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UFC 235: Jones vs. Smith - Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman Toe-to-Toe Preview

Phil and David breakdown everything you need to know about Woodley vs. Usman for UFC 235 and everything you don’t about Ralek Gracie’s hit single.

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Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman co-headlines UFC 235 this March 2, 2019 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.

One sentence summary

David: The Great White Hype gets Wiped

Phil: A message of “This is what happens when you don’t play ball, Colby”

Stats

Record: Tyron Woodley 19-3-1 Draw | Kamaru Usman 14-1

Odds: Tyron Woodley -150 | Kamaru Usman +140

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: In a lot of ways, Woodley represents the pure artist. He has a strong point of view — regardless of whether you agree with him or not. He has taken the fights that were supposed to make look bad, but didn’t (Koscheck). He’s taken the fights that were supposed to make him look good, but didn’t (Shields). He’s taken on the contenders, the pretenders, and the throne-sitters — and now he sits on the throne. Through it all, he’s fought the fight that brought him here, even when it looks like it’ll make Dana’s head explode. Yes, he’s tried his hand at rap, and acting. But that doesn’t depurify him. If anything it expands the canopy Woodley has over the welterweight division: only politics can slow him down, and he’s not about to be jived toward failure. It helps that he’s answered the question “what have you done for me lately?” with a two piece and a biscuit.

Phil: Woodley has, as mentioned the last time we previewed one of his fights, been a pleasant surprise as UFC champion. While admittedly his bouts haven’t been barnburners, at least part of this has been how incredibly mad he makes Dana. It’s also that he keeps a nice steady pace of title defenses up. Never before has there been such a divergence between “this guy won’t fight!” UFC-produced drama and amount of actual fighting from the man in question. I’m not saying that Woodley wouldn’t accept a silly superfight if one came up (he famously campaigned for a shot against Bisping which he probably would have vacated as quickly as GSP did), but I respect the workmanlike hustle of just keeping welterweight ticking over. If he wants to make brain-meltingly awful rap in the meantime, more power to him. I don’t necessarily expect it to be a lucrative second career after he’s done fighting?

David: When it comes to TUF fighters, I admittedly have limited knowledge. TUF has produced some very good fighters, so I don’t wear that like a badge of honor the way I did for the TUF’s that immediately followed the first several. Usman was brought along slowly: even for a TUF winner. It wasn’t until he completely deaded Sergio Moraes that I began to take him seriously as a five tools threat. He’s not a fighter that moves the needle, but he clearly doesn’t care. He’s earned this fight, for better or worse.

Phil: Kamaru Usman has battled his way to the top of the welterweight division on the back of an unrelenting work ethic. He might not be the most exciting fighter to watch, or the best talker on the mic, but the one thing he has proven is that he’s willing to take the fights that people don’t. A short-notice fight against Maia in Argentina? He’s there. They need someone to cut the weight just in case Till doesn’t make it for the bout against Woodley? Usman will do it. There’s a not-unreasonable trend towards backing the people who buck the UFC, but Usman has made his way to the top by being exactly what they look for in a company man. While Covington fits better with their promotional demographics, Usman has been the one who has been willing to step in to save cards, and has been rewarded for his diligence, and you know what? Good for him. He’s 31 years old, and I can’t blame him for working towards an opportunity which certain fighters (Ferguson, Jacare) have been just utterly locked away from for one reason or another.

What’s at stake?

David: If you’re Dana White: everything.

Phil: Woodley has been talking about displacing GSP as welterweight’s greatest. I still think he’s a fair bit away from that goal, but Usman would be an undeniable quality scalp. From Usman’s perspective, it’s his chance to snipe Woodley and take his place, and then presumably immediately find himself being strong-armed and shit-talked by his employers in exactly the same way.

Where do they want it?

David: Woodley’s sequencing hasn’t changed. He’ll threaten with one of the most brutal straight right hands in the game. If you pressure him, he backs himself into a corner. Takedowns sometimes happen: just not against him. He’s wrestle-proof. The difference between Woodley-now versus Woodley-then is that Tyron has gotten better at tactics. The guy who came out aggressively against Darren Till is not the same as the guy who just violently meandered about until Nate Marquardt literally knocked his upper lip off. I don’t feel like Woodley’s game has magically changed as a result. What it does do is add another dimension to Woodley’s style. He’ll never be a born tactician, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of marrying a gameplan with his natural abilities.

Phil: Woodley’s game is not a secret. A variety of right hand counters which he draws opponents into by the fence. The other areas of his game have rounded out nicely in the last few years: he’s become a much more violent clinch striker, and an infinitely more violent and dangerous ground striker who controls the head and rains down elbows in a way which is reminiscent of prime Chris Weidman or Urijah Faber. He’s also shown an excellent grasp of when to shock his opponents: taking out the famously slow-starting Robbie Lawler immediately, or throwing Darren Till off his game with a sudden burst of offense. I’m still not in love with the general shape of his game: I just don’t think it’s a particularly optimal approach to measure distance using your back to the fence, and no matter how quick you are any striking approach which is just a big right hand can be pried open by a cautious, defensively minded striker. The question is, is that Kamaru Usman?

David: Usman is like a lot of TUF winners: we forget that many of them are evolving in front of our eyes, so we’re confused when they win in ways that belie their brief history in the sport. Usman seemed like a powerful wrestle-boxer of sorts in the beginning. Instead he’s developed into more of a synergy-wrestler: making sure that he has a strong right hand to enter into the clinch; or a chopping kick; or a probing jab; etc. Everything Usman does is with the intention of holding opponents down, and keeping them there. What separates Usman from other fighters who have the build and fortitude for this uncreative, but effective style — it’s that he’s as fresh from the opening takedown as he is when the egg timer’s up.

Phil: Kamaru Usman can be both a tough stylistic matchup for the champion and someone who might offer him one of his easier title defences. The main question is: can he make it out of the first two rounds? More than this, can he make it out of them while making the champion work? Unlike the kind of fighters who have troubled Woodley in the past in the striking, Usman is not a cautious fighter. Mostly it’s about probing a bit with the jab, then trying to ram the opponent back into the fence, while landing a big overhand every now and again. He works at his best when he’s allowed uninterrupted time to pressure, which means that he’s likely going to be wading forwards against the champion’s counters, and he remains something of a wooden striker. That being said, he is one of the few men (perhaps the only one) who can match or exceed Woodley for raw strength, and he can keep a terrifying pace. So if he can press and work on Woodley for two or three rounds without getting clipped on the way in (or backing carelessly out of a clinch exchange with his hands down), there’s a significant chance that he can exhaust the champion.

Insight from past fights

David: I think the only thing in Usman’s favor here — which I don’t favor at all, granted — is that his wrestling is a lot like Rory MacDonald’s striking: technical, functional, and unrelenting. If all he does is inch forward from every direction, I could see a parallel universe where Woodley just loses a fight backed up against the cage. It’s the kind of victory that would be the ultimate bit of karma: Woodley — never punished recently for backing up against the cage — loses getting backed up against the cage.

Phil: Usman’s only KO win in the UFC was not one which speaks well of his chances against Woodley. Against a crafty counterpuncher in Sergio Moraes, Usman didn’t take his time, or probe, or work from range. He just waded forward, and took Moraes’ loopy but accurate shots, and then put him down in return. Good marks for durability, perhaps less for technical acumen.

X-Factors

Phil: Two extraordinarily professional men. I guess you could possibly point to Woodley’s rap as an example of how he lacks people around him to tell him when he shouldn’t do things...? “Back that ass up, like a Mack truck... beep beep.” Maybe the fact that no-one tapped him on the shoulder and shook their head silently is indicative of a wider malaise in the Woodley camp. Probably not, though.

David: [In Samuel Jackson from Jurassic Park voice]It could have been worse Phil...a lot worse.

Prognostication

David: I think this is a fight that sounds odd, and nuanced but isn’t. Usman’s efficiency relies on work ethic, and core strength. Woodley is stronger, and faster. He also has the ability to counter Usman into oblivion, whose standup defense is masked by the fact that he’s always lunging forward to take the fight to the ground. Tyron Woodley by TKO, round 4.

Phil: I struggle to visualize this one. Everyone knows how dangerous Woodley is early, and that tends to dictate how they perform early: even Till was cautious. So I suspect we get an uncharacteristically tepid first couple of rounds from Usman. He might get hurt or stopped early, but even if he doesn’t I’m not sure if I trust him to go hard enough early to remove Woodley’s ability to win rounds late. Tyron Woodley by unanimous decision.