage. But my advantage is mindset, hunger, athleticism, speed, power, conditioning and skill set.
"I'm a complete mixed martial artist. I can grapple. My first win was by submission. I can knock people out. I can grind out wins. I can take punches and I can give them. I'm a part of the new school in MMA. I'm a part of the new generation of guys who are aggressive, hit hard and really put on performances that people want to see.
"Fans should expect a passing of the torch," he added in regard to his upcoming bout with Shields. "Out with the old and in with the new. They are going to see me coming out there and being explosive and building off my last performance. Don't expect any other fighter. Don't expect to see a fighter who is going out there and grinding out close wins, I'm going out there with a job and a mission to do. I'm going to get the job done by any means necessary."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.