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UFC on ESPN: Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns Toe-to-Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about about Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns for UFC on ESPN 9.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns this May 30, 2020 at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

One sentence summary

David: Falling in and out of...

Phil: ...loooove [Editor’s Note: Phil actually left this blank, so don’t blame Phil for conjuring up your PTSD]

Stats

Record: Tyron Woodley 19-4-1 Draw | Gilbert Burns 18-3

Odds: Tyron Woodley -185 | Gilbert Burns +160

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: It feels like ages since we’ve had a chance to talk about Woodley. He’s a fun character. He polarizes a great many of us. Sometimes the argument revolves around the excitement (or lack thereof) he brings. Sometimes it’s about the talent (‘or lack thereof’ some might argue). Or sometimes it’s about his objectively awful music. Sidenote: I’d argue that Woodley’s song is worse than G in a GI. But...it is more creative than Bravo’s ‘Jiu Jitsu’. That’s not saying much — for anyone — but it’s just another example of how much Woodley provokes discussions of all shapes, and sizes. Which brings us to this weekend’s fight. At 38 years old, Woodley’s an old codger by MMA standards, but his last fight was a loss for the welterweight belt he’s been defending since 2016. How the rest of his career plays out is anyone’s guess, but between music (however ill-defined), and movies (he has his own IMDB page), maybe his concept of legacy is starting to flatten rather than expand. Or is it vice versa? Oh right: there’s a good reason MMA was the first sport back in action during COVID-19. Definitely vice versa then.

Phil: Recent events have shown that it’s easy to become the good guy if you’re arrayed against the UFC’s uglier corporate instincts. Jon Jones is not the world’s most sympathetic figure, yet pretty much everyone has been able to agree that yes, he should be getting more money to fight Francis Ngannou. Woodley is a nicer person and a better man, yet his absolutely terrible promotional instincts have kept him from people lining up to defend him. With that being said, he’s still a top 5-ish welterweight of all time on resume alone, and it’s good to see him getting back into the cage against a dangerous, interesting challenge.

David: Plenty of super duper jiu jitsu aces have come and gone. Some went quickly. Like Marcelo Garcia. Roger Gracie. Or Marcio Cruz (dusted by a punch from Andrei Arlovski off his back, no less). Some stayed around and did some damage, like Fabricio Werdum, Jacare, and Demian Maia. Some look genetically engineered to do damage in the future, like Garry Tonon. And so that’s the question for Burns. He doesn’t look like the guys who never seem invested in the first place. On the contrary. He looks like the real deal. I think precisely because he’s stumbled a bit, and found solutions in response, that’s where the promise comes from. But just how high is the question. There are still plenty of questions surrounding his talent.

Phil: Burns has chosen to make his way under the coaching of Henri Hooft at Imperial Athletics / The Blackzilians / Hard Knocks 365 / Team Evil / whatever the current incarnation is. As such, he’s someone who generated a reputation for quick, explosive violence, and for folding under tough return fire, like virtually everyone else at that mutable camp. Whether that’s been solved is, as you alluded to, sort of up for debate. At welterweight he seems a happier, more durable and more dangerous bully, but the memory of him getting cowed by Michel Prazeres hasn’t entirely gone away.

What’s at stake?

David: Not a lot? I don’t know how often ‘distractions’ can tangibly influence outcomes, but I suspect the effect is minimal. After all, if distractions can impede your talents, what does that say about your talents? I don’t think Woodley is distracted so much as doing MMA part time. He’s got a show called Morning Wood with Deez Nuts, and he wants to open up a non-profit for troubled youth. I kind of love the contradiction that is Tyron Woodley. In the octagon, nobody cares, and I honestly wonder if the UFC is kind of looking at this fight the same way. It’s a good fight. But I’m not sure the outcome for the winner is as special as it should be.

Phil: This is a sorting fight. Neither man is exactly title shot material at the moment, particularly as Woodley got absolutely dummied by Usman, but they’re also highly ranked competitors with nowhere else to go but fighting each other. This is #1 vs #6 in the official rankings, but I think the most either man can hope for is a fight with Leon Edwards, or potentially Wonderboy for Burns.

Where do they want it?

David: In competitive Magic: The Gathering, you have various types of decks. Some decks rely on a specific interaction of cards to secure victory (combo). Some decks rely on the right curve of spells to secure early momentum (aggro). Some decks rely on the right anticipation to the other two to secure late-game control (control, obviously). Sidenote: don’t @ me weirdo, midrange players (except for Reid Duke; nobody’s as gangster with Jund as he is). Some decks don’t fit smoothly into the following archetypes not because they’re not designed well, but because the deck designer is a 14-year old kid who wants to see what happens when a lightning bolt deck tries to win with Merfolk. If none of this makes sense, it’s because Woodley’s game doesn’t make sense either. His tactics work against his strategy, and vice versa. He’s a competitive player with kitchen table instincts. He’s more interested in letting the fight happen rather than taking control. This sometimes works to his advantage. I don’t describe Woodley this way to condescend to him. On the contrary. I think Woodley is a smart fighter. But smart fighters aren’t necessarily efficient ones. And Woodley’s success has masked his inefficiencies in some strange ways. A lot of what I said about Overeem the other day applies to Woodley. Both men have evolved in the way they attack, or don’t attack. And that evolution has led to a specific comfort inside the cage. Woodley’s still dangerous. That danger provides a security. In that security, Woodley spends each second inside the cage thinking he can always win later. He gets away with it because he’s still talented. He can counter. He can wrestle. He can do a lot of things. But those are the two most important things, and if he’s not doing one or the other, he can always do one or the other later. That’s the Woodley paradox.

Phil: Woodley has a game which is pared down to the point of being reductive. The basic approach of counter double leg or counter right hand is still there, but it’s really in the peripheries of that approach that we’ve seen the improvements over the years. Woodley was largely a wrestler first and last in the clinch in his Strikeforce run, but he’s brought in knees and elbows (see: the Till fight). His largely empty top control is now really quite dangerous, with a nasty half-guard elbow ground and pound and choke game. He still remains someone who is terribly vulnerable to fighters with an educated lead hand and pressure, or to top-level clinch threats who can just walk him into the fence, but against other style matchups he remains dangerous to attack carelessly against and almost impossible to outwrestle.

David: I’m still not sure on Burns. Usually, improvements are either mechanical, or tactical. The prospect figures how to torque their punches, add kicks, or realizes the best angle of attack, and whether it speaks to their strengths, etc. With Burns, I see a little of both, but not enough. Once upon a time he’d jailbreak a scramble with a big right hand, and whatever his wrestling and clinchwork could manage. Now he’s adding heavy kicks to an arsenal that already boasts some of the best scramble grappling in the business. The odd thing to me is that it hasn’t changed his general strategy. He’s still this crazy, Sega action hero of 0’s and 1’s, switching between violent forward momentum and static, heavy-footed waiting. In that way, his flowchart looks like Ninja Gaiden: run, slash, run, jump, etc. It’s all the right beats minus the surprisingly creepy cut scenes. It’s fun, but I don’t know that it’ll fly for opponents that are more nuanced, and better positionally; opponents who can easily anticipate Burns’ method of In-N-Out offense. Which is a fitting analogy; whether you think of In-N-Out as a gourmet burger served like fast food, or a fast food burger served like a gourmet burger, the result is still the same — not the best of the best.

Phil: Burns started out as an aggressive, somewhat formless power grappler who just winged shots into the clinch and dragged his opponents down to the mat. Time spent at Team Evil has been heavily beneficial, as he’s become a confident, powerful Dutch-style kickboxer. Left hook, right hand, low kicks. With that being said, he’s not much of a long puncher, which may complicate his path to victory in this fight- everything he throws is typically from a step-in, and he does like to come fearlessly in behind big combinations. The ability to probe effectively behind the jab to defuse Woodley’s range will be key in this one. Burns increased durability up at 170 shouldn’t be relied on to save him from one of the most purely nuclear hitters to ever grace this weight class.

Insight from past fights

Phil: Hard to find an analogue for either of these men. Burns has been physically neutralized in the past by Prazeres etc, but Trator is typically a more aggressive pace-pusher than Woodley. Similarly, though, Woodley has also had problems with basic functional orthodox strikers who were able to push through into the clinch, like Shields and Marquardt. It is notable that most of his big KOs and knockdowns have come from leaping through the open stance void against southpaws.

David: This still feels like a major step up for Burns. On a technical level, his win over Maia was underwhelming. He lost the grappling exchanges, for one. Which would normally be irrelevant given Maia’s pedigree, but Burns has pedigree himself. Plus the shot that killed Maia was all Maia’s lack of boxing skills. He lunged in for a limp jab, and got dusted. It’s great that Burns capitalized, and showed some counter chops, but most fighters aren’t leaning into low reward shots in high risk positioning. Especially someone like Woodley, who doesn’t attack, period. I’d also point out the difference with Shields and Marquardt. Both guys worked well against Woodley because, for all of their faults, they’re more rhythmic than thunderous. I think rhythm is what confuses Woodley. A guy like Burns, who just takes chances bludgeoning his way into punch entries should have more trouble.

X-Factors

David: I don’t know. The x-factors are kind of obvious. Nothing to see here, folks.

Phil: Woodley is, as you’ve mentioned, kind of old at this point and is coming off an absolute thrashing. I would not be surprised to see him looking flat.

Prognostication

Phil: It’s a hard one to call. I picked Burns on Heavy Hands I think because he is the more functional fighter, who can broadly replicate the Marquardt and Shields gameplans with a bit tighter offense, but the more I think about it the more I’m worried about his ability to close distance safely. Hmm. Gilbert Burns by unanimous decision.

David: There’s still so much to question on Burns’ side. I realize he’s the New Hotness, and I love these guys as much as the next. But he wasn’t a spectacular lightweight, and his welterweight matchups have been accidentally perfect in the way they haven’t challenged his weaknesses. Woodley may not be the guy to expose weaknesses, but he’s a physically strong fighter who Burns will have to jailbreak with his offense on the feet. The improvement is good. But he’s only 5 years younger than Woodley. I don’t think Burns is dramatically improving so much as becoming more comfortable inside a division that still hasn’t forced him to dig deep, physically, or psychologically. Tyron Woodley by KO, round 3.