Tyron Woodley: I think Nate Diaz will be next

Tyron Woodley believes his next title defense could come against Nate Diaz in 2018. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley hit a milestone in his recovery from shoulder surgery this week, and is starting to think about his next opponent.

If he had to make a guess right now, the frontrunner is Nate Diaz.

"I think that fight will happen," said Woodley, who is regaining his range of motion this week. "I think it will happen this year. I think it's way more likely than people realize. There are conversations about Nate and I fighting in July. The UFC has offered Nate that fight. They just have to make it worth his while.

"I think I'll fight Nate this year, and I think it will be my return to the Octagon. If I had to bet the house on it, that's my next opponent."

Diaz (19-11) hasn't fought since August 2016, when he suffered a majority decision loss to rival Conor McGregor in their second fight.

The Stockton, California, native has hinted at returning to the cage soon. Last month, Diaz signaled on social media he was targeting a fight in May or June. And this week, The Los Angeles Times reported Diaz is willing to save a UFC 222 card on March 3, which recently lost its main event.

According to the report, Diaz prefers a welterweight fight. UFC president Dana White told The Los Angeles Times he doesn't believe Diaz is serious.

In any event, Woodley (18-3-1) underwent shoulder surgery in late December and said he wouldn't put his belt on the line that soon.

He did say, however, he'd look at a non-title catchweight fight against Diaz if the UFC were open to it. According to Woodley, the UFC looked into booking this fight late last year, but couldn't come to financial terms with Diaz.

"In four weeks? No. I wouldn't fight him," Woodley said. "If we're fighting, I'm pretty sure it would have to be for my belt. Now, if they want me to fight him at a catchweight, not a title fight, I'm gonna have to drop to my knees and make a prayer to the most high for something like that.

"At this point in my career, if it's a fight that's not for my belt, I'm willing to step out of the box and do some different things."

Woodley, who fights out of St. Louis, is extremely confident in how he matches up with Diaz. He believes Diaz actually acknowledges how difficult the fight would be, which is why his asking price is so high to accept.

"Do I think Nate will fight me? Yes, for the right amount of money and the right time in history, I do," Woodley said. "Is it a good fight for him? No. I'm a lot faster. I punch a lot harder. I can take him down. He's not going to submit me. That said, it's not a good fight for him. So, they have to make it up to him in dollars and cents."

Barring any unforeseen offers from the UFC, Woodley, 35, says he's anticipating a summer return -- and as of right now, his money is on Diaz as an opponent.

He says he's open to all options, including No. 1 contender Rafael dos Anjos (28-9), but admits that's not at the top of the list.

"I just want to do something that's going to push me forward career-wise or push my legacy," Woodley said. "I need both. I need super fights and I need to continue to knock off these rising contenders. I've been fighting the best of the best since Strikeforce. It's not like I'm asking for anything that I haven't paid my dues for. I had to earn this position the hard way."