The Complete Guide to UFC 209: Woodley vs. Thompson 2

Patrick WymanMMA Senior AnalystMarch 1, 2017

The Complete Guide to UFC 209: Woodley vs. Thompson 2

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    Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson meet for a second time.
    Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson meet for a second time.Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    The UFC has put together a stacked card for its UFC 209 event this Saturday, March 4, in Las Vegas. In the main event, welterweight champion Tyron Woodley takes on Stephen Thompson in a rematch of their November 2016 draw at UFC 205, which was one of the most competitive and compelling fights of the year.

    The rest of the event is full of both meaningful and entertaining matchups. The co-main event is one of the very best fights the UFC can put together right now, an interim title fight featuring surging lightweights Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. The two fighters have combined to go 20-1 in 21 total UFC bouts and might just be the two best fighters in the division ruled by Conor McGregor.

    The lightweight scrap between Lando Vannata and David Teymur features a pair of entertaining, up-and-coming strikers in a great action fight, while a heavyweight banger pitting Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem against each other in a rematch nine years in the making opens the main card. Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans makes his middleweight debut against Dan Kelly.

    Promising prospects litter the preliminary card. Blue-chip featherweight youngster Mirsad Bektic gets a big step up in competition against Darren Elkins, while bantamweight Luke Sanders gets a huge matchup with Iuri Alcantara. The light heavyweight fight between Tyson Pedro and Paul Craig, the Fight Pass headliner, will crown the most worthy young up-and-comer in that talent-starved division.

    Let's take a look at each individual matchup.

The Fight Pass Prelims

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    Paul Craig impressed in his UFC debut.
    Paul Craig impressed in his UFC debut.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Bantamweights

    Albert Morales (6-1-1; 0-1-1 UFC) vs. Andre Soukhamthath (11-3; 0-0 UFC)

    A barnburner of a bantamweight fight opens the show on Fight Pass as Morales takes on the debuting Soukhamthath. Morales drew with Alejandro Perez in his debut, then fell by knockout to Thomas Almeida in his return engagement. Soukhamthath has beaten solid competition on the regional scene, spending most of his five-year pro career in the CES MMA promotion.

    Soukhamthath is a rangy striker with a long jab and a consistent kicking game, but he's also a strong defensive wrestler and a competent grappler. Morales is an aggressive and athletic puncher with huge power in his hands and a surprising amount of craft for such a young and inexperienced fighter. His counters in particular are crisp and dangerous, and he wrestles and grapples with some skill.

    Prediction: This will probably play out as a striking matchup. Soukhamthath is a better kicker, but the edge in speed and especially power goes to Morales. Morales finds a knockout shot in the second round.

     

    Strawweights

    Amanda Cooper (2-2; 1-1 UFC) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (3-0; 0-0 UFC)

    The Ultimate Fighter 23 finalist Cooper takes on the debuting Calvillo, who enters the UFC on just a couple of weeks' notice. Cooper fell short against Tatiana Suarez at the Finale last July but rebounded with an impressive win over Anna Elmose in November. Calvillo has an extensive amateur record but has been a pro for only six months.

    Cooper is a technical striker with nice footwork and quick, accurate hands. She can wrestle a bit to boot and has an aggressive submission game on the mat. Calvillo is a legitimate talent, with a crisp jab, powerful takedowns and a knack for scrambling on the mat.

    Prediction: This should be a fun scrap between two young and talented fighters. Cooper has a slight edge on the feet, and Calvillo as a wrestler. It's that last piece that should be the difference as Calvillo wins a back-and-forth decision.

     

    Light Heavyweights

    Paul Craig (9-0; 1-0 UFC) vs. Tyson Pedro (5-0; 1-0 UFC)

    Talented, up-and-coming light heavyweights headline the Fox Sports 1 portion of the show as Scotland's Craig draws Australia's Pedro in an outstanding matchup. Craig debuted with a submission win over Henrique da Silva, while Pedro submitted Khalil Rountree. The winner will have an inside track on quickly moving up the divisional ladder.

    Craig is big for the division at 6'4" and puts his height to good use with long kicks at range and great leverage in the clinch, which makes him a punishing dirty boxer. Wrestling isn't his strongest suit, but he's competent, and on the mat he's an aggressive submission hunter.

    The 25-year-old Pedro is big as well at 6'3" and has excellent athletic gifts. He moves well on the feet and throws sharp punches and kicks, but he does his best work with powerful takedowns and slick transitions on the ground.

    Prediction: Craig is a little more polished on the mat, but Pedro's edge in physicality is substantial. Pedro finds the knockout in the first round.

The Fox Sports 1 Prelims

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    Blue-chip prospect Mirsad Bektic is a fighter to watch on the Fox Sports 1 prelims.
    Blue-chip prospect Mirsad Bektic is a fighter to watch on the Fox Sports 1 prelims.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Heavyweights

    Mark Godbeer (11-3; 0-1 UFC) vs. Daniel Spitz (5-0; 0-0 UFC)

    Britain's Godbeer draws the American Spitz in a decent heavyweight fight. Godbeer debuted with a submission loss to Justin Ledet, while Spitz has beaten decent competition on the regional scene.

    Godbeer is a potent striker who throws nice punch-kick combinations, but the rest of his game is lacking. Spitz is quick and light on his feet, stringing together heavy punching combinations and throwing sharp kicks. He's also a competent wrestler and grappler.

    Prediction: Spitz has more tools at his disposal. He submits Godbeer in the second round. 

     

    Bantamweights

    Iuri Alcantara (33-7, 1 NC; 8-4, 1 NC UFC) vs. Luke Sanders (11-0; 1-0 UFC)

    The veteran Alcantara takes on up-and-coming prospect Sanders in a strong bantamweight matchup. Alcantara has split his last four fights, defeating Brad Pickett by submission last October. Sanders has fought just once in the UFC, but it was an impressive victory as he finished Maximo Blanco in January 2016. This is a big step up in competition for Sanders, but at 31, he's ready for a serious challenge.

    Sanders is a jack of all trades in the cage who ties his skill sets together with great skill in transitions. He moves from strikes to takedowns, lands shots on clinch breaks and scrambles well. His athleticism and power make him a dangerous finisher.

    Alcantara can do everything well and has outstanding killer instinct in every phase. The southpaw is a sharp, precise striker who likes to work at long range, works a nice arsenal of trips and throws in the clinch and has a nose for finding the submission on the mat.

    Prediction: Alcantara is a tough out and can finish the fight at any time, but Sanders has the look of a legitimate talent. If he's grown during his year away, his pace and well-rounded game should get it done. Sanders wins a decision.

     

    Featherweights

    Mirsad Bektic (11-0; 4-0 UFC) vs. Darren Elkins (21-5; 11-4 UFC)

    Blue-chip prospect Bektic gets a big step up in competition against Indiana's Elkins in a fine featherweight scrap. Bektic has been slowed by injuries, but he's been nothing short of impressive in the cage, finishing Russell Doane and Lucas Martins in his last two outings. Elkins has won three in a row since a loss to Hacran Dias and most recently took a decision over Godofredo Pepey last July.

    Bektic is a marvel of speed, athleticism, explosiveness and power. He's sharp on the feet, working behind a quick jab and unleashing potent combinations in the pocket, but his best work comes in the form of authoritative takedowns and brutal top control. His ground strikes are devastating enough to finish opponents even from inside the guard.

    Elkins is a grinder, plain and simple. He's a willing enough striker and can work at pace on the feet, pummeling his opponent with a steady dose of punches and kicks, but he's happiest shoving his opponent against the fence in the clinch and working takedowns and control. His gas tank is limitless, and he's durable enough to weather the early storm.

    Prediction: This is a great test for Bektic. If he unloads early trying to finish Elkins, he'll be a sitting duck later in the fight. If he loses focus in a scramble, Elkins will capitalize. Still, this is a test that Bektic should pass. He punishes Elkins on the feet, gets takedowns and works Elkins over from top position to win a one-sided decision.

     

    Heavyweights

    Luis Henrique (10-2, 1 NC; 2-1 UFC) vs. Marcin Tybura (14-2; 1-1 UFC)

    Talented young heavyweights close the FS1 portion of the show as Brazil's Henrique takes on Poland's Tybura in a fun matchup. Henrique has won two in a row since falling to Francis Ngannou in his debut, while Tybura lost his first fight to Tim Johnson and rebounded by knocking out Viktor Pesta.

    The 23-year-old Henrique is a promising young fighter. He's quick and light on his feet for a big man, packing real power in his explosive, forward-moving punching combinations. Those strikes distract from his level changes and clinch entries, and when he gets the takedown, he can do serious work from the top with strikes and submissions.

    Tybura is a well-rounded and experienced fighter. He's sharp on the feet, with an especially nice kicking game, but he does his best work on the mat with strong control and quick transitions to dominant positions. He's a competent if not outstanding wrestler to boot.

    Prediction: This is an interesting matchup that largely depends on who's able to work takedowns. Tybura has a technical advantage on the feet and is a more dangerous grappler, though Henrique is faster, harder hitting and perhaps a slightly better wrestler. Without much confidence, the pick is Tybura by decision.

Mark Hunt vs. Alistair Overeem

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    Hunt tries to get back on track against Overeem.
    Hunt tries to get back on track against Overeem.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Heavyweights

    Mark Hunt (12-10-1, 1 NC; 7-4-1, 1 NC UFC) vs. Alistair Overeem (41-15, 1 NC; 6-4 UFC)

    Veteran heavyweights open the main card as Hunt and Overeem meet for the second time. Their first fight in 2008 ended with Overeem submitting Hunt in the midst of his long and successful run through Strikeforce and the Japanese promotions.

    Overeem had a four-fight winning streak snapped in his attempt to snag Stipe Miocic's heavyweight title in September. Hunt had won two in a row, knocking out Bigfoot Silva and Frank Mir but fell short against Brock Lesnar last July. 

    Both fighters need a win here to stay relevant in a heavyweight division that suddenly features some up-and-coming youngsters after years of stagnation.

    Hunt is a skilled striker with enormous power in both hands. Over his long career in combat sports, he has settled into a smooth, technical approach that builds on his many, many years of experience.

    The 42-year-old has lost a step, but he's still shockingly fast when he commits to a power strike, particularly his counter left hook. Hunt accentuates his raw speed by tapping away with his jab and half-power strikes to set a rhythm, which he can then break at any time with a full-speed shot. It's a tricky, veteran game that speaks to the depth of Hunt's skills on the feet. The occasional vicious low kick adds some variety.

    Stout defensive wrestling keeps Hunt standing against all but the very best takedown artists in the division. His 5'10" frame is an advantage in this regard, because it's difficult for opponents to get underneath his hips for proper leverage. When the mood strikes, which it rarely does, Hunt can find a takedown of his own.

    While he offers little from his back and can be controlled for long periods, Hunt throws monstrous ground strikes and passes well from the top. He has turned into a perfectly competent grappler through his years in the sport.

    Overeem has reinvented himself several times over the course of his 18-year professional MMA career, going from an athletic light heavyweight grappler to a monstrous heavyweight puncher to a slick, stick-and-move outside striker in his latest incarnation. Devastating knockout losses have brought each of these approaches to an end, and it remains to be seen how or whether Overeem will rebound from his latest setback.

    Now 36 years old, Overeem is still quick and light on his feet, with an incredible well of technical knowledge in every phase compiled from his decades in the sport. His recent emphasis on sticking and moving takes advantage of his still-notable athletic gifts, his understanding of distance and his excellent strike selection. It also has the benefit of leaving him less vulnerable to taking the kind of shots his chin can no longer handle.

    With this in mind, Overeem circles through the space of the cage, switching between orthodox and southpaw and setting his preferred distance with jabs and a steady diet of front, round and side kicks. When the time is right, he leaps into range with a potent punch or two before getting safely out of range on a different angle.

    Overeem has long been one of the most effective clinch fighters in MMA, and that hasn't changed. He has a slick arsenal of trips and throws and owns some of the most vicious knees in the sport. Strong takedown defense keeps him standing.

    Grappling is one of the underrated strengths of Overeem's game. He's brutal from top position: He throws potent strikes whenever he postures up, his passes are crisp and technical and his control is stifling. 

    Cardio has long been a problem for Overeem. This is less about his gas tank and more about his tendency to panic if the fight isn't going his way, something his suspect chin only reinforces.

     

    Betting Odds

    Overeem -145 (bet $145 to win $100), Hunt +125 (bet $100 to win $125)

     

    Prediction

    This is a close fight. If Overeem stays committed to sticking and moving, he can pepper Hunt with kicks and use his substantial height and reach advantage to avoid the shorter man's shots. The wrestling and grappling advantages likewise go to Overeem by a substantial margin.

    Even if he sticks perfectly to this game plan, though, there's still a great deal of danger. Hunt is a sharp counterpuncher, and it's surprisingly difficult to keep him outside, while any single shot from Hunt is enough to crack Overeem's chin. Hunt finds the knockout shot in the third round.

Lando Vannata vs. David Teymur

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    Lando Vannata is one of the most exciting young fighters in the UFC.
    Lando Vannata is one of the most exciting young fighters in the UFC.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Lightweights

    Lando Vannata (9-1; 1-1 UFC) vs. David Teymur (5-1; 2-0 UFC)

    Talented young lightweights clash in one of the card's favorites for fight-of-the-night honors. Vannata made a big splash in his debut, giving top contender Tony Ferguson all he could handle in a two-round war. He got back on track after that loss by knocking out John Makdessi with a wild spinning kick. Teymur, a veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 22, has knocked out both of his UFC opponents in impressive fashion.

    Sweden's Teymur is a 27-year-old striker with a deep background in high-level kickboxing. The southpaw isn't tall for the division, standing just 5'9", but he fights long and prefers to keep the fight at distance. A consistent jab and a steady diet of vicious left kicks keep his opponent at bay, and his straight left is a thing of beauty. This is a technical and dangerous approach that both piles up volume and generates knockouts.

    Excellent takedown defense keeps Teymur standing, using a quick sprawl in open space and keeping his hips low against chained attempts with his back to the fence. The clinch is a strong secondary area for Teymur, and despite his lack of size, he uses excellent technique to frame and find collar ties to land sharp knees and elbows.

    Vannata is a creative and somewhat unorthodox striker. He likes to move in the cage, circling and pivoting to create angles and then darting into range with heavy punching combinations before angling out and getting back to open space. 

    At long distance, he chews up his opponent with a steady diet of front, side and round kicks at all three levels which do damage and maintain Vannata's preferred long range. Spinning kicks to the body and head carry fight-ending pop, and he's skilled enough with them that they're never telegraphed.

    Vannata carries serious power in his hands and works at an outstanding pace, routinely throwing 15 or 20 strikes in a minute. His process is good enough to win rounds, but he can also finish at any time.

    Wrestling is a strong secondary skill set for Vannata, and he excels at using his level changes to set up his strikes and vice versa. His takedown defense is at least competent, though we haven't seen much of it against elite competition. On the mat, Vannata throws bombs from top position while looking to pass, and when he gets the opportunity, he can finish with a topside submission or with a choke from the back.

     

    Betting Odds

    Vannata -250, Teymur +210

     

    Prediction

    This is a fantastic matchup of two skilled but very different strikers: Teymur is much more of a standard kickboxer, while Vannata's approach combines creative strike selection with a great deal of movement. 

    That's a compelling combination. Teymur will likely try to stick Vannata at range and trade kicks, while Vannata would probably like to dart in and out with combinations. The difference in that kind of game should be Vannata's takedowns, which he can set up with his strikes. The pick is Vannata by decision in a back-and-forth fight.

Rashad Evans vs. Dan Kelly

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    Rashad Evans tries to get back on track against Dan Kelly.
    Rashad Evans tries to get back on track against Dan Kelly.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Middleweights

    Rashad Evans (19-5-1; 16-5-1 UFC) vs. Dan Kelly (12-1; 5-1 UFC)

    Former light heavyweight champion Evans finally appears at 185 pounds following his withdrawal from a scheduled bout with Tim Kennedy at UFC 205. Evans draws Australian Olympic judoka Kelly, who is riding an unlikely three-fight winning streak that culminated in a decision over Chris Camozzi.

    Evans has lost two in a row since a two-year layoff due to injury, falling to Ryan Bader by decision and by knockout to Glover Teixeira.

    It seems clear that injuries and age have taken their toll on Evans, but he's still a skilled, well-rounded and effective fighter. The former champion is fast and light on his feet, circling through the cage as he fires off a sharp jab to set his distance and rhythm. A hard right hand usually follows, and he has a quick trigger on counter combinations when his opponent steps in. The occasional kick adds some variety.

    There are a couple of problems with Evans' approach on the feet, though. He doesn't like being pressured, and his footwork tends to fall apart in the face of an aggressive opponent, which leaves him vulnerable as he backs up to the fence. Volume isn't his strong suit, and he can be outworked on the feet. 

    Wrestling is the real strength of Evans' game. He does a beautiful job of using his punches to distract from his level changes, which lead to explosive and technically finished doubles and chains. Strong defensive wrestling generally keeps him standing.

    From top position, Evans is a stifling and technical control artist. He's not a submission threat, and in fact has never attempted one in 22 UFC bouts, but he's stifling and packs real power in his ground strikes when he postures up.

    The 39-year-old Kelly, a southpaw, is effective on the feet and still surprisingly athletic. While he tends to plod and isn't quick on his feet or a master of footwork, he turns his hip over into his shots and gets real power behind them. His timing and rhythm are excellent, which makes him a dangerous counterpuncher. Defense isn't his strong suit, though, and he doesn't push a great pace.

    The clinch is Kelly's wheelhouse, which is to be expected given his deep judo background. He's strong when he gets his hands on his opponent and combines sharp knees with slick trips and throws. On top, he has real power in his ground strikes, passes nicely and can hit the occasional submission.

     

    Betting Odds

    Evans -220, Kelly +180 

     

    Prediction

    This is Evans' fight to lose. He's struggled with southpaws before, but at 185 pounds, his quickness, size and wrestling ability should be the difference. The former champion works takedowns and top control and does enough on the feet to take a clean decision.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson

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    Nurmagomedov and Ferguson meet for the interim lightweight title.
    Nurmagomedov and Ferguson meet for the interim lightweight title.Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    BREAKING: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson was canceled when Nurmagomedov was unable to make it to weigh-ins due to weight related issues. He spent time in the hospital for a period of time before being released. At the time of this post, Tony Ferguson is without a replacement opponent. 

     

    Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0; 8-0 UFC) vs. Tony Ferguson (22-3; 12-1 UFC)

    With champion Conor McGregor out for the foreseeable future, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson clash with the interim lightweight title in a long-awaited clash.

    The two men were first scheduled to meet in December 2015, but an injury to Nurmagomedov forced his replacement with Edson Barboza. They were on track to meet again in April 2016, but that time it was Ferguson who got hurt. Now rebooked for a third time, the stakes are higher than ever before.

    This is one of the best fights that can be made in the entire UFC. Nurmagomedov is undefeated and has blown through his competition, most recently finishing Michael Johnson in impressive fashion. Ferguson has now won nine in a row, including a decision over former champion Rafael dos Anjos in November.

    Whether McGregor ever returns to the lightweight division again, the winner of this fight will be a worthy champion.

    Ferguson is a lethal finisher with well-rounded skills and some of the best killer instinct in the sport. He tends to prefer aggressive pressure that in its most extreme manifestations tends toward pure insanity, but he's diverse enough to stick and move or hang back and counter as the matchup dictates.

    Whatever he decides to do, Ferguson is a whirling dervish of violence. He cuts off his opponent's lateral movement with hard round kicks and pushes him back with stabbing front kicks to the body and mixes in a sharp jab, and then commits to brutal punching combinations in the pocket. Slashing elbows add another dimension of danger.

    At his best, Ferguson uses his 5'11" frame and 76" reach to stick his opponents outside, but too often his aggression gets the better of him and he lets his opponents inside his long arms. Ferguson is still dangerous inside and is perfectly willing to bang it out in the pocket with punches and elbows, where he excels on the counter, but he's seriously hittable in this range and relies on his iron chin to keep him out of trouble.

    The pace Ferguson sets is unbelievable. He routinely throws 20 or 25 strikes in a minute, sometimes even more, and likes to focus on the legs and body to wear his opponent down. By the third or fourth round, even Ferguson's best-conditioned opponents show signs of slowing. He's very much a rhythm fighter who improves drastically as the fight goes on and he finds his timing and range and gets his head movement going.

    If Ferguson were a pure striker, he'd be one of the more dangerous fighters in the division, but what makes him truly special is how good he is elsewhere.

    Ferguson has a deep background in wrestling and is difficult to take down. While he rarely shoots for takedowns, he excels as a counter-wrestler, using funk rolls to turn his opponent's shots into dominant positions and setting up his lethal front headlock. Ferguson is one of the most dangerous choke artists in the sport and has a knack for turning a bad shot into a d'Arce or guillotine. His move to the back is quick as well.

    On the down side, Ferguson is so confident in his submission game that he can be baited into playing from his back, and his guard just isn't as dangerous as he thinks it is. Strong, technical top players can shut him down for significant periods while Ferguson hunts for a submission.

    Nurmagomedov is one of the best takedown artists and grapplers the sport of MMA has ever seen, a seemingly unstoppable force who rag-dolls even the most accomplished wrestlers and BJJ black belts with incredible ease.

    Striking isn't the strongest part of Nurmagomedov's game, but he has grown increasingly competent over the years. His footwork is excellent as he pressures, cutting angles and gauging the distance early before committing to forward-moving combinations. The whole goal of his work at range is to slide into the pocket and the clinch, where he can really go to work.

    Once he gets his hands on his opponent, the round is effectively over. Chain after chain of technically sound and diverse takedowns follow one after the other, moving from singles to doubles to trips to hip tosses to singles and so on until his opponent hits the ground. It's hard to overstate just how good Nurmagomedov is in this phase: He simply drowns his opponent in a sea of linked takedowns.

    Things don't improve once the fight gets to the ground. Nurmagomedov is an angry blanket from top position, slicing through even dangerous guards as if they don't exist and maintaining effortless control. He's happy to let his opponent move under him and wear himself out; Nurmagomedov is always a step or two ahead and knows where the opponent is going, which allows him to counter easily and set up his next move.

    When he postures up, Nurmagomedov is one of the best ground strikers in MMA. He doesn't sacrifice position when he does this, either, which makes him all the more terrifying. Body-head combinations of punches, elbows and hammerfists follow in rapid succession and lead directly into submission attempts.

    The worst part of all this for Nurmagomedov's opponents is that he doesn't seem to get tired; he's every bit as spry in the third round as he is in the first. Whether his energy-intensive style can hold up over five rounds remains to be seen, though.

     

    Betting Odds

    Nurmagomedov -175, Ferguson +155

     

    Prediction

    The betting odds aren't giving Ferguson anywhere near enough of a chance here. His game plan is simple: Stick Nurmagomedov on the end of his reach with his jab and kicks, counter when he comes forward, push the pace and stay out of the clinch. He has the skill set to do exactly that, overwhelming the much less schooled striker with volume and variety on the feet.

    Nurmagomedov has to figure out how to get close to a quick-paced, mobile striker, take him down and then overcome Ferguson's dangerous submissions in transition. He's perfectly capable of doing that for a round or two, but we can be certain Ferguson won't tire in a 25-minute fight contested at pace, and that's still an open question for Nurmagomedov.

    With all that said, Nurmagomedov has the air of destiny about him. If he can get his hands on Ferguson, he should be able to control him and work him over on the mat. While he'll eat his fair share of shots on the way in and will struggle to finish the durable Ferguson, the pick is Nurmagomedov by 48-47 decision.

Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson

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    Woodley and Thompson meet again at UFC 209.
    Woodley and Thompson meet again at UFC 209.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Main Event: Welterweight Championship

    Tyron Woodley (16-3-1; 6-2-1 UFC) vs. Stephen Thompson (13-1-1; 8-1-1 UFC)

    The five-round draw between champion Woodley and challenger Thompson was one of the best fights of 2016, and the two rematch in the main event of UFC 209.

    Woodley's path to the title was an odd one, as he defeated Dong Hyun Kim and Kelvin Gastelum before sitting out for 18 months to get his shot, but he capitalized by finishing Robbie Lawler with a vicious series of shots. Thompson put together a seven-fight winning streak that included knockouts of Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger and a decision over Rory MacDonald.

    As the first fight showed, this is a fantastic stylistic matchup, and the winner will firmly establish himself as the best fighter in the division.

    Woodley is an exceptional athlete, one of the very best in the sport, and a smart, crafty fighter. The champion's game is stripped down and spare, with brief flashes of incredible activity interspersed among long periods of waiting and circling. For most fighters, this would be a recipe for an inconsistent approach, but it suits Woodley's physical gifts and his intelligence in the cage.

    Essentially, Woodley's game revolves around sucking his opponent into a methodical, slow-paced fight that suits his style. He doesn't want to be in high-volume striking matchups or trading takedowns in scramble-filled ground wars; he'd prefer to feint and move, picking his spots to explode into a powerful punching combination or takedown.

    It's remarkable how effective Woodley is at slowing things down to his preferred pace and range. His power and speed earn his opponent's respect, and he builds on that respect by constantly giving them feints and fakes to worry about.

    An exceptionally quick and lethal right hand is the centerpiece of Woodley's approach on the feet. He likes to throw it as a lead when he moves forward, which he does with no telegraphing, but he's getting better and better at using it to counter. The occasional jab helps him set the distance, and he has a brutal right kick that he could stand to use more often.

    Wrestling is Woodley's base, and while he doesn't dig into that skill set often, he's effective when he does so. Stifling work in the clinch, especially against the fence, can eat up minutes at a time. His double leg is ultra-fast when he goes to it, especially from caught kicks.

    On top, Woodley is a grinder. His control is tight and technical, as are his passes, and he generally prefers to smother his opponent than try for a finish. When he postures up, however, he's a bomber, with serious power in his ground strikes. The arm-triangle choke is a possibility, and he showed off a guillotine in the first fight with Thompson.

    This is an effective game, and Woodley excels at controlling the pace and maintaining his gas tank. He has only truly struggled when opponents refuse to respect his speed and power and simply outwork him, which is always a danger.

    Thompson is an outstanding striker who prefers to stick his opponent on the outside and exploit the various opportunities that gives him. Long side, front and round kicks and a sharp jab keep Thompson's foe at arm's reach, which allows him to use his tight footwork and smooth movement to establish himself in the middle of the cage.

    Once he's established at long range, Thompson can manipulate that distance in a variety of ways. First, he chips away with a steady diet of kicks, which wear the opponent down to the legs and body while maintaining the range. Second, he likes to blitz in with sharp punch-kick combinations, sliding in on one angle before landing his shots and getting out of range.

    Finally, Thompson can hang back and counter, using the huge chunk of space between him and his opponent to set up precise sequences of long punches, all delivered from a dizzying array of angles. This is the best facet of his striking game by a long stretch.

    Unlike many karate practitioners who make their way into MMA, Thompson had a long career as a kickboxer, which means that he understands the value of working at pace and scoring with volume. This also makes him a bit vulnerable, though, because he isn't averse to sticking in the pocket and working combinations. He relies heavily on his feet to get him out of trouble, and when he's in range, he's hittable.

    None of that striking skill would matter if Thompson couldn't fight elsewhere. He's surprisingly strong in the clinch and hard to keep there if he doesn't want to stay. His command of distance makes it hard to get a clean shot at his hips, and even then he's quite skilled both in open space and against the fence. The occasional trip or shot takedown adds some variety.

    Thompson is a competent top-control grappler and has some real power when he postures up, but he mostly looks to eat up a little time. From his back, he offers little and isn't even particularly urgent about getting back to his feet. He rarely finds himself there, though.

     

    Betting Odds

    Thompson -160, Woodley +140

     

    Prediction

    This fight is a battle for control of the pace and control of the range. Whoever wins those battles will win the fight as a whole.

    While a quick-paced fight gives Woodley more opportunities to land his big shot, he can't sustain a rapid pace for five rounds. Woodley isn't helpless from long distance, but it's not his wheelhouse. If Thompson can fire off a high volume of combinations while sticking at range, it's his fight to lose.

    Woodley won't just let that happen, though, and as we saw in the first fight, he's incredible at finding clever ways of taking his opponent out of his game. If you want to kick to set a long range, he'll catch them and take you down. If you want him to come forward, he'll hang back and make you come to him. If you want to work fast, he'll feint and fake and counter to convince you that throwing lots of strikes is a bad idea.

    The question here is whether Thompson can find viable responses to Woodley's attempts to control those things without exposing himself to Woodley's fight-ending power. That's a tall order, and the pick is Woodley by decision.

     

    Odds courtesy of OddsShark and current on Tuesday, February 28.

    Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.