Editor’s note: This originally ran in February, 2019, and has been updated in anticipation of Tyron Woodley’s bout Saturday against Gilbert Burns.
Tyron Woodley returns to the Octagon on Saturday for the first time since losing his welterweight title to Kamaru Usman on March 2, 2019. A lot has happened while Woodley has been away, including the retirement of his long-time friend Ben Askren.
Woodley and Askren were wrestlers together at the University of Missouri in 2004 and 2005. Woodley then helped coach Askren for two more years. Both played integral roles in making the program a consistent national power.
Woodley, who faces Gilbert Burns on Saturday, wrestled at Missouri from 2000 to 2005, was a two-time All-American and claimed the first Big 12 title in Missouri history in 2003. Askren, a Tiger from 2004 to 2007, is the best wrestler to ever wear the black and gold. He went 157-8 overall, going 87-0 his final two years of college. Askren won the national championship in 2006 and 2007 and earned the Dan Hodge Trophy — the college wrestling equivalent to the Heisman — both years.
Woodley and Askren came from different paths, but what they did together in Missouri changed the program forever.
The Missouri program was in need of an overhaul in 1998 when Brian Smith took over as head coach. The Tigers went 4-9 his first year and improved mightily to 11-11 in his second, but he still felt more was required to make the Tigers a true contender.
Woodley was just that.
Fast, strong, explosive and a local kid to boot, Woodley had everything Smith was looking for in a recruit. The only problem? He had another school already in mind.
“Tyron was thinking about going to Nebraska,” Smith 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.”
Jeremy Spates, a 2004 All-American at Missouri, hosted Woodley on his official recruiting trip. Woodley came up on Friday, but needed to be back the next day to compete in the state’s freestyle Greco tournament.
“The first thing he wanted to do was work out so he could cut a little bit of weight,” Spates said. “As soon as I started working out with him, I thought ‘This kid is special.’
“We had a little get together at our house that night to show the recruits a good time. Tyron didn’t drink, but he wanted to eat. He ate unfortunately a little too much and did not make weight the next day at the state tournament. So he bumped up a weight class and still won the state tournament.”
Woodley signed with the home-state school and enrolled in 2000.
Askren’s recruitment was a bit more challenging.
Because Askren grew up in Hartland, Wisconsin, Smith wasn’t able to see him compete in person. Askren’s high school coach, who happened to be from the St. Louis area, knew Smith and sent him a VHS tape of his prized pupil. Smith received it while with his coaches at a wrestling clinic on the road.
“I asked (our hosts) to use the VCR,” he recalls. “I ran in the house and put the tape in, and as I was watching it I told my assistants, ‘You got to watch this kid. He wrestles so different. He has such a great flow and scrambles and does all of these things.’ I loved him.”
Smith offered him a scholarship at nationals that year and tried to sell Askren on becoming the first national champion in program history.
Spates’ brother Justin hosted Ben on his official visit.
“He drove his parents’ minivan around. He had a bullhorn and was yelling at people out the window as a practical joke,” Jeremy Spates said. “After he signed with us, he actually came back down a couple other times for unofficial visits and to hang out.
“He once brought his buddy for an unofficial visit, and it ended up being Matt Pell, who became an All-American as well. Obviously his brother (Max) came a few years later who was a national champ.”
Go back to 2006 and 2007 when Ben Askren won back-to-back NCAA wrestling titles at Missouri.
‘It made for some really ridiculous matches’
Woodley’s wrestling style was much different from Askren’s. He used his quickness and reflexes to blast through opponents and wear them out. Askren — who was not a physical specimen like Woodley — was more technically sound and had elite scrambling skills. It made for exciting training sessions between the two of them with Woodley weighing in at 165 compared to Askren’s 174.
“It made for some really ridiculous matches,” said Michael Chandler, Bellator’s lightweight champion who wrestled for Missouri from 2004 to 2008. “Tyron’s shots were as close to unstoppable as they could be, but then Ben’s scrambling ability was as close to a lockdown scenario as there could ever be, too. They are two completely different styles and both needed each other.”
Chandler entered the program as a walk-on. Woodley, coming off the Big 12 title and All-America status in 2003, needed someone to keep him on that pedestal. Chandler was that guy.
“I never scored a point on him, but I was a good body,” Chandler said. “He could take me down 1,000 times and I would keep coming back. I would let him drill something on me 1,000 times and never get sick of it because I was absolutely in love with the sport of wrestling. I had to prove my worth.”
Chandler later earned a scholarship with the Tigers and went on to become a three-time NCAA qualifier. He said Woodley was a main factor in that result.
“Everybody told me ‘You’re probably going to be riding the bench, you’re never going to start, you’re probably just going to be a workout partner,'” Chandler said. “Tyron Woodley was the first guy who I was able to look up to who actually believed in me and believed in what I was going to be able to do wearing that black and gold singlet.
“Tyron immediately became a big brother to me and he immediately made me believe in myself like nobody else. I truly believe that I was an All-American because of him and a world champion because of him and my time at Missouri.”
“Ben said, ‘remember everything you said in that magazine? It’s go-time now. I’m gonna whoop your a–.’ Perry wanted no part of him. They went in and sent in their backup.”
Raymond Jordan on Ben Askren’s matchup with Mark Perry
Askren’s potential on the mat was evident from the start. His first two years his “funky” style and pinning ability allowed him to reach the national championship, but he lost both times to Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State.
As a junior, he was 44-0 with 24 pins entering the title matchup with Jake Herbert of Northwestern. On the bus to the finals in Oklahoma City, Smith said he ‘was sick to my stomach’ because of the immense pressure. He did not want Askren to be a three-time national runner-up, and on top of that, the victor would win the Hodge Trophy.
“As I’m getting to the arena in Oklahoma City, I’m a little nervous,” Smith said. “Ben is sitting on the bus laughing, joking and picking his hair so it’s 2 feet high. I shook my head saying, ‘Can you please get serious?’ He looked at me and said ‘Coach, don’t worry. I got this.’
“Of course he goes out and majors the kid and wins the national title and wins the Hodge. That’s Ben. He hasn’t changed.”
Raymond Jordan, a two-time All-American at Missouri in 2007 and 2008, says his favorite memory of Ben was his clash with Iowa wrestler Mark Perry.
Perry, who later became a two-time national champion, moved up to Askren’s weight class as a sophomore. He told Win Magazine that he was going to dominate Askren when they matched up together.
“Ben carried that magazine around all summer with that article,” Jordan said. “I remember it sat in our wrestling room because Ben brought it there. When Ben had an opportunity to wrestle him at the national duels, Perry wouldn’t even look him in the eye.
“Ben said, ‘Remember everything you said in that magazine? It’s go-time now. I’m gonna whoop your ass.’ Perry wanted no part of him. They went in and sent in their backup because they knew Ben not only would have beaten him, but inflicted a lot of pain in the process.”
The infamous road trips
Mark Ellis wanted to quit as a freshman. He was talented, sure, but the college wrestling lifestyle was not for him. Hearing he may leave the team, Askren, then a junior, gave him a call.
“He told me ‘You’re moving in with me.’ When Ben Askren calls and tells you you’re moving in with him as a freshman, you do it,” Ellis said. “I went from wanting to quit to seeing how Ben just loved life. He enjoyed disc golf. He took road trips nonstop. But he trained harder than anybody I knew.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you can train at a high level and be really good and still love life and have fun.’ That was a misconception that everyone told me: ‘You got to live wrestling and do nothing but wrestle and compete.'”
Ellis ended up winning the national title as a heavyweight in 2009.
By this point, Askren’s success and exciting style made him a household name among wrestling fans. He decided to get a group of Missouri wrestlers together for road trips across the country, teaching clinics and camps. They drove everywhere in his white Prius. And when not wrestling, they were exploring what the country had to offer.
“The only time in my life I ever was at a national park or national forest was with Ben Askren,” Chandler said. “Driving around the country we always found these places where we would stop and pick up souvenirs. ‘Oh nice, a rock village!'”
During spring break of Askren’s junior year, he, Chandler, Ellis and Vince Demarest decided to go to Arizona State to train with the Sunkist Kids, a group of Olympic hopefuls. The entire time in Arizona, Ellis talked about getting a tattoo. Well, until the moment came.
“I tried to back out,” Ellis said. “One of Ben’s sayings is ‘If you say something, you have to do it. He’s a man of his word. He basically said, ‘I’m never talking to you again if you don’t get this tattoo.’ I was freaked out. He forced me to get it. Made me eat my words and get the tattoo.”
Ellis ended up with a cross on his shoulder. Askren got a smiley face on his right foot that reads, “Live free, be happy.”
Woodley and Askren were more than great individual wrestlers, both were among the best leaders a program could have. What they did both on and off the mat helped put the program to where it is today: a perennial national title contender.
“Ben is probably the single-most important person that God put into my life in order for me to have athletic success. Tyron was one of those top guys as well,” Ellis said. “If anybody asks me about my athletic accomplishments, those two guys get brought up in that conversation. One hundred percent, Ben and Tyron played a huge role.”
Adds Chandler: “When I walked into that Missouri wrestling room, I wanted to be just like Tyron Woodley. I wanted to be just like Ben Askren. They were the cornerstones of everything we did.
“I truly believe you only get as far in life as the mentors that you have around you. Those two guys, I can honestly say, helped me get to where I am in my life, in my career, in my relationships, in my businesses and my self-image. I only consider two guys in the entire world my big brothers, and it’s Ben and Tyron.”
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