Ultimate Fighting Championship brass is not often in the position of keeping promises, but it kept its word to Tyron Woodley, as the 170-pound contender has remained in the title picture despite a year and a half on the sidelines.
Woodley will challenge Robbie Lawler for the undisputed welterweight championship in the UFC 201 headliner on Saturday at Philips Arena in Atlanta. In the three-round co-main event, Rose Namajunas meets the unbeaten Karolina Kowalkiewicz in what amounts to a women’s strawweight title eliminator, with the winner likely moving on to face 115-pound champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
The rest of the five-fight main card features a welterweight scrap pairing Matt Brown with Jake Ellenberger, a bantamweight clash pitting Francisco Rivera against Erik Perez and a flyweight affair matching Ian McCall with Justin Scoggins.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC 201 “Lawler vs. Woodley” matchup, with analysis and picks:
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipRobbie Lawler (27-10) vs. Tyron Woodley (15-3)
THE MATCHUP: Lawler’s championship reign has been anything but easy. After a narrow loss to Johny Hendricks in his first UFC title shot, Lawler claimed the belt from Hendricks in their rematch -- in another close fight. His first defense was an all-time classic, a war with Rory MacDonald in which Lawler saved himself from a decision loss with a fifth-round knockout. Lawler’s most recent bout was yet another back-and-forth struggle that saw him once again surge in the fifth round to keep the belt out of Carlos Condit’s hands.
Everyone loves exciting fights, but the regularity with which Lawler has found himself on the brink of defeat is troubling. It hints at a decline, which, after 15 years of hard fights, would not be so surprising. Worse is the fact that Lawler has been badly hurt in many of those fights. Hendricks had him on skates in their first bout, as did Matt Brown later that year. MacDonald brought Lawler to the brink, forcing him to rely on his defensive prowess and veteran savvy to survive, and Condit put Lawler in the same difficult position more than once. Few fighters can claw their way back from the brink as well as Lawler, but eventually the abyss of defeat expands and the brink creeps up on the fighter quicker than he expects.
Most expect Woodley to be an easy fight for Lawler, a chance for the champion to right the ship before a showdown with Stephen Thompson or Georges St. Pierre. Woodley is exceptionally dangerous, however, and not a fighter to be overlooked. Likely the best athlete in the welterweight division, Woodley attacks with blinding speed and crushing power, relying mostly on his right hand and right kick to do damage. He is an astute counterpuncher and attacks the body when his opponent shells up to protect his head.
Woodley is a sound defensive fighter who excels at parrying and blocking the shots of his opponents before unleashing his trademark counter right. In recent fights, Woodley has begun to expand this defensive tool kit, adding head movement and level changes. The most important improvement was seen in Woodley’s last fight against Kelvin Gastelum. Though his footwork was not perfect, Woodley was far more committed to lateral movement, keeping his back off the cage against a pressuring opponent. The lack of doing so had troubled him in the past, most notably in his decision loss to MacDonald.
Lawler possesses all of these skills, of course. At his best, he is a masterful manipulator of rhythm, using his pawing right hand to line up powerful lefts and stinging his opponent with jabs to open up the defenses. Lawler is also a powerful kicker, though he has not used these weapons extensively in recent fights.
Woodley is likely the best wrestler Lawler has faced in the UFC, outside of Hendricks and Josh Koscheck. However, Lawler has had no difficulty in stuffing the takedowns of men like MacDonald and Hendricks. Woodley may use the clinch to stall “Ruthless,” and he will certainly do the same should he wind up on top of the champion, but the majority of this bout will play out on the feet.
THE ODDS: Lawler (-210), Woodley (+180)
THE PICK: Lawler and Woodley are tacticians. They benefit from strategic minds in the corner, but when the fight picks up, both men tend to go with the flow, reacting to the fight as it unfolds. Lately, this trait has proven problematic for Lawler. Despite possessing a beautiful jab and a dizzying array of combinations, Lawler all but shut down in his fight with Condit, essentially waiting for the one big shot that would end the fight. That could have been a reaction to Condit’s volume, and Lawler could come out looking renewed with a patient tactician like Woodley in front of him; or it could presage a sudden decline for the late-in-life welterweight champ. This is as much a gut pick as anything, but every fighter hits the point of no return sooner or later; and with a puncher like Woodley, who has consistently refined his game over the past few years, Lawler will not have the luxury of a comfortable adjustment period. The pick is Woodley by first-round knockout.
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