Tyron Woodley is determined to reclaim the UFC welterweight title from Kamaru Usman. His road to redemption leads through Gilbert Burns, whom he'll take on in the main event of UFC on ESPN 9 on Saturday.
Woodley collided with Usman at UFC 235 in March 2019 and was soundly beaten from bell to bell. By the time the fifth round ended, there was no doubt in his mind as to which way the judges would go.
"I didn't think there was any chance that I won it," Woodley told Bleacher Report, looking back on the moments after his fight with Usman concluded. "I just remember not being there—mentally not being there at all—watching it all happen in slow motion."
After the decision was announced—a clean sweep for Usman—the belt Woodley called his own for two-and-a-half years was wrapped around his foe's waist. It was not an easy thing to witness. Nor was it easy to accept. The former champion stewed over his title loss for months, meditating on his future in the sport.
Ultimately, he decided to get back on the horse.
"It took several months [to get over]," he said. "It's hard watching somebody wearing a belt that in your mind still belongs to you.
"I've probably done enough in my career to walk away if I wanted to. I could have gracefully bowed out, and nobody would have anything to say about it, but that's not what's in my deck of cards.
"I just want to be the best ever. It took a while, but I can honestly say I've healed from that [loss]. I haven't given up the thought that I'm the best and that I should be the champion, but I've healed from the fact that I lost that title, and now's my chance to go out there and hunt him down and get it back."
Woodley was initially set to return to the cage against Leon Edwards in the main event of a fight card in London on March 21. When that event fell through because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, he was matched up with Burns.
The former champion made no secret of the fact that he didn't love the Edwards matchup. As it turns out, he doesn't see his imminent bout with Burns as ideal, either.
"None of these fights—even the one this weekend—are win-win situations for me," Woodley said. "It's a situation where I'm supposed to beat this guy. I'm ranked higher than this guy. I've done more in the sport than this guy. I have a bigger name, a bigger following.
"It's a lose-lose situation for me. You beat him—you're supposed to beat him. If I lose to him, I fall back. If they lose to me, they don't really fall back too much."
Despite not being overly enthused with the matchup itself, Woodley is focused. Not even the cancelation of his fight with Edwards and the prolonged training camp it created has thrown him off.
"It's been difficult but I've forced myself to stay positive," he said. "You can always find the positives. Maybe it was time for me to be with my family and kids a little bit more. Maybe I needed to heal up some of these nagging little injuries I've had.
"I just found the positives. I had more time to prepare, more time to train. Now here we are. I'm going peak at a higher level than I would have on March 21."
In Burns, Woodley faces a world-class submission specialist with knockout power to boot. Yet he doesn't see any threats he hasn't dealt with before.
He notes that he's beaten other great grapplers like Andre Galvao and Demian Maia, that he's beaten great wrestlers like Josh Koscheck, that he's beaten power-punchers like Robbie Lawler and that he's beaten athletic, young prospects like Darren Till.
He feels he's seen it all and that Burns is simply in over his head.
"It's a new level for him," Woodley said. "He's fought good guys, but none of those guys have been the complete package, world-class in everything. I would consider myself a black belt in everything.
"I know he's going to be up to the challenge, but sometimes being tough ain't enough. When it comes down to it, it's about the hunger. And I also believe in destiny, and I don't think it's his time yet."
If things go according to plan for Woodley and he delivers a "phenomenal performance" against Burns, he's optimistic he'll be able leapfrog other welterweight contenders like Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington to earn a crack at Usman.
Should he get that opportunity, he believes things will go his way.
"I'm extremely confident," he said of an Usman rematch. "I've been the challenger before, and we saw how that went. He's got something that was mine. He took the belt from me on my watch. If I get a second chance at that, I'm going to take full advantage.
"I know one thing's for sure: When I'm focused, when I'm set on the task at hand, it's going to very difficult for anybody to beat me."
If Woodley is able to reclaim the welterweight title, he has designs on defending it against the next wave of contenders and then moving up to the middleweight division for the final chapter of his career.
He recognizes that all of that hinges on the outcome of his fight with Burns.
"I was looking too far ahead when I fought Usman," he said. "I was looking at the Colby fight right after that. I was looking at going up to middleweight right after that. I had all of these different plans about what I was going to do. It bit me in the butt because I was not as focused on the task at hand."
"I have to literally be there, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. If I'm there and I fight at even of the fraction of the level that I'm capable of, those doors are going to open up.
"I just plan on dominating [Burns]. I think If I do what I'm capable of doing and I'm sharp and I'm on point like I've been in the past, I'm going to be too much for him."