Eleven months ago, Tyron Woodley started making some noise in the UFC’s welterweight division. Having closed out 2013 with a “Knockout of the Night” performance that sent one-time title challenger Josh Koscheck’s head spinning, Woodley topped former interim champ Carlos Condit with the rarely seen leg kick-torn ACL stoppage, and suddenly “The Chosen One” was right in the middle of the title mix.
But how things change in less than a year, in a division with no less than five legitimate contenders. And for Woodley, a win over Kelvin Gastelum in the UFC 183 co-main event is crucial, essential in fact, to his fight for relevancy at 170 pounds.
Following his March 2014 win over Condit—a legitimate victory that many punters attempted to discredit in the same way as Chris Weidman’s second win over Anderson Silva, leg break and all—Woodley immediately began lobbying for a title shot against former champ Johny Hendricks. Taking out the then-number-two challenger, Woodley felt rightful in his claim; there was also history between Woodley and Hendricks dating back to their college wrestling days, when it’s reported that Woodley bit the former champ in the Big-12 finals, an angle he played up to the media while publically lobbying for his title shot.
Woodley made his case, but with Hendricks sidelined due to a torn biceps, he was partnered with perennial top-fiver Rory MacDonald at UFC 174, a risky matchup for anyone. Unable to close the distance on MacDonald’s jab-heavy Chute Boxe game, Woodley dropped a unanimous nod, pushing him down the welterweight ladder another spot, this time behind MacDonald, who was vying for his own crack at promotional gold.
With his path to a title fight taking a detour, Woodley did the UFC a huge solid in August 2014, stepping in for an injured Hector Lombard on short notice for a dance with top-10 Judoka Dong Hyun Kim. The fight appeared to be the perfect remedy for Woodley’s loss—a winnable contest against a ranked opponent, with an opportunity to display his skills in Macau, the Vegas of Asia. And perform Woodley did, needing all of 61 seconds to take out the Korean.
However, in MMA, sometimes when you win, you really lose, or, as is the case with Tyron Woodley and the five months that have passed since his victory over Kim, his win and ensuing inactivity did nothing to bolster his appeal or improve his rankings, and in meantime, new challengers have stepped up, new matches have been made, and a new champion has been crowned, turning the welterweight division into a veritable clusterfuck.
MMA, the UFC, and combat sports rely heavily on marketable matchups, pairings that will move units, attract intrigue and interest, and drive numbers. And when Robbie Lawler finally secured the belt in December 2014, the entire landscape of the division changed.
There was immediate talk of a trilogy fight with Hendricks, then an about face, as Hendricks was paired with the ruff-and-tumble Matt Brown, the match set for UFC 185 in March. And just weeks prior, Rory MacDonald, the Canadian wunderkind who not only defeated Woodley, but was very publically granted the next crack at the title by UFC main man Dana White, accepted a bout against the brutal Cuban tornado that is Hector Lombard, slated for UFC 186 in April, his title shot rescinded in the wake of Hendricks-Lawler II.
With those two fights almost serving as semi-final matchups while Lawler takes a few months to enjoy his time as champion, Woodley appears to be not just one, but maybe even two-to-three wins away from a title shot. And the UFC certainly isn’t handing him a gimme in Kelvin Gastelum, a quick-rising, undefeated prospect.
Gastelum, is, in fact, the very type of athlete who spoils the hopes of experienced fighters as they attempt to ascend the ranks. Just look at what he did to Jake Ellenberger in November, choking out the 38-fight veteran in less than five minutes. And Woodley knows he cannot suffer a similar fate if he ever wants a chance at the belt.
Stylistically, Woodley has the goods to deliver on Saturday. He’s a powerful and explosive wrestler who can control position and weather the storm and pressure that Gastelum brings. Woodley can also hit like iron, but chances are Gastelum will be savvy enough to avoid the damage. No matter how you look at this bout, it’s a risky proposition that Woodley needs, badly.
And with a win over Gastelum, Woodley immediately returns to the title talk, which will certainly heat up in March and April, as a number of scenarios play out. Certainly, if Hendricks and MacDonald win their upcoming bouts, they will jump to the head of the queue. But any combination of Matt Brown and/or Hector Lombard earning decisive victories, and Tyron Woodley may just finally have his crack at gold.
But first things first: a date with Gastelum in the biggest fight of his life.
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