Tyron Woodley finished as a two-time All-American at Missouri (Photo/Missouri Athletics)
On Saturday, Tyron Woodley returns to the Octagon for the first time since losing his UFC welterweight title against Kamaru Usman. He will face off against multiple time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Gilbert Burns. In order to get back in the title picture, Woodley will likely need to overcome a variety of obstacles and challenges.
Challenges are nothing new for Woodley. Before ever stepping into an MMA gym, he went through the wringer that only wrestling can provide. He excelled on the high school mats of the Greater St. Louis area and made history at Missouri. Let's take a long look at the extensive wrestling career of the former UFC champion.
Freshman season (1996-1997)
Woodley first started making a name for himself as a freshman at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mo. He won the Class 4A District 4 tournament at 130 pounds with a 25-9 technical fall over Matt Davis of Hazelwood West in the finals. At the time, McCluer was a budding program in the area. In addition to Woodley, two of his teammates also claimed district titles including James Knowles. Knowles, who is currently the Mayor of Ferguson, Mo., pinned professional wrestling veteran Randy Orton in the 189-pound final.
In an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Feb. 15, 1997, Woodley was described as McCluer's best hope among four freshmen starters to bring home a Section 2 tournament title. He nearly pulled it off as he made the finals before falling against Tim Blubaugh of DeSemt in a 13-9 decision.
Woodley advanced to the Missouri Class 4A state tournament with a 14-5 record. However, he fell in the first round of the tournament when he was pinned by Corey Crandall of Ft. Osage in 2:46. Despite failing to place, Woodley was named an honorable mention to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-Metro Area Wrestling Team.
Sophomore season (1997-1998)
Woodley famously told Conor McGregor, "I haven't weighed 145 since my sophomore year of high school." He actually started the season down at 140 and won the early season Kirkwood Invitational.
He entered the District 4 tournament at 145 pounds and won his second straight title. In the finals he defeated Matt Martin of Riteour via a 15-7 score. The victory qualified Woodley for the Sectional 2 tournament. While he came up short as a freshman, he won his first sectional title as a sophomore. He dominated his way through the field and scored a 12-4 major decision over Kevin McGuire of Pattonville in the finals. With the victory, he was headed to the state tournament for the second time in two seasons.
He won his first-round match with an 11-4 decision over Steve Baumgartner of Hickman. However, his momentum came to a halt in the second round. Woodley suffered a first-period fall against Patrick Byrne of Parkway South.
Woodley later reflected upon that loss to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he described it as one of the most deflating moments of his high school career.
"I leaned too far back while attempting a cradle move and both my shoulder wound up parallel to the mat," he said. "I was pulling harder and harder and I was leading 5-0 in the match when suddenly, the referee slapped the mat to signal 'pin.' I jumped up because I thought I had won. He raised the other guy's arm in victory and I thought he had made a mistake until it was explained to me. The referee said it was a defensive pin."
Junior season (1998-1999)
By the time Woodley became a junior, he was one of the best wrestlers in the state. He competed at 152 pounds and brought an undefeated record into a dual meet between McCluer and Hazelwood East on Jan. 27. Curtis Bledsoe, who quickly became one of Woodley's biggest high school rivals, handed him his first loss of the season via an 8-6 score.
Bledsoe was undefeated on the season and had won a state title in the previous season at 140 pounds. The two met again in the finals of the District 4 tournament. This time, Woodley got the better of the matchup and took home a 5-4 decision. He returned the favor against Bledsoe and handed him his first loss of the year. After the district tournament. Woodley spoke with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"It's pretty intense," he said. "Both of us are real good and when you do the same kind of stuff, it's hard to defend it."
The rivalry would continue at the Section 2 tournament. They met in the finals once again. Woodley widened the gap and won the section title with a 6-1 score. He entered the Class 4A state tournament with a 37-1 record, and he was clearly the favorite at 152 pounds.
Woodley looked the part early in the state tournament as he decked Steve Baumgartner of Hickman in 2:55 and defeated Andrew Elder of Park Hill 6-1. In the finals, on Feb. 21, he faced off against Bledsoe for the fourth time in 25 days.
In the bout, Woodley got off to a strong start and held a solid lead. In the final period, he continued to push the pace and even earned a point via two stall warnings. However, with 10 seconds left in the match, Bledsoe came back and scored the fall. Bledsoe seemed as shocked as anyone when he spoke after the tournament with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I don't know what happened there," he said. "It came out of nowhere. Last week I kind of gave up at the end, so I knew I had to go and not stop."
For the runner-up finish, Woodley earned second team honors for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-Metro Area Wrestling Team.
Senior season (1999-2000)
After losing the final match of his junior year, Woodley moved up to 160 pounds and turned things around quickly as a senior. Early in the year, he defeated Dustin Wiles of Farmington, who was third the previous season in Class 3A. Woodley then won the Springfield Holiday Tournament and St. Charles Invitational, defeating David Downs of Troy in the finals of both events.
By the time the calendars moved to February, Woodley held an undefeated record and was looking for yet another District 4A tournament title. He breezed through the field and defeated J.C. Russell of Hazelwood West in the finals with an 8-2 decision. He had a rematch with Russell one week later in the Section 2 tournament final to advance to the Class 4A tournament once again.
In his final quest for a state title, Woodley was not going to be deterred. In the quarterfinals, he scored a dominant major decision victory over Chase Johnson of Oak Park. Woodley then picked up a second-period fall over Austin Alley of Jefferson City. His final was a close match, but he pulled out a 3-1 decision over Adam Stern of Oakville to become a state champion. Woodley finished the year with an undefeated 48-0 record. His 48 wins were the most among all of the Missouri state champions, and he was only the third state champion in McCluer history.
Following the regular season, Woodley took part in both the NHSCA Senior Nationals as well as Junior Nationals in Fargo. He finished seventh at the NHSCA event and defeated future MMA competitor Justin Salas in the seventh-place match. At Fargo, he competed in freestyle and finished third. In the third-place match, he scored an 11-second fall over Zach Doll. Doll was a reigning National Prep champion and would go on to wrestle collegiately at Pittsburgh.
As late as May 22, the plan was still for Woodley to attend Nebraska. An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned that he was still committed to the Cornhuskers and also asked him about his future outside of wrestling.
"I would like to give back to the community," he said. "I plan to accomplish this by teaching young children that there is someone for them to look up to. I will show them that they are loved and tell them how important they are to our future."
Seven days later the same newspaper reported that Woodley had signed with Missouri. Head coach Brian Smith spoke with ESPN.com about recruiting Woodley for an article published last year.
"Tyron was thinking about going to Nebraska," he said. "I remember driving down to do a home visit, and he grew up in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a rough area. I sat with his mom and just let her know that we are close enough to home. She was like, 'I want him to stay out there and be in Columbia and hang with his friends there.' His mom was happy for him to get away from the area and grow up here through college."
Redshirt season (2000-2001)
Woodley redshirted his first season in Columbia and competed in a variety of open tournaments. He won the freshman/sophomore division at the Missouri Open and finished second at both the Lindenwood Open and Glen Brand Open. He led all Missouri redshirt freshmen in terms of wins.
Freshman season (2001-2002)
After his redshirt campaign, Woodley joined the starting lineup for the Tigers. He broke through early in the season with a runner-up performance at the Reno Tournament of Champions. He made the finals at 165 pounds before coming up short against Eugene Harris of Oregon in a 5-3 match.
Not only did Woodley get off to a hot start individually, but the Tigers were rolling as well. They had won 11 straight dual matches and risen to No. 9 in the rankings when they welcomed No. 5 Oklahoma State to Columbia on Jan. 25. A then-record 1,138 fans came out to witness the match. Woodley dropped a 6-3 decision against Tyrone Lewis, and the Cowboys won the dual 26-7.
Back in 2002, the top three finishers at each weight in the Big 12 earned a spot at the NCAA tournament. Woodley entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed. In the third-place match, he nearly upset Robbie Waller of Oklahoma but eventually dropped an 8-6 overtime match. Woodley clearly closed the gap as he surrendered a first-period fall less than a month before the match. Despite the fourth-place finish, Woodley was awarded one of the conference's wildcards and made his way to his first NCAA tournament.
Woodley entered the field as an unseeded wrestler. He won his first-round match over Scott Roth of Cornell before falling against Mark Fee of Appalachian State. Once in the consolation bracket, Woodley defeated Bill Boeh (Duquesne) and Carl Fronhofer (Pittsburgh) to reach the round of 12 -- one match away from becoming an All-American.
His match against Fronhofer was apparently quite a spectacle and came down to a last-minute exchange. Fronhofer spoke with The Post-Star (Glen Falls, N.Y.) following the bout.
"I was down by one with five seconds left, and I went to throw the guy," Fronhofer explained. "The ref on the mat called two (points for a takedown), but the other ref said time was out. It was real crazy. Everybody in the gym thought I had two -- 13,000 people were yelling that I had two. We protested and they deliberated for about half an hour, but they denied our protest."
Despite Fronhofer's objections, Woodley advanced to the next round. His match against Doc Vecchio of Penn State went to overtime, but in the end, Woodley was eliminated via a 10-8 score. He finished the season with a 21-12 record. After the season, he was awarded the Marshall Esteppe Award, which is given to Missouri's Most Outstanding Freshman.
Sophomore season (2002-2003)
Woodley began his sophomore season ranked eighth in the InterMat rankings. Early in the season, he won the Harold Nichols Open with a 3-2 victory over Iowa's Mark Mueller in the finals. Woodley then had an early run-in with the No.1 ranked Matt Lackey of Illinois in the finals of the Missouri Open and lost 6-4.
In late January, Woodley scored a first-period fall over Wes Roberts, which was vital to the Tigers' victory over Oklahoma. However, the following week, he was upset via eventual UFC competitor Matt Veach, who was wrestling for Eastern Illinois at the time.
Missouri hosted the 2003 Big 12 tournament and once again Woodley would need to fight his way through a tough field to qualify for the NCAA tournament. However, things broke in his favor early in the tournament. Iowa State's Nick Passolano knocked off returning All-American Tyrone Lewis (Oklahoma State) in a double-overtime semifinal match. Woodley had struggled against Lewis throughout his career, and he would now face a much more favorable matchup if he made it to the finals. In his own semifinal, he defeated Jacob Klein of Nebraska to set up the final against Passalano.
Nate Carlisle summarized the bout for the March 9 edition of The Des Moines Register.
"In [Passolano's] final against Missouri's Tyron Woodley, the score was tied, 1-1, with about 20 seconds remaining in the third period and the wrestlers neutral," he wrote. "Woodley then appeared to take down Passolano and put him on his back. The referee signaled a takedown, but then waved it off -- over screaming protests from the Missouri fans -- when Passolano quickly jumped to his feet and hoisted one of Woodley's legs into the air. The pair fell off the matâ€¦ The match went to overtime where Woodley scored a takedown and a two-point nearfall with 41 seconds remaining for a 5-1 win."
With the victory, Woodley not only qualified for his second NCAA tournament, but he also became the first-ever Big 12 Conference champion in Missouri history.
Woodley entered the 2003 NCAA tournament as the fifth seed. In his first-round match, he scored a 7-2 decision victory over Nick Nemeth (Kent State), who would go on to perform as Dolph Ziggler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He then bested Central Michigan's Kevin Carr in the second round.
In the quarterfinals, Woodley ran into Jacob Volkmann (Minnesota). Like the Missouri wrestler, Volkmann would also go on to have an extensive UFC career, and he defeated Woodley 4-0 to advance to the semifinals.
Woodley found himself one match away from All-American status for the second straight season. This time he secured a 4-2 victory over Noel Thompson of Hofstra to become an All-American for the first time.
The eighth-place finish as well as a runner-up performance from teammate Scott Barker at 184 pounds led the Tigers to their highest finish in 11 years.
Tyron Woodley compiled a record of 110-38 as a four-year starter at Missouri (Photo/Missouri Athletics)
Junior season (2003-2004)
InterMat ranked Woodley seventh at 165 pounds to start his junior season. The Tigers were ranked 12th as a team, and they had an early season meeting with No. 1 Oklahoma State. The match took place at Hazelwood Central High School, which is only a 15-minute drive from Woodley's high school alma mater. He would drop another decision against rival Tyrone Lewis, but the Tigers pulled off the upset in front of their home-state fans. Woodley spoke succinctly with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch following the dual.
"I wasn't as quick as I needed to be. That disappointed me, but tonight was big for us."
Despite the early season struggle, Woodley headed into the new year with momentum. In late December, he won the Southern Scuffle. In the semifinals, he avenged a previous defeat with a 5-4 decision win over Volkmann and then iced the tournament over Virginia Tech's Chris Stith in the finals.
The returning Big 12 champion brought a 21-8 record into the 2004 edition of the tournament. Woodley suffered an upset in his first match and dropped a one-point decision against Charles Jones (Oklahoma). The early loss set up a rematch of the previous year's final with a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line. This time Iowa State's Passolano had his number and took the bout via a 3-1 score.
Unlike his freshman season, a wildcard berth did not materialize. Woodley missed his first NCAA tournament as a starter at Missouri.
Senior season (2004-2005)
Prior to the start of Woodley's senior season, Missouri head coach Brian Smith spoke with the Tigers athletics website.
"Tyron has tremendous talent and technique entering his senior year," he said. "Tyron and the coaching staff have only one goal for this season and it's a goal we all think Tyron can attain to cap off his successful Missouri campaign."
Woodley spent the entire season ranked in the top 10 and entered a stacked Big 12 tournament. The five-person field included Woodley, who was ranked fifth, No. 3 Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State), No. 6 Travis Paulson (Iowa State) and No. 8 Jacob Klein (Nebraska).
In the semifinals, Woodley knocked off Paulson in a close 2-1 match, while Hendricks needed overtime to pull out a 6-4 win over Klein. Those results set up a final between two eventual UFC champions.
The two were scheduled to fight many years later, but the bout fell through at the last minute. Woodley discussed his frustration with this finals match after their fight left him without a shot at redemption.
Hendricks took a 4-1 decision and the Big 12 title. Woodley still qualified for his third NCAA tournament.
His accomplishments were enough to earn him the fifth seed, and he won his first two matches over Donny Reynold (Illinois) and Mike Patrovich (Hofstra). Woodley then fell out of the championship hunt with a 3-0 decision loss against Mark Perry (Iowa).
Woodley found himself in the round of 12 for the third time in his collegiate career. He faltered in his freshman season and pulled through as a sophomore. As a senior, he became an All-American with a dominant 11-0 decision over Justin Nestor of Pittsburgh. Woodley ended up finishing seventh and concluded his collegiate career as a two-time All-American and Big 12 champion.
After finishing his career at Missouri, Woodley hung around the freestyle circuit for a few years, and he even made the finals of the 2006 University Nationals. In 2009, he made his professional MMA debut and a little over seven years after that he claimed the UFC title with a victory over Robbie Lawler.
Even after a long professional career, Woodley still echoes the same sentiments he expressed as a high school senior. During his title reign he spoke with Sports Illustrated.
"Why can't I be somebody that kids look up to?" he said. "When you come to the realization that you can be that person, then you can be."
Match and tournament results as well as biographical information sourced from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Daily Journal (Flat River), Springfield News-Leader, The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), Des Moines Register, The Oklahoman and the Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois) unless otherwise noted.