This has not been a stellar year for Ultimate Fighting Championship fans thus far, at least as far as big-name matchups go, but UFC 209 finally arrives to save the day. Headlining the bill is a rematch between enigmatic welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson, two men who fought to a thrilling draw at UFC 205 in November. What initially seemed like a simple contest of power versus finesse was revealed to be a deeply complex matchup of two potent thinkers, and fans should welcome the opportunity to see it all play out a second time.
Supporting the main event is the hotly anticipated bout between equally respected lightweight contenders Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. That this bout is technically for the interim lightweight title may frustrate some, but all it really means is that we get to see two of the best fighters on the planet duke it out for up to 25 minutes. That is a good thing. Up-and-comers Lando Vannata and Mirsad Bektic are among many other highlights on the card this Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC 209 “Woodley vs. Thompson 2” matchup, with analysis and picks:
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipTyron Woodley (16-3-1) vs. Stephen Thompson (13-1-1)
THE MATCHUP: The first fight between Woodley and Thompson was utterly fascinating. More “Drive” than “Fury Road,” Woodley’s first title defense was a slow burn that nonetheless kept fans on the edges of their seats. Thompson got to show off his durability and heart, and Woodley had the honor of forcing him to do so. As both men prepare to run it back, I turn my thoughts to the clash of styles and the adjustments both men may have made since.
Volume is perhaps the most essential dynamic of this fight. Fans and commentators are constantly assessing Woodley’s stamina, as if he has a habit of gassing out in every performance. The idea is not incorrect -- Woodley carries a lot of muscle and nearly everything he does he does with full power -- but the outcome consistently defies expectation. Woodley tends to throw more in the third round than in the first, for example, and his near-finish of Thompson in the fourth round of their last fight indicates he carries his power well into the championship rounds. In order to do this, however, Woodley has to keep his output in check. “The Chosen One” throws just over five significant strikes per minute, whereas “Wonderboy” attempts nearly twice as many.
Woodley has an uncanny ability, however, of lulling his opponents into his pace. Thompson attempted 259 significant strikes in his bout with Rory MacDonald, for example, despite the fact that the intensity of said bout rarely exceeded that of a low simmer. Meanwhile, his fight with Woodley saw Thompson attempt only 161 significant strikes. More importantly, Thompson was nowhere near as confident in stepping into range to land these strikes: He scored with 42 percent of his attempts against MacDonald, for a final tally of 110 strikes landed, whereas Woodley kept him to a mere 27 percent, as he connected on only 43 significant strikes over the course of five rounds.
Interestingly, it is Woodley’s careful marshalling of energy which allows him to create this kind of contest. He throws infrequently but lands consistently at a nearly 50 percent rate; and he carries so much power in every shot that his opponents are usually reluctant to engage. This can be frustrating to watch, but it also makes Woodley frustrating to fight. He seems vulnerable as he constantly backs into the fence and waits for his opponent to lead, but this tactic lulls them in close, where Woodley’s lightning speed and thunderous power can be used to full effect. Woodley also took a lot of pep out of Thompson’s step by hitting an early takedown, dissuading the Kempo fighter from throwing his usual array of spectacular kicks and thereby taking away his longest weapons. It left Thompson with the unhappy choice of either standing back and doing nothing or moving forward and putting his chin in the kill zone.
Woodley’s deliberately limited output is not the only factor which can make him a frustrating fighter to watch. The variety of his attacks is also limited and apparently without need. Woodley can throw a good jab, he can land a crushing leg kick and he can follow his right hand with hard left hook. The problem: For reasons perhaps unknown even to Woodley himself, he uses these weapons only sparingly, instead relying almost entirely on his heavy right hand. Thompson’s arsenal is not only deeper but more accessible to the man using it. Fans will recall how well “Wonderboy” adjusted his game after his first and only loss to Matt Brown in 2012. Shoring up his takedown defense while working on his stamina and composure, the defeat spurred him to build a seven-fight winning streak that came to an end in his battle with Woodley. One assumes that Thompson will have made similar adjustments in the aftermath of that fight. He can take on the role of the aggressive counterpuncher, pressuring Woodley while still forcing him to lead. He can throw more high kicks and wear on Woodley’s arms rather than feeding him an easily countered low kick in the first round.
Woodley’s style is one of gambits. He holds himself back in order to keep himself ready to finish the fight. His success in the first fight stemmed from an early takedown and a pair of late knockdowns -- two big moments. Thompson’s success, on the other hand, comprised many small moments. It is a rare event when a draw elicits very little disagreement from fans, but the fight was easy to score. Thompson clearly took Rounds 2, 3 and 4 without ever taking Woodley out of the fight; Woodley clearly won Rounds 1 and 4 while very nearly putting away Thompson. We could say that without the ability to trade punches and pour on volume as he normally would, Thompson needs to fight a perfect fight in order to win. However, we could also posit that Woodley needs to land a perfect punch to retain his title. In the end, both men are exceedingly good at creating the kind of fight they need, and that is why this bout should be every bit as fascinating as the first.
THE ODDS: Thompson (-168), Woodley (+143)
THE PICK: Woodley’s slow, patient style is the result of a rational calculation on the part of the champion. This does not mean it cannot be exploited. MacDonald famously outclassed Woodley by pressuring him carefully and methodically, all while peppering him with straight punches as he was backed into the fence. Thompson possesses the skills to do the same, provided Woodley does not once again succeed in damaging his confidence early on in the fight; and though Thompson may very well have to call upon his chin once again, he should be able to steal the rounds in which Woodley is patiently waiting for an opportunity that may never come. The pick is Thompson by unanimous decision.
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