Although a lot of the attention surrounding this weekend’s UFC 205 event has been focused on the historic super-fight sitting atop the card, the co-main event – a welterweight showdown between champion Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson – may well prove to be the most interesting match-up of the night.
Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley shocked the world last July when he knocked out former champion Robbie Lawler in the first round of their UFC 201 title fight. Lawler, up until that point, had successfully defended his belt on two occasions, once against Rory MacDonald and the other against Carlos Condit, with each bout fully deserving of the ‘instant classic’ label that quickly became attached to them.
Lawler was beginning to stake his claim at being the most exciting fighter on the roster and in Tyron Woodley he had an opportunity to extend his run as champ against a foe who had not fought in professional competition in over 18 months. The fight itself began at a slow pace and barring a short flurry which resulted in a quick clinch, was relatively quiet until Woodley unloaded that signature right hand to take home the title.
Woodley up until that point seemed to be a mixed bag in the UFC. His wins were usually short and devastating but his losses showed us all that the Chosen One still had room to improve.
Thompson has been a joy to watch in action since his arrival into the world of MMA. A formerly dominant kickboxer (57-0), we’ve been able to watch him grow as a fighter and adapt his game to the demands of MMA.
His sole loss in the octagon, a back-and-forth contest with Matt Brown, signalled a turning point in the career of Thompson. After losing the decision he took a year out away from competition, one he used to improve his grappling skills. When he finally made his return in May of 2013, he went on a run; blitzing his way through the likes of Johny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald and Robert Whittaker, with his already-polished striking being more and more apparent as his confidence in the grappling exchanges grew.
After his latest win over the prospect Rory MacDonald he could be denied no further and will finally get his chance to seize UFC gold on the biggest stage possible; but only if he can avoid the very real threat posed by Woodley.
This is a very interesting contest over five rounds. The strengths and weaknesses of both men have been well-documented at this stage but with Woodley’s extended period on the sidelines, it’s hard to know exactly how much he grew in that time.
Woodley’s fight with Lawler didn’t show us that much. Indeed, his power was never in question but the cardio problems that came as a result of holding his frankly ridiculously muscular frame have deterred his ability to win fights in the past. His right hand is an unquestionable fight-ender and his wrestling remains a strong-point, albeit an underutilized one.
His bout with Kelvin Gastelum did show us a more patient power-puncher however, and seeing as that was his last fight before his time off and subsequent shot at Lawler it may not be too far-fetched to assume that Woodley has changed his approach.
We’ve seen him fade badly in fights before due to an overly-explosive start but that very same strategy has seen him rack up four first-round knockouts in his eight UFC fights with six of those being wins.
Wonderboy has all the potential to be a dominant champion in the welterweight division. His main strengths lie in his timing, his diversity of strikes and his ability to switch stances with no loss of technique. His weaknesses are ones he is working tirelessly to improve and lie in his relative inexperience in the realms of grappling.
We’ve seen improvements over the years with Wonderboy, however, and most recently – in his bout prior to his five-rounder with MacDonald – he succeeded in stopping the takedowns of celebrated wrestler Johny Hendricks. The psychological edge stopping a takedown like that would give to a fighter like Thompson cannot be understated.
His fluidity on the feet and the kicks he excels at delivering are all improved in the knowledge that he is competent enough to keep the fight standing. Woodley has the wrestling pedigree to cause him problems but with his skills in MMA as a whole improving by the week, do not be surprised to see this fight play out on the feet for the most part.
This is a five-round fight and if past bouts are anything to go by I will of course give Woodley his best chance at winning in the first round. Now, this is not set in stone and we aren’t fully aware of all of the improvements Woodley has made in his time off yet, but looking at this with history in mind I feel his chances lessen as the fight goes on.
If Thompson can use his rangey kicks and work the body of Woodley early, he can begin to sap the energy out of the vicious knockout artist. From there, I can see him controlling the tempo on the feet and either getting himself a conclusive decision win, or maybe even a late stoppage by way of knockout.
On the flipside, if Woodley comes out patient and can avoid the long-range kicks of Wonderboy, it’s not outside the realms of possibility to see him lay Thompson out with one big right hand. It might not be the most likely occurance due to his opponent’s movement and distance management but still remains a very realistic route to victory nonetheless, one his foe must be completely aware of at all times.
This is a great match-up and one that should thrill fans no matter what. Woodley has complained recently about the supposed lack of respect the fans have given him as their champion. I can guarantee you Tyron that if you can knock out Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson on the biggest stage in MMA history there will be no lack of respect for you as you move on to your next title defence.
But don’t ask for it until you do just that.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena