Woodley and Thompson settle the welterweight score a second time this March 4, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.
One Sentence Summary
Phil: More low-pace gunslinger tension as the two guys who are both better and worse than you think run it back for the 170lb belt.
David: MMA’s most powerful drama queen tries to legitimize his status against MMA’s karatiest kid.
Odds: Tyron Woodley +125 Stephen Thompson -145
History / introduction to both fighters
Phil: I like Tyron Woodley. I find his slightly salty yet eminently reasonable takes on the MMA world to be pretty enjoyable. Unfortunately, the rest of the fandom doesn't, at the moment at least. However, a lot of that is down to how he waited for a while for his title shot, dusted a fan favourite, and then had the temerity to ask for money fights. He's never going to be a massive fan favourite (Editor’s note: you and your Oxford english), but I think there's a slight turning of the corner, maybe- people are starting to appreciate him a bit more, like they did with Rashad, for example. Maybe I'm overreaching, though.
David: Woodley is just the foreign coffee in MMA’s cream. Dana White calls him a “drama queen”, which is funny coming from a dude that indignantly calls anonymous sources “pussies and faggots” but why get caught in the details? Woodley’s interest in MMA’s extracurricular ecosphere has been distracting to most of MMA, even going so far as to bring up the dreaded R word. Whether I agree with him or not isn’t the point, but I do find it amusing that the MMA world treats the word “racism” like it’s got cooties. As if we can only talk about it in a Herrnstein and Murray dichotomy. Either it’s overt hatred, and bedsheet sombreros or it doesn’t exist at all. Stay woke, Ta Nehisi Woodley.
Phil: Wonderboy seemed like he was destined to take the belt the last time these two met. The way he slaughtered Hendricks was unique (at the time), and Rory MacDonald looked outclassed rather than mentally damaged. Thus, it feels like the draw with Woodley damaged Thompson more than it did the champ- people were able to accept the Brown loss as the struggles of a quality striker getting his sea legs in MMA, but this was a complete fighter, as good as he's likely to be, unable to get anything significant done against a one-handed wrestle-boxer.
David: Thompson’s career has more or less hit its arc. It’s been fun too. He was seen less as Machida type, and more of a Makdessi type with better physical gifts; eccentric more than elite. And then he roundhoused whatever assumptions we had about his efficiency, and he’s been taking names ever since.
What’s at stake?
David: Welterweight is in a weird spot. The challengers are all kind of taking their sweet time while others have either disappeared (Rory), or fallen too far (Condit). The UFC probably wants these two to just fight in perpetuity, which I’m okay with.
Phil: I'm not sure what happens to the winner after this fight. Maia has been re-booked, which seems to imply that Zuffa might be trying something wacky, like a GSP or Conor double-belt attempt. Who knows.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Woodley has made a career out of a pared-down game, albeit one with some pronounced, macro-level holes in it. He still gets put on the cage a lot. He still doesn't have much of a left hand. These are not clever, unique adaptions- they are flaws. If he didn't get put on the cage so much and if he had a decent jab and left hook, he would be a better fighter.
However, he's still a very good one. His best improvements have been in his footwork- he takes small, precise, shuffling steps to be able to land his cross at just the right angle, with minimal risk. He's also been able to land real, significant ground and pound from his takedowns. This was the most pleasing surprise from his fight against Thompson, as he was always something of an inert top control artist in the past. He beat the crap out of Thompson once he got top position, and scared him off throwing kicks for much of the rest of the fight.
David: Let’s talk about the cage stuff. I think it gets overplayed, to be honest. Yes, Woodley ends up with back against the cage, which allows opponents to pressure him, and doesn’t look good on the judges’ eyes. However, I don’t believe it’s due to some spatial awareness or anything. For one, Woodley is actually a solid defensive fighter. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. His counters are well timed, if a little too patient. But I remember going back to the second round against Thompson. As soon as Thompson would follow his straight line of attack, Woodley would pivot, threatening for a takedown, or grabbing the clinch to set it up. It’s hard to reset for different attacks with less room, and while I agree it’s not an example of him being ‘clever’ (as we saw against Rory), he seems comfortable all the same.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Woodley is the economy of his game; he understands what he is and isn’t. He’s not a creature of warfare, so he limits his offense to small punctuations that max out the threat of power and exclamation at each interval.
Phil: Thompson is, as we mentioned last time, something of a deceptive fighter. One of the main tricks he has is making his fights appear that he is some kind of ambidextrous fighter who can flow effortlessly from one stance to the other, fighting with equal efficacy from each. This is not quite true. I think he is largely right-side based- from southpaw, he tends to take his "horse" stance, where he throws his push kicks, side kicks and weird little crescent head kicks. From orthodox, he's a much more of a traditional MMA Muai Thai fighter, and largely throws the round kick to the head, body and legs. Both of these largely use the right leg.
The problem that we saw last time was that Wonderboy cannot lead much with his hands. He has excellent pull counters from either side, and can blitz if he's convinced that he's scared his opponent off throwing, but in terms of leading, he's largely confined to a weak southpaw jab (right side, remember!) which did not play well with Woodley's ability to throw destructive power down the center. This... was a problem.
David: To expand on that, Thompson is predictable as a result. From an orthodox stance, he’ll jab with his left. From southpaw, it’s always the straight left. The power of his technique masks the illusion of his ambidexterity. With his Cheater Legs, he can chamber strikes that manage distance well which can then lead to potent combinations upon pressure, but his approach is a little stale despite its effectiveness. It’s why, for all of Woodley’s limitations, Woodley nonetheless took him largely on the feet (to the extent anyone was “took).
Their first fight is also a good example of Rogan at his worst. He latches onto narratives too quickly (“Woodley is fighting a chessmaster at his own game!” he noted early in round 3 when the bout was basically dead even) before they ever fully develop. Back to Thompson, despite how much we’re talking his game down, he really is a great, unique pressure fighter. Granted, it happens in a vacuum. As in, his volume attacks rely on static setups over dynamic positioning, but because he generals range so well physically and tactically, he’s able to execute at multiple angles which keeps usual defensive positioning and resets hard to sustain.
Insight from past fights
David: Clinch offense. Something that paid dividends against Woodley when Nate Marquardt kept slicing Woodley to the body when Woodley fell into cage couch mode. He didn’t just sap Woodley’s strategy, but actively sapped his energy, scoring clinch elbows and heavy knees to setup a blistering lip erasing uppercut.
For Woodley, I think the template’s already there to beat Thompson. He can win the counter battle, as Thompson only ever attacks in a straight line with minimal head movement. But if he can chop Thompson with a heavier leg attack, it can force Thompson to counter back with a leg attack of his own that can potentially leave him vulnerable to takedowns.
Phil: Rory was able to punish Woodley for chilling on the cage because he has a powerful, developed jab, and could catch the returning right hand counter on his high frame elbow guard. Thompson needs something like that, or he'll forever be at risk of getting dusted. I think the best solution is his side kick series, which Woodley can't blitz through, but perhaps he fears getting parried or sidestepped- these are the best counters to any push kick, which often leads to a very powerful outside angle and often a KO.
David: Nobody told these men it’s 2017 as far as I know, so it looks like they haven’t been sucked into its distortion field.
Phil: Not much. I think Wonderboy has the deeper toolset to be able to pull adaptations from, but both of these guys are tough, athletic and professional.
Phil: In this fight, Woodley is the consistent fighter who changes his approach very slightly, tuning his athleticism to what he considers to be the best approach within his rather limited remit; Thompson has far more options. In general I prefer the first type of fighter, and I think I'd actually rather see Woodley win... but I just can't get over how silly it is to spend all your time on the cage. All Wonderboy needs to do is find that one abusable tool to punish that one tendency, and he's proved that he's tough enough that it'll be difficult to put him out. Tough pick, but Stephen Thompson by unanimous decision.
David: Phil, my brother. You underestimate how static both of these guys are. True, Thompson has a higher quantity of options to adjust effectively against Woodley, but I believe the fact that Woodley needs fewer adjustments in proportion to Thompson highlight how effective he is in general. One quality adjustment from Tyron (leg kicks, for example) projects to have a greater impact than several different adjustments from Thompson (more jabs, front kicks, etc) in my opinion. As such, I got Woodley in another awkward but fun tension filled bout. Tyron Woodley by Decision.