If Real Woods, Iowa’s 141-pound powerhouse, seems unfazed by the bright lights of NCAA wrestling, it’s not because he’s a good actor, it’s because long before taking the mat at Carver Hawkeye Arena, he had a front row seat to one of the biggest moments in MMA history.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Woods was an active athlete blossoming into a rising star in the wrestling community from an early age.
Almost immediately, wrestling gave Woods a different life than almost anybody else his age. When other members of his team left the practice room after school ready to take on the “hardships” of a middle school student-athlete, Woods would drive a few miles down the road to pick up where he left off at one of the most famous gyms in the world for not only wrestling, but combat sports in general.
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“I always went and trained at Jackson’s MMA,” Woods said. “I was always close with a lot of MMA fighters. I was privileged to be around people like Jon Jones and Holly Holm in middle school. I was able to train with them and get to know them in the MMA world, so I was a huge fan.”
Woods was not only beginning to stand out in the state of New Mexico for wrestling, but in a short amount of time he would also be one of the most skilled athletes at Jackson’s. He went from catching glimpses of the UFC’s heavy hitters to sharing the mats with them in almost no time at all.
In addition to rubbing shoulders with Jon Jones, Woods would frequently find himself paired up with an undefeated boxer turned fighter who was likely being fed to the wolves in only her third trip to the UFC Octagon, Holly Holm.
In 2015, Holly Holm made her UFC debut with a split decision victory over future title challenger Raquel Pennington before taking yet another W home in July of the same year and setting herself up for the biggest fight of her career. At the time, the average fight fan may not have known, but Holm’s title fight at UFC 193 wouldn’t just be a moment Holm and the rest of the Jackson’s crew would never forget, but one nobody would ever forget.
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“Simply put, it was the biggest s*** ever,” Woods laughed, thinking back to the new energy the gym was given.
The world may have been shocked by what they had just saw, and how could they not? “The Preacher’s Daughter” had dethroned one of the most dominant athletes in the history of combat sports, Ronda Rousey. Woods, however, painted a different story, explaining that nobody at Jackson’s was surprised. Holm isn’t the typical striker, she’s the exact fighter, both mentally and physically, who was destined for moments like this.
“She’s the type of person who doesn’t really fall for the hype and she kind of keeps to her own way,” Woods said. “She’s just Holly. She’s a great person, she’s genuine, and easygoing is a good way to put it.”
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When the fight was over and Holm made it back to New Mexico, the city of Albuquerque was absolutely rocking and it was all for one person, the one person in the sport Woods is sure would’ve never asked for it all.
“It absolutely had a different buzz,” Woods recalled with a laugh. “The whole entire city had a different buzz. As a matter of fact, they did an Albuquerque-wide city march for Holly. It was the biggest thing that had happened to Albuquerque at the time.”
From being the quiet kid lighting up the mats to taking a step back and realizing that even in a very roundabout way he was in the background for one of the wildest moments in the entire history of a sport, it’s still hard for the common man to grasp. It’s hard to grasp what it would be like for Woods, who was training partners and even friends with the biggest names in the history of his favorite sport before blazing his own trail in NCAA wrestling.
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These days, Woods is one of the best wrestlers in the NCAA, and with each win in front of the sold out Carver Hawkeye Arena, it may be getting a little harder to impress the Albuquerque kid. But the overwhelming celebration of that window in time can never be taken away from him.
When most of us look back at “the good old days,” we’re not thinking about sharing the building, the room and definitely not the mats with the most accomplished fighters on Earth. What a life it must be for Real Woods.
“For me, personally, as a little kid, as a fan of the sport and a close friend of her, it was huge for me,” Woods said. “I was a part of that hype; I was excited to watch it.”
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