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Young guns Woodley, Saffiedine gamble

1/7/2011

Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine are, in a certain way, kin. They're prospects. Ambitious, with much to prove. Potential contenders. And, perhaps, consisting of championship material.

Every prospect knows the day will come when he or she can no longer claim to be one. That's a fact of life, not fighting. For Woodley and Saffiedine, strong welterweights on the cusp of an evolution in their respective careers, Friday's rite of passage in Nashville, Tenn. -- otherwise known as a mixed martial arts bout at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium -- is that moment.

Woodley, a 28-year-old Big 12 champion wrestler for the University of Missouri who turned pro in 2009 and hasn't lost in seven pro fights, was expected to find success from the very beginning.

There are degrees of prospects. If Woodley played football at Missouri, he'd be a blue-chipper. Basketball, a lottery pick. He's a specimen, the level of athlete perfectly suited for the demands of mixed martial arts. Fast-twitch with a wrestler's muscle memory, he still possesses grace -- a lightness to his step. He could be, depending on the angle, a natural, which is another level of prospect entirely.

For all those reasons and more, the 24-year-old Saffiedine -- born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, but for the past three years a resident of Southern California -- really likes this fight.

"I think we're both a great challenge for each another," Saffiedine said. "I think that's what makes this fight really interesting. I'm excited to fight him. It will be my biggest test so far."

Saffiedine (10-2) isn't a natural. He may not even be a blue-chipper. The Woodley fight should answer that question. At a minimum, he's a mean competitor who delivers a crowd-pleasing, aggressive style. He does little things well. Timing. Distance. He's a striker, a karateka turned kickboxer. And in the three years he's lived near Temecula, Calif., to train with Team Quest, he's transformed into a solid grappler and defensive wrestler.

Strikeforce feels so good about the pair of prospects, it's showcasing them during a free preview weekend on Showtime (11 p.m. ET/PT).

"I thought about fighting Tarec in a title bout, a five-round bout in the future," Woodley said. "I never saw us bumping heads this early. As far as opponents, I think he's the toughest 170-pounder in the division for me style-wise."

How can a kickboxer from Belgium be a heartland wrestler's toughest style fight?

Well, Saffiedine has figured out how to apply his technical striking and stay on his feet. That means stuffing takedowns and never giving up an easy shot. This is where Saffiedine has improved most since accepting an e-mail invitation to move to the U.S. and train in Dan Henderson's gym. And, as a testament to Saffiedine's effectiveness, that's where Woodley says he must find success to win and continue forward.

"If you couldn't deal with him fresh on his feet, how are you going to do it tired when you can't get a takedown?" Woodley asked himself throughout training camp, which pulled him away from his St. Louis home, wife and two young children for all but four days over the past four weeks. "I really concentrated on my striking, being comfortable, being crisp, being explosive and being first."

Waiting isn't Saffiedine's style either. That's why he isn't drinking Stella Artois with his buddies in Brussels hoping quality MMA training will emerge out of nothing.

"In Belgium it's hard to make a living in sports," he said. "I wasn't really good at school, so I took a chance. I loved martial arts, so I said to myself 'Either I stay in Belgium and train on the side or go to the U.S. and make a living.' That's what happened."

Friday's fight offers both men the chance to test themselves. While a loss wouldn't ruin either fighter's chance for future success, it could certainly be considered a setback. This is a bout that could dictate the next year or so of their professional lives. Winning makes things easy and maintains the possibility of a Strikeforce championship opportunity in 2011 -- a goal Woodley and Saffiedine are aiming for this year.

"I don't want to go to war with Tarec Saffiedine for the hell of it," Woodley said. "I want it to count. I want it to get me toward the belt. Whether he built a name yet or I built a name yet, I know what type of opponent he is. So I want the reward. I want to be sure it's getting me so close to the belt it's worth the risk."

From prospect to contender? From prospect to pretender?

Said Woodley: "Somebody is going to step out of the prospect slot after this fight."

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.