Woodley is 38, and fighting in a critical welterweight bout on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) against Gilbert Burns at UFC Apex. The former welterweight champion hasn’t competed since being drubbed by Kamaru Usman almost 15 months ago at UFC 235.
Normally a powerful, dynamic and quick fighter, Woodley looked listless, lethargic and largely disinterested in the loss to Usman. And while modern training techniques have meant that professional athletes can easily compete at a high-level into their late 30s and early 40s, Woodley’s performance against Usman and the myriad of outside-the-cage projects that he has undertaken created the impression of a guy whose time had passed.
One of the brightest and most thoughtful men in the sport, Woodley isn’t fighting because he needs the money or misses the limelight.
He’s fighting because he has something to prove.
“There is talk out there about whether I can get back to that person I was before, but I’m back to that,” Woodley said. “Let me repeat that: I am back. I’m not a guy if you go and look back over my career who has gotten beaten up and taken a lot of damage.
“I get it. I had a big fall. It’s not like I just slipped and fell. It was like I was on top of a skyscraper and fell off. I’m not going to lie. That was difficult to accept. But I knew that I had to get back to doing what had gotten me there. I needed to get back to the basics and I think if you look at me now in any category, from nutrition to strength and conditioning to my cardio to sparring, I think I’m as good now as I was at any time in my last five or six fights.”
That, of course, covers the period of time where he was the UFC’s welterweight champion and one of the best overall fighters in the world. That Woodley was a matchup nightmare for just about anyone in his division.
He had the great wrestling base, but was as explosive as anyone ever was in that division and carried the kind of punching power that enabled him to end a fight with one quick shot. He also has a great mind for the game and is able to adjust in real time.
He faces a tough challenge going against Burns, a jiu-jitsu black belt who also has knockout power. Woodley is the biggest name Burns has faced and while he didn’t use the word, wants to use Woodley as something of a steppingstone to get closer to a title shot.
A win over Tyron Woodley still means a lot and if Burns were to score that victory, it would propel him near the top of the welterweight rankings.
For all of the good that a win would do Burns, it’s easy to forget that it would be huge for Woodley, as well. He hasn’t won since submitting Darren Till in a title fight at UFC 228 on Sept. 8, 2018.
The division is full of stars, and Woodley wants to remind each of them who shone the brightest.
“I think back to when I was an amateur looking to get into the pros, I was so hungry and I was so focused and determined, I was a very dangerous guy,” Woodley said. “That’s what I am now. I’m ready. I’ve been ready and now the time has come. My coach said to me, ‘This is like the old Tyron Woodley and I’ll tell you, I’m glad to see him back.’ I am, too, because I feel like something special could happen.”
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