Tyron Woodley may not be the most popular choice with the rest of the leading contenders at 170lb to step in and face champion Robbie Lawler for the belt at UFC 201 in Atlanta, Georgia, but that doesn’t mean squat to the 34-year-old, who told Fighters Only recently how his patient approach will pay off tomorrow night.

It’s unusual when teammates lock horns inside the Octagon. It’s rarer still they’re booked to face off with a belt up for grabs. It’s happened once before in the UFC: when Rashad Evans challenged Jon Jones for his his light heavyweight title. But ‘Suga’ departed the Jackson’s camp under a cloud of animosity before they fought. That won’t happen if Robbie Lawler defends his UFC welterweight championship against American Top Team (ATT) counterpart Tyron Woodley. They’ll train on the same mats, work with some of the same coaches and even share sparring partners when they enter into camp.

How will you flick the switch from friend to foe when you face Robbie for the title?

I actually like him quite a bit, and I certainly admire him as a fighter. I was hanging out with Robbie in Las Vegas at the World MMA Awards, so there’s no bad blood or beef. But we’ve both been fighting to become world champion for a very long time. He’s reached his goal and he’s in a position where he’s trying to defend. But I’m not 23 years old. I don’t have 10 years to wait on Robbie to retire and I may not get this opportunity again. I’ve got to seize it while I can.

Does a matchup between you and Robbie create any divisions at ATT?

It’s not awkward for Robbie. Robbie is a fighter, he’s a champion. And he’s one of the last true fighters in the business. He’s old-school. He was fighting in the old days, before the money. You’ve got to respect that. I’m more bent out of shape about it than Robbie is. But we’ve discussed it. I’m going to go down there and do part of my training camp at ATT and we’ll make it work. The owners are just going to sit back. (Ricardo) Liborio, Dan (Lambert) and ‘Conan’ (Marcus Silveira) aren’t going to corner either of us, which is only fair. Kami (Barzini), the wrestling coach, and ‘Katel’ (Vetelmo Kubis), one of the top MMA guys, will be with Robbie. I’ll have Din Tomas and Duke Roufus in my corner, with a third kind of up in the air. I think Robbie usually has his chiropractor in his corner too, so yeah, it’s not a problem.”

Did you fear Carlos Condit may get the rematch after their war in January?

It was a tough fight, a great fight to watch. But that said, Carlos Condit lost to me, lost to Johny Hendricks and lost to GSP. Those two were champions and I consider myself the number-one contender, so there’s no shame in losing to any of those guys. But he got a title shot after defeating number-12-ranked Thiago Alves. So he jumped over two guys who beat him. I believe there is a cycle going on here and if that were to happen again I wouldn’t be as quiet.

Were you surprised when Condit go the shot before you?

Actually, no. I watched his last fight against Thiago and my last fight against Kelvin (Gastelum) and he outperformed me. Even though my opponent was raked higher than his and was therefore probably a tougher challenge, his was a great performance. But he maintained his ranking after being out for 14 months. I was out for six months, then Johny Hendricks took the opportunity for me to have a performance like Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ against him away by pulling out of our fight. People were talking about taking me out of the rankings. How is that my fault?

I was the one who called out the number-one contender. I asked to fight Carlos Condit. I asked to fight Johny Hendricks. I took the fight against Rory MacDonald at short notice in Vancouver, Canada – his hometown – because I knew it was going to put me in a position to fight for the title. I’ve always had that mind-set: to fight champions, former champions or people who had been in this position before to propel me. Think of Jake Shields, (Josh) Koscheck, Carlos, Rory – all of these guys fought for the title.

Are you disappointed you didn’t get the opportunity fight Johny Hendricks and do something similar to Stephen Thompson?

I’m not mad at that because it’s out of my control. I’m just a little frustrated because fans see that, they get emotional, and they start saying, ‘Oh my god, he’s so awesome, he’s got to fight for the title.’ Let’s put apples next to apples. This guy is a top up-and-coming kid, but his first top-10 victory was against Jake Ellenberger. He’s a tough fighter but he’s been shown to be mentally weak. He breaks down when he can’t have his way with opponents. That fighter he beat is not the same Jake Ellenberger that took the game by storm when he first came into the UFC – not to take anything away from Thompson.

Why do you think Thompson was able to win so handily?

Johny Hendricks was focusing way too much on the weight cut when he should have been focusing more on a game plan. I guarantee he didn’t bring in the proper sparring partners to simulate the person he was fighting. He probably had some of his teammates watch a couple of videos and do what they saw ‘Wonderboy’ do previously in the Octagon. That’s not the same thing. They don’t know the drills, the technique, what to do. You need to bring someone in who fights that way. But you could see Johny was all wrong for that fight when he stood on the scale. He looked like he had no energy to take him out of that first round, so it was the perfect time for Stevie to turn it up. He saw there were holes, he saw there was an opportunity and he knew Johny couldn’t figure out the Rubik’s cube and he started pressing him.

Where you surprised Hendricks got stopped so easily?

Weren’t you? Think about the punches Johny took from Robbie, or anybody. He’s taken some hard shots, but now you’re telling me this same guy gets flashed by a spinning back kick that hit him in the shoulder and the arm. It didn’t even land on his face, but it wobbled him. That tells me his brain probably didn’t have a lot of fluid. He was worried about making weight and the IV ban, not game planning, being tired, frustrated – it all accumulated and Wonderboy seized the moment.

Does that win mean Thompson deserves to be in the running for a title shot?

Wonderboy has been training with (Chris) Weidman and he’s a heavy guy. He’s a great fighter and a great wrestler and I’m assuming he doesn’t punch very soft! Training with guys like him, training with guys like Georges (St Pierre) and surrounding himself with high-level guys has given him the confidence he needs to go out there and perform. But I do think he has to earn his due a little bit more. Beating the former champion was a big, big task. But I beat Carlos Condit when he was number one in the world and that didn’t automatically put me in line for a shot at the title, so I don’t believe it should do that for him either.

Do you think Lawler had a say in you getting the next shot too?

I know he did. Robbie made it clear that he believes I deserve the next shot and he’s the champion. So perhaps that was enough. After all, the way he’s been fighting and the numbers he’s been doing for the UFC, perhaps they’ve adhered to his request even if they didn’t want to give me mine.

* This interview first appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fighters Only magazine . Subscribe now for more great exclusive interviews and features with the world’s best fighters.