- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) - Tyron Woodley’s plane wasn’t even on the ground in Missouri yet and all he could think of was getting to Ferguson.

The day was Aug. 9, 2014, and the former all-Big 12 wrestler at Missouri turned UFC title contender was on his way back from Las Vegas with his son when his social media blew up. Numerous friends and family asked about his health and safety.

Woodley was confused. He didn’t know what was going on. When he landed, all the news started pouring in. A young man named Michael Brown had been shot, and riots ensued.

Woodley grew up in Ferguson just a few blocks from where the riots started and had been in the area days earlier to get his hair cut.

After he got home, Woodley told his wife he wanted to go to his old neighborhood to see what he could make of the situation. She told him to stay with his family.

While police cars were overturned and tear gas consumed Ferguson that night, Woodley stayed home, tucked his kids in and went to bed.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” Woodley said.

The Columbia Missourian (http://bit.ly/1MHCywp ) reports Woodley still shows love for his hometown, but that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of the temptations his hometown possesses.

He spent a large part of his young adulthood avoiding Ferguson and tried to only come home when needed.

Woodley’s mother would beg Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith to find ways to keep her son busy over the summer so he could stay in Columbia.

“She would say, ‘Keep him up there. It’s so much better there where he is. Don’t let him come home in the summers,’” Smith said.

The tactic worked.

Woodley spent his summers working for the Missouri grounds crew and mowed the lawn for the athletic facilities, most notably the hill where the famous “Rock M” at Faurot Field sits. Woodley would work during the day and get a quick lift in the weight room or practice at Hearnes Center during breaks.

When two of Woodley’s friends were killed in Ferguson, Smith advised him to not attend the services for fear of more violence.

A volatile atmosphere hasn’t stopped Woodley from embracing his roots. Instead, it’s caused him to try and be part of the solution.

“That’s my neighborhood,” he said. “I’ve been to that place a million times. I’ve been to all those (stores) that were blown down. I know their owners. I still go there weekly. It’s my community, and I’m very proud of it. It’s not just what you see on television.”

Since the racial tensions escalated, Woodley has used his star power to flex his muscles outside of the ring. He’s spoken to more than 40 schools and performed more than 20 demonstrations about how to use the skills he’s learned from wrestling to get him to where he is today.

“I think all of the positive stuff; we should utilize those to help change people because it definitely changed me,” he said. “It took me out of a negative situation and allowed me not to succumb to my environment and be successful. I’ll never forget that.”

Woodley has done all this while being out of the cage since Jan. 31 when he knocked out Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 183. Woodley was supposed to fight Johny Hendricks on Oct. 15 but was unable to after his opponent didn’t make weight.

Woodley is currently ranked No. 2 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings and plans to wait out the result of the bout between current champion Robbie Lawler and the No. 4 fighter Carlos Condit in January. Woodley has been promised he can face the winner of the fight for the world championship next July at UFC 200.

“If I can fight for a world title next, I think that makes more sense for me not to risk to fight in between (and) to preserve myself for the world title,” he said.

Some UFC enthusiasts wonder if Woodley made the right decision by deciding to wait for a shot at the championship belt instead of booking another fight. Mixed martial artists can feel a little rusty in a fight, even if their last one was only a few weeks ago, but the 33-year-old Woodley is confident with his decision.

Ben Askren, another former Missouri wrestler who’s had success with MMA since leaving school, is one of Woodley’s good friends and thinks his old teammate is making the right decision.

“They promised him a title shot, which every fighter wants,” Askren said. “So he’s in a unique scenario where he hasn’t fought in 10 months. I definitely see the issue in his dilemma because title shots don’t come around often. So I would say from my standpoint, he’s making the correct decision.”

Smith remembers watching Woodley fight in high school and is convinced his former pupil will be just fine whenever he gets back into the ring.

The Missouri coach recollected the phone calls from Woodley’s mother in his office and closed his eyes while he thought about how far his pupil has come from the streets of Ferguson.

“He’s so powerful,” Smith said. “If he punches somebody, he’s going to rock their world. He’s going to end fights early. When he’s really confident, he’s scary.”

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Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com

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