UFC Welterweight ChampionshipTyron Woodley (16-3) vs. Stephen Thompson (13-1)
THE MATCHUP: The second of three title fights on this card promises an interesting clash of styles for the storied UFC welterweight belt.
Nominally a wrestler, Woodley has made knockout punching his stock and trade since entering the UFC, having scored a KO in all but one of his bouts with the promotion. Woodley is not only ferociously powerful but blindingly fast and quite possibly the best explosive athlete in the entire welterweight division. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, that athletic ability seems to have hampered Woodley as much as it has helped him. Despite diligently working on his striking for six and a half years now, the champion’s arsenal remains limited. It is a rare occasion when Woodley more than flicks his jab, and his left hook appears only when Saturn and Jupiter align. His striking is improving -- his footwork is markedly better than it was two years ago, and Woodley has never received enough credit for his defensive craft -- but the changes are happening slowly. This is likely because Woodley is athletic enough to “cheat.” Like the great Roy Jones Jr., “The Chosen One” can get away with a limited game in the gym and against most opponents, but not all of them.
Thompson is a devilishly hard man to fight on the feet. Since an unfortunate run-in with Matt Brown in his second UFC fight, “Wonderboy” has been on an absolute tear. A seven-fight streak winning includes such vaunted names as Robert Whittaker, Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. Thompson did not just beat these elite fighters; he outclassed them. MacDonald was utterly stymied by Thompson’s distance control and counterpunching. Both Hendricks and Whittaker felt compelled to rush in and consequently fell prey to that same skill set. Thompson is not a spectacular puncher like Woodley, but his timing is such that he has knocked out five of his nine UFC opponents and badly stunned or knocked down most of the rest.
One has to assume that Woodley will at least attempt to take down Thompson. A two-time NCAA All-American and onetime Big XII Conference champion at the University of Missouri, Woodley would be remiss not to attack the lifelong karateka’s legs. Statistically, however, Woodley is slightly less effective than MacDonald as a takedown artist, and MacDonald failed to get Thompson down even once. Likewise for Hendricks, who was knocked out after failing to complete two takedown attempts.
Thompson is a much better wrestler than he was when he fought Brown and a better MMA striker, as well. The best way to stop a takedown is to nip it in the bud, preventing the opponent from ever setting up in the first place. To that end, Thompson keeps a very long distance between himself and his opponent. He blades his body and uses his lightning quick-side kick -- a difficult kick to catch, mind you -- to deny his opponents wrestling range. Not only that, but he moves his feet very well, navigating the cage such that his opponent has to rush in wildly to corner him. That kind of rush works to Thompson’s favor: He usually has a nasty counterpunch locked and loaded.
THE ODDS: Thompson (-195), Woodley (+166)
THE PICK: Distance will be a key in this matchup, and in this division, Thompson is the master of distance. He not only moves away but actively prevents his opponent from closing the gap. The result is a huge gulf between the two fighters, one which even Woodley’s speed is not well-suited to cross and one which favors Thompson’s brand of ropey Kempo karate. No champion since Georges St. Pierre has confidently and calmly held the welterweight title, and I expect that trend to continue at UFC 205. The pick is Thompson by fourth-round TKO.
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