COLUMBIA, Mo. • Tyron Woodley could have thrown a fit. This Saturday night’s Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view co-main event was supposed to be his last hurdle before a showdown for the UFC welterweight championship.
Woodley, a St. Louis native and former Big 12 wrestling champion at Missouri, will fight Rory MacDonald, 24, at UFC 174 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Initially, the stakes were extraordinary: The winner would become the No. 1 contender for champion Johny Hendricks.
But UFC president Dana White made other plans. He decided the winner of next month’s Matt Brown-Robbie Lawler main event will earn the first title match with Hendricks. Nicknamed “The Chosen One,” Woodley (13-2) found himself unchosen for a direct path to the championship he so badly craves.
To the mixed martial arts novice, that’s a lot of names to swallow in a few paragraphs, but that’s life in the stockpiled UFC welterweight division, a class of 170-pound fighters so loaded that Woodley and his team know they can’t look beyond Saturday’s match against MacDonald (16-2).
“Right now the welterweight division is the most competitive of any division ever in the history of UFC,” said Woodley’s trainer, former UFC fighter Din Thomas. “There’s five guys right now who can beat anyone. And (Woodley’s) definitely one of those guys.”
Woodley, 32, has done this long enough to understand he can’t let UFC politics sidetrack his cause — not when he yearns to fulfill the emptiness that still lingers from his college career.
“At this point in my career, every fight is the most important fight of your life,” he said. “Every fight is against a top fighter. They all mean progress to me moving forward in my career. I just try not to look ahead at other matchups. I just try to focus on the guy that’s going to be standing in front of me on June 14.”
Raised by his mother near crime-infested neighborhoods in Ferguson, Woodley became a standout wrestler at McCluer, where he won a state championship as a senior and thrived in the classroom, too. At Mizzou, he earned All-American status three times, won a Big 12 title in 2003 and finished with more wins than all but four wrestlers in team history.
“I thought I did enough training and preparation and was blessed with the skills to be a national champion in college,” he said. “I didn’t achieve that goal. It left me empty and made me want to focus on trying to get a world title in MMA.”
At first, Woodley eased into the sport, fighting as an amateur while he honed striking and boxing skills. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday when he won his first professional fight in 2009. By then, Thomas was convinced the octagon had a new superstar.
“I remember watching him backstage at one of his amateur fights, and I was like, ‘He can throw down,’” Thomas said. “And I didn’t even know he was a wrestler at Mizzou. He’s the total package.”
Just as MMA’s popularity began to soar — UFC, the sport’s premier organization, signed a seven-year deal with Fox in 2011 — Woodley cruised through the welterweight division, first fighting for Strikeforce, the second-tier MMA company later acquired by UFC. Woodley has since gone 3-1 in UFC matches, with two straight victories over top contenders Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit. The latter, at UFC 171 on March 14 in Dallas, ended in controversy as Woodley won by technical knockout after Condit suffered a knee injury. Woodley still groans at the suggestion the victory was hollow.
Pundits “tried hard to steal the moment for me,” said Woodley, who trains in St. Louis and helps coach the wrestling team at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “Before the injury he wasn’t winning that fight anyway. I don’t know how you can assume he was going to come back with anything spectacular.”
In a sport fueled by testosterone and knockout punches, Woodley might be the rare MMA fighter who appreciates the measured approach to glory. When his Condit win didn’t lead to a championship bout, Woodley didn’t complain, not even privately, Thomas said.
“He called me,” Thomas said, “and said, ‘Hey, listen, don’t even stress. It’s God’s will. If God doesn’t want me to be the champ, I’m not going to rush it.’”
Saturday’s fight — and the loaded welterweight field — might demand renewed urgency. The Rogers Arena crowd will be partial toward the 6-foot MacDonald, a British Columbia native nicknamed “The Canadian Psycho.” He’s also younger and three inches taller, giving him a longer reach. According to UFC’s advanced metrics, MacDonald averages more strikes per minute (4.02) than Woodley (2.67), but Woodley is a more accurate striker (56.7 percent) than MacDonald (45.5).
“I think he’s really polite and kind of a shy kind of kid,” Woodley said. “But when he gets in the cage he becomes this crazy looking thing and fights pretty hard.”
For Woodley, a victory might not be enough.
“The ultimate goal is the world title,” Thomas said. “That makes this fight important in the sense that he can’t just go and win this fight. He has to make a statement … and has to put Rory away to make himself look good as the clear No. 1 contender.”