A year ago, Tyron Woodley sat at a table across from me at a hotel in freezing Montreal.
One month prior, Woodley had made his UFC debut. It was an emphatic one. Woodley demolished the veteran fighter Jay Hieron, blitzing him in just 36 seconds and forcing referee Herb Dean to step in and save Hieron from further damage.
It was a career-defining moment for Woodley, who had developed something of a reputation in Strikeforce as a wrestling-first fighter. Which is to say, Woodley was boring. But those were the old days, and they were long gone. Gone, too, was Woodley's penchant for staying quiet. Taking a sip of water, Woodley told me he would no longer be the guy who was seen and not heard. Now, he intended to be seen AND heard.
Woodley lost his next fight to Jake Shields but rebounded by sending Josh Koscheck into at least a temporary retirement and putting Carlos Condit on the shelf with a leg injury. He has been vocal in his desires, calling for a title shot whenever a microphone is placed in front of him. His plan, calculated from the beginning, has worked. Mostly.
"Some people say things they think you want to hear, and some people say the things they are actually thinking," Woodley says during a Thursday interview. "There are too many guys in the welterweight division, and you can't be sitting on your thoughts. If you are the best in the world and you believe you should be fighting for a title, I think it is important to get those things out. Because a closed mouth doesn't get fed.
"Now, if you are out of your depth, and you just start talking crap and blowing stuff up? You're just putting extra pressure on yourself, not just to back those things up...but to continue to say those things. But I can keep this up, because it's actually me."
Once upon a time, Woodley faced a mental roadblock that prevented him from performing to the best of his ability. Every man or woman who elects to participate in combat sports faces deep and personal fears of their own, but few of them care to admit it. Woodley has no qualms in making his own fears public.
"My real fear with fighting is just not letting it go out there and hang out. I don't fear other guys. I'm just scared I'm not going to go out there and give everything I have. Like I'm only going to give a fraction of the things we trained and worked on," he says.
During this training camp, Woodley saw one of his coaches at the gym, participating in a Skype session with his daughter. The coach had elected to stay one more week to help Woodley train. His daughter was too young to understand why her father wasn't coming home immediately; she was crying.
This affected Woodley a great deal, and he resolved to be his best. Not just for his family, but for the people who sacrifice portions of their lives to help him be at his best.
"These people are sacrificing their time. I owe my family first, but I also have others around me that I have to perform for," he says.
As his resolve has risen, so too has Woodley's Ultimate Fighting Championship profile. He'll face Rory MacDonald on Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 174. Woodley is heading into enemy territory; MacDonald grew up in Kelowna, a sleepy British Colombian town on the edge of Okanagan Lake. He will be adored by the crowd in attendance.
Woodley notes that MacDonald is "Vancouver's little prince," and has no doubt that he'll be the bad guy heading into the Octagon against the hometown favorite. But he doesn't care, because he is there for a very specific reason: to earn a UFC title shot.
At one point in time, Woodley believed he would earn a title shot with a win over MacDonald. That may or may not still be the case, at least officially, but Woodley said he plans for his next fight (after MacDonald, of course, and every fight after that one) to be five rounds and for the UFC championship.
"I think my career after this is going to be all main event title fights. I don't plan on going out here and fighting opponents in any other position," Woodley says. "I'm going to let my actions speak louder than words, and I'm going to let the organization honor their word and give me a title shot."
His American Top Team teammate Robbie Lawler is widely expected to be in the driver's seat for a rematch with Johny Hendricks as long as he gets past the surging Matt Brown next month. Woodley and Lawler have discussed, with each other, the prospects of facing each other. Both are fine with the notion; it is a bridge they will have to cross when the moment arrives.
According to Woodley, that moment is going to arrive sooner or later. When asked whether he'll be the UFC champion at this time next year, regardless of what happens with Lawler, Woodley brims with confidence.
"One year?," he says. "I should be the welterweight champion by the end of this year."