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With undefeated pressure gone, Tyron Woodley makes long-awaited UFC debut

Jay Hieron takes on Woodley in preliminary bout worth watching

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Sam Morris

Tyron Woodley points up after defeating Jordan Mein during their fight on the Strikeforce card Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012 at the Hard Rock.

As much as the UFC’s annual Super Bowl weekend event in Las Vegas has existed to sell the promotion’s best fighters in pay-per-view bouts, it’s done an equally commendable job launching the careers of fighters on the undercard.

Several fighters who went on to reach the top of their divisions, including four champions, have debuted on the Super Bowl weekend preliminary card since the UFC first staged the event nine years ago.

With one of the deepest lineups in recent memory, someone on Saturday’s UFC 156 at Mandalay Bay Events Center card is likely on a similar path to glory. The trouble comes in figuring out who fits the bill.

Tyron Woodley, one of three former Strikeforce fighters crossing over to the UFC for the first time, might be a good place to start. Woodley (10-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) faces local Jay Hieron (23-6 MMA, 0-3 UFC) in a welterweight bout airing on FX two fights before the pay-per-view card, which starts at 7 p.m.

“To be a UFC champ, that’s my only goal,” Woodley said upon arriving in Las Vegas on Tuesday. “This is the first step moving forward. I’m going to show everyone, starting with myself, that I belong here.”

Few doubt Woodley is a UFC-caliber fighter. The fanfare for his first fight in the octagon is just minimized because of the way his Strikeforce run ended.

After winning the first 10 professional bouts of his career and serving as the uncrowned 170-pound champion for more than a year, Strikeforce booked Woodley against Nate Marquardt for its vacant welterweight title. Marquardt, a UFC veteran, beat Woodley up in two of the first three rounds last July.

In the fourth round, Marquardt knocked out Woodley.

“A lot of the pressure is off now,” Woodley said. “What am I scared of? Losing, getting knocked out, losing a world title fight? The worst-case scenario already happened.”

Woodley feels like he’s improved in several areas that cost him his first loss. He thought he was “lazy” against Marquardt, content to rest against the fence when his opponent put him there instead of trying to apply his own pressure.

Watching the fight again, Woodley said he found his best success when he pushed forward and set a high pace. He accepts there are plenty of reasons he lost but can’t stand one of the most often cited theories: that Marquardt was too much bigger than him.

“Everyone says that,” Woodley said defiantly. “I’m not a small welterweight. I walk around at 195, so there’s no way on earth I could get down to lightweight. I’m at the right weight class. He just made a commitment to get down there, but I drew first blood. People forget I dropped him to the ground twice. I don’t think size had anything to do with it. The fact was he wanted it more that night and executed his game plan.”

Even without a fight, Woodley trained aggressively in the aftermath of the Marquardt loss. His “stay ready” mantra enabled him to take the UFC 156 assignment on short notice after Hieron’s original opponent, Erick Silva, dropped out a month ago.

In Hieron, Woodley will encounter another welterweight who’s bigger than him. At the same time Woodley was considered the best 170-pound fighter in Strikeforce, some bestowed that honor upon Hieron in Bellator.

Hieron lost a highly disputed split decision to Woodley’s college teammate at Missouri, Ben Askren, in a Bellator title fight. Hieron thinks Woodley’s plan of attack could mirror what he faced with Askren.

“He takes guys down and does a lot of laying on them,” Hieron said through the UFC. “I think one of my best attributes is that I’m one of the hardest guys to hold down, so that’s not really an issue. First he has to get me there, and that’s hard to do.”

Matching wrestling credentials with Woodley, however, is difficult. Like many successful mixed martial artists, he started with a decorated career in the sport.

He was a two-time All-American while at Missouri from 2000-2005.

“When I got to Missouri, out of 90 schools, they were ranked 80th,” Woodley said. “They were terrible. I went there with the intent of being a part of a group of athletes who were going to be a part of something and make the change. We wanted to make a tradition. I was a part of an elite group of guys who went in there dedicated, and we made that program into what it is today.”

Woodley never dreamed about fighting in the UFC. He thought it was destined and knew eventually he would mix it up with the best fighters in the world.

The Super Bowl weekend card is a heck of a place to start.

“I’m still looking to accomplish what I set out to do, and that’s compete and win a world title,” Woodley said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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