Sherdog Prospect Watch: Tyron Woodley

Swimming against the current comes naturally to Tyron Woodley.

When the 27-year-old welterweight prospect steps into the cage at Strikeforce “Lawler vs. Shields” this Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the customary pre-fight jitters may hitch a ride, but the against-all-odds life he has overcome has primed him well for close-quarters combat.

The 11th of 13 children raised mostly by a single mother, Woodley entered the world to an immediate struggle to survive. His father was out of the picture by the time he was 10, leaving his mother to work double and triple shifts in order to keep the family afloat. Woodley oftentimes had to fend for himself. Needs sometimes went unmet. They say iron sharpens iron.

“I learned a lot, having that many people in the house with limited resources,” Woodley says. “I think it made me a better person. My dad wasn’t around. I used that to fuel me. I was always in athletics. I didn’t have time to wonder, ‘Where’s my dad at?’ I learned resilience, endurance and how to push through stuff.”

Still, the lure of gang life proved strong in his native St. Louis, and he soon succumbed to its seduction. His grades plummeted, and he found himself under a 90-day, fight-related suspension that forced him to miss an entire semester of high school. Odds were not in Woodley’s favor. He seemed ill-prepared to escape the bonds of his environment, but he threw his energy into wrestling and slowly but surely pointed his life in the right direction.

Woodley finished 48-0 as a senior and won a state championship, drawing interest from the University of Nebraska and Northern Iowa. Ultimately, he landed at the University of Missouri, where he earned two-time All-American honors and became the school’s first conference champion. Even so, there were times in which Woodley felt as though he failed to realize his potential.

“There were times in college when I wasn’t getting the most out of it,” he says. “I was blessed to have coaches who were father figures, but I always felt like I underachieved.”

A New Arrival

The real turning point came during his junior year, when his son, Tyron Jr., was born. Suddenly, his priorities changed, and he had a far more important reason to excel.

“That drove me,” Woodley says. “Once you have somebody else, you just can’t think about yourself. That was definitely my greatest challenge. To wake up at 2 and 3 a.m. knowing you’re going to have to do a ridiculous run at 6 a.m., I had to work myself into it. I lost a lot of sleep.”

Woodley persevered, earned a four-year degree and became the first member of his family to graduate from college. Balancing fatherhood with training, he plans to continue working toward a Master’s degree in Public Administration at Southern Illinois University, where he also serves as an assistant wrestling coach. Woodley connected the dots in his personal life, too, as he reconciled with the father who left him in the rearview mirror as a kid. Faith guided him.

“I was in church,” Woodley says. “In order for me to live the right kind of life, I needed to forgive people. It would have eaten me up if something had happened to me or something had happened to my dad and things weren’t reconciled. We all make mistakes. It took me a while to get past that. We have a relationship now. Me and my dad talk quite a bit, but I’m the best friend who never calls you back. I need to work on that. I’m always going 300 miles an hour.”

After college, Woodley naturally gravitated toward mixed martial arts, which had become a haven for accomplished amateur wrestlers thirsting to continue their competitive pursuits.

“I was fresh out of college and still developing at wrestling,” he says. “I never won a national title. If I had known then what I know now, it would have been a lot different. I thought my style of wrestling translated well. I walked into a gym and told the guy I wanted a fight.”

Patience Pays

No one in the fight game knows Woodley better than King of the Cage veteran Mike Rogers. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Rodrigo Vaghi, he serves as the head instructor at St. Charles Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts in St. Louis and has presided over Woodley’s athletic career since he was a teen-ager. Rogers, Woodley’s wrestling coach at McCluer High School in the St. Louis suburbs, likes what he sees in his understudy.

“He’s a gifted kid,” Rogers says. “He’s smart, and he knows what he wants. It’s been a lot of fun watching him. I’ve seen him from the time he was 15 years old to now, where he’s developed into a fine young man.”

Woodley (2-0) made his professional MMA debut at a Headhunter Productions show in February and struck Steve Schneider into submission in a cool 1:09. His second bout, two months later at a Respect Is Earned event, lasted only 48 seconds, as he coaxed a tapout from Jeff Carstens with a rear-naked choke.

“He’s still pretty raw, but he’s getting better in every avenue,” Rogers says. “He’s on the right track.”

Willing to wait his turn, Woodley has watched some opportunities slip through his fingers. He tried out for Season 9 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series and was in line for a multi-fight contract with EliteXC before it went belly up. He took it all in stride.

“I’ve been on the boundary with things,” he says. “Things haven’t lined up. I’ve really learned patience. I’m not worried about it. I’m not in a rush. So many people say, ‘I’m tough. I’ll fight anybody.’ That’s great, but if you do that, you’re probably going to end up fighting a lot for not a lot of money. I want to make good career moves.”

Woodley enjoys the individuality and unpredictability of the sport.

“Sometimes it doesn’t matter who’s the best; it’s who wants it the most,” he says. “Good people lose all the time. To go out there and take by force what’s yours is not something you get to do in every sport.”

Opportunity Knocks

Woodley’s sometimes tumultuous path has led him to Strikeforce and his first crack at a major MMA promotion. He will face Sal Woods -- an XFO veteran who snapped a four-fight losing streak with a submission victory in April -- on the “Lawler vs. Shields” undercard.

“Any time a major organization like Strikeforce calls, you’ve got to seize the opportunity,” Woodley says. “I’m trying to break down doors. Strikeforce also has a Challenger Series. They may want to put me on that. They may want to see what I’ve got and put me on a main card. I just want the opportunity.”

Rogers believes Woodley’s first Strikeforce appearance will allow him to build his resume and gain some much-needed experience. He expects the Missouri native to be knocking on the door to the top 10 within two years.

“I think he’s going to be battling to be one of those top 10, top five guys, vying for a championship in one of the major leagues.” Rogers says. “That’s what I want to happen. He’s never been given anything. He’s always had to work hard for everything, always fought for what he’s gotten.”

Ahead of his fight with Woods, Woodley visited American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., and the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. Woods, the most seasoned competitor he has faced to date, figures to test his resolve, as does the atmosphere of the big stage.

“The most important thing is to be able to go out there and compete without hesitation,” Woodley says. “If I do that, I’ll win this fight. In MMA, I get into that zone. I’m able to block things out. Hopefully, that will be routine for me. There’s a lot more at stake this time.”
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