The first meeting between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson was one of the best fights of 2016. The rematch was something else entirely.
Unlike their bout at UFC 205, which ended in a draw, the second clash between the two welterweights had a somewhat more definitive conclusion, as Woodley emerged with a majority decision triumph in the UFC 209 headliner at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night.
Getting to that point was a painful process. Neither fighter appeared particularly eager to engage, and those in attendance expressed their displeasure throughout the 25-minute contest. However, Woodley authored two of the bout’s most significant moments. He landed a takedown and ground-and-pound in round three and floored Thompson in a furious blitz in the final minute of the fifth round. Ultimately that was enough in a closely-contested fight.
“I’ve never been doubtful of my abilities. I do see when I took him down the first time, I could have worked a little harder to keep him down on the mat, but then I was weighing risk vs. reward. How much damage was a doing? I wasn’t in a very good position to get a finish or damage,” Woodley said on Fox Sports 1. “The times when I did explode in the fifth round, I could have had more of those moments. That shouldn’t have been the only round where I exploded like that. I should have had one or two of those per round. This is something to grow. I’m a young champion. My goal is to be the greatest ever. This is a learning curve, my first rematch. I go back and I get better. It’s not a bad performance, but we all know what I’m capable of.”
Perhaps familiarity made it more difficult for Woodley and Thompson to replicate their first bout, which was far more entertaining.
“It’s just tough when you fight somebody for the second time around. He was equipped and ready for me to come in close, so he was keeping me at bay. It was tough to get in. He was countering as I was coming in. It was just really awkward,” Woodley said. “It was my first rematch. I think we both were a bit hesitant and in the last round I knew I had to go for the kill, so I went out there and tried to get it done.”
Woodley, who is unbeaten in his last five fights, pointed out that highlights become increasingly less frequent at the sport’s highest level. That is especially true against an opponent with a style as unorthodox as Thompson.
“Very few things we had in the game plan happened tonight, minus the last round. We wanted to do more taking down. A lot of guys, especially in the sport karate world, tell me that the front leg is usually the fast leg. Even when I would level change and act as if I was going for a takedown, you’d see how fast he was moving the leg back,” Woodley said. “And that actually sets him up for the counter attack. So I was a bit hesitant. He was a bit hesitant. At the end of the day, when you’re fighting the top of the top, it’s not always this landslide, it’s not always this crazy fight of the night that everybody wants to see. You have to do what you have to do to get it done.”
While Woodley’s previous two performances — a knockout of Robbie Lawler to claim the welterweight title and the aforementioned draw with Thompson — were far more crowd-pleasing than Saturday night’s effort, the 34-year-old says he was probably healthier than he has been in quite some time. That only made the final product in the Octagon more frustrating.
“This was a phenomenal training camp. I had very few injuries. I didn’t bring it up in previous fights, but the entire Robbie Lawler camp, the entire Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ camp, my foot was jacked up, my groin was completely torn. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t wrestle,” he said. “So this was the first camp in a long time I felt amazing. It bothers me how I go out and fight him in New York with all those injuries and then the best camp I have, I was a little tentative.”
After Woodley’s previous two bouts, he did his best to call for blockbuster matchups with everyone from Nick Diaz to Georges St. Pierre to Conor McGregor. This time around, however, he doesn’t have anything or anyone specific in mind — except maybe a vacation.
“This division’s all shook up. Our sport is shook up. The UFC is shook up. Guys are all over the place,” Woodley said. “I’m gonna go and enjoy time with my family. I’m shooting a movie next week. The week after that I’m taking my family to Puerto Rico. We haven’t been on vacation in a very long time. I’m pretty sure my manager will be in contact with Dana and the crew and we’ll see what’s next.”