UFC 209 Technical Recap: Was Stephen Thompson Robbed?

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystMarch 5, 2017

Woodley and Thompson have spent 50 minutes in the cage.
Woodley and Thompson have spent 50 minutes in the cage.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Aside from the underwhelming main event between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson,

UFC 209 was a banner fight card for the promotion.

Six fights on Saturday night in Las Vegas ended in finishes, including a few that will wind up on the highlight reel, while two fighters—Darren Elkins and Iuri Alcantara—pulled off incredible comebacks that rank among the best in MMA history. Lando Vannata and David Teymur put on a fantastic, back-and-forth scrap in the co-main event. 

The main event was close, tactical and exceptionally unexciting, one of the least eventful title fights in UFC history. Still, its sheer lack of excitement is stunning, and that deserves some explanation as well.

Let's dig into these fights and see what we can learn.

 

Darren Elkins vs. Mirsad Bektic and Iuri Alcantara vs. Luke Sanders

Sanders and Bektic were hot prospects headed into their fights with Alcantara and Elkins, respectively, and both faced the toughest challenges of their careers. Bektic, a Bosnian-American wrecking machine, was an enormous favorite against the seemingly overmatched Elkins; Sanders was favored against Alcantara, but the consensus was that he had a difficult fight in front of him against the veteran Brazilian.

Both Bektic and Sanders lived up to their substantial potential early and fell short as the fight wore on, Bektic in the third round and Sanders in the second. What went wrong for these two blue-chip prospects? Inexperience and its close relative, fight IQ.

Some things in MMA mus be learned on the job, and despite their obvious talent and burgeoning skill, the two previously undefeated fighters had yet to learn them. Elkins and Alcantara, both savvy veterans with years of high-level experience against some of the best in the sport, had enough tricks up their sleeve to pull them off.

Bektic smashed Elkins in the first round, blasting him with punches, hitting an effortless takedown and then working him over from top position with skill and ferocity while opening a gigantic cut on Elkins' forehead. In the second, things were closer: Bektic still landed hard shots on the feet and secured his takedowns, but Elkins made him work for them.

In the third, Elkins' durability and cardio started to tell, and an obviously tired Bektic struggled to secure takedowns against the fence. When Elkins scrambled to his feet and pinned Bektic against the cage, he capitalized, hurting Bektic with a punch and then dropping him with a head kick to complete the improbable comeback.

Despite the ghastly cut and the huge amount of damage he absorbed, Elkins stayed calm and stuck to his game, eventually sucking Bektic into the kind of grinding wrestling and clinch battle against the fence in which the veteran excels. Bektic, too inexperienced to know when to pull back, obliged him and eventually paid the price.

Sanders was even more dominant than Bektic early in his fight with Alcantara, cracking the Brazilian with hard punches in the pocket and doing serious work on the mat whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Sanders had his greatest success when he forced Alcantara to wrestle. The American dominated from the top ride, pinning Alcantara in place and shutting down his scrambles while landing shot after shot with real power. Referee Marc Goddard wouldn't have been blamed for stopping the fight at one of several points in the first round. 

In the second, Sanders found the top ride again, punishing Alcantara with a series of shots. This time, however, Alcantara grabbed one of Sanders' legs and rolled into a sneaky leg lock, finishing Sanders with a kneebar a moment later. It was a crafty, veteran move, and all it took was a single moment's lapse from Sanders to make it happen.

Practically every blue-chip young fighter endures a loss similar to this, from Georges St-Pierre (Matt Hughes) to Jose Aldo (Luciano Azevedo) to Benson Henderson (Rocky Johnson) to Conor McGregor (Artemij Sitenkov and Joe Duffy).

Even the best young fighters have to learn their lessons. Bektic needs to learn to fight his fight, not his opponent's, and Sanders must learn to stay focused at all times. Both are serious talents, and they'll be back.

 

David Teymur vs. Lando Vannata

Thrust into the co-main event spot just a day before the event due to the untimely withdrawal of Khabib Nurmagomedov, hot prospects Teymur and Vannata didn't disappoint. The Swede and the American put on a back-and-forth masterpiece of technique, will and violence that should vault Teymur into a high-profile fight in the stacked lightweight division.

For most of the fight, Vannata was the aggressor, while Teymur was content to sit back at range, circle, crack Vannata with kicks and then counterpunch when the American committed to a punching combination. If the American overcommitted and came too far forward, Teymur grabbed ahold of the clinch, framed and landed knee after knee to Vannata's midsection. This allowed Teymur to minimize exchanges in the pocket with a more powerful puncher.

This was effective game plan that played off Teymur's well-honed, veteran sense of the timing and range. He ate his fair share of shots—inevitable, considering Vannata's explosiveness and slick skills—but he avoided the worst of it through his strong footwork, control of the distance and sense of where he was in the cage. 

While Vannata came forward, Teymur rarely let himself back all the way into the fence; he always left just enough room for himself to cut an angle, land a counter and exit back into open space. It was a display of outstanding fundamentals, the basis of a stick-and-move striking game in the face of an athletic, skilled opponent.

For his part, Vannata showed both the good and bad of his game. His aggression and explosiveness are off the charts, and his creative arsenal of spinning strikes is a nice complement to his more meat-and-potatoes boxing repertoire.

This time, however, his aggression meant that he walked into Teymur's counters over and over again, while he went to the well of his spinning strikes far too often when he might have been better served to work jabs, round kicks and mix in the threat of the takedown.

The judges' three 30-27 scorecards obscure what a fun, competitive fight this was. Both fighters had their moments, but Teymur controlled the range, avoided the fence and turned this into the kind of straight kickboxing match where his fundamentals could overcome Vannata's athleticism and creativity.

 

Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson

Frankly, a fight this underwhelming doesn't deserve a great deal of attention, but the sheer uneventfulness of most of the 50 minutes Thompson and Woodley have spent together in the Octagon demands an explanation.

Outside of two takedowns and two knockdown flurries (in the fourth round of the first fight and the fifth of the second) by Woodley, the two fights between Thompson have boiled down to glorified staring contests. Why? How did Thompson, a dangerous, high-output kickboxer, turn into a slow-paced, timid fighter? Why didn't Woodley do more in either meeting, instead relying on a couple of big moments to secure the fight?

In other words, what makes Thompson and Woodley such a low-energy pairing?

The two fighters reinforce each other's worst tendencies. Woodley, by his nature, is a cautious fighter. His whole game is based around conserving energy and focusing his efforts into a couple of brief bursts of offense, a rational strategy if not a recipe for sustained action. His power and explosiveness make him extremely dangerous, though, and he excels at reminding his opponent of the dangers of overcommitting.

Thompson isn't as cautious by nature, but his years of striking have made him attuned to what his opponent is trying to do. If his opponent wants to push the pace, Thompson will make use of that by gauging the timing and range and then responding with counters. If his opponent wants to chase, Thompson will play matador. He feeds off what his opponent gives him and turns it into violent gold.

In both fights, Woodley refused to give Thompson the steady stream of information about range and timing that the striker needs to feel comfortable. He punished Thompson with takedowns whenever he overcommitted. He refused to chase Thompson through the cage, instead forcing Thompson to come to him.

Under those conditions, Thompson couldn't make himself pull the trigger. Woodley gave him opportunity after opportunity when he backed up to the fence over and over, the same openings Rory MacDonald exploited to the fullest when he fought Woodley back in 2014.

Thompson, in contrast, never felt safe enough in punching distance to sit down on combinations and work Woodley with sequences of two or more shots.

Since Thompson just refused to throw, that made every round close. In only one round of the two fights, the fifth round of their first matchup when Woodley had drained his gas tank trying to finish, did Thompson let his shots go. In the second round of the second fight, the key one that determined the outcome, Thompson threw just 24 strikes (per Fightmetric.)

That's just indefensible for a fighter trying to win a title fight, and that's why it's impossible to say Thompson got robbed. 

At this point, we have to come to terms with who Woodley is. He's a low-output grinder who sucks opponents into his slow pace and then tries to produce a big moment, either a knockout or something else dramatic. That's his game, and it works for him.

Thompson, however, was under no obligation to agree to that kind of fight. In both of their matchups, he was happy to fight at Woodley's pace. Pushing the pace would have exposed him to more danger, but it was also the only way to give himself a real shot at winning.

Jake Shields understood that calculus, as did MacDonald. Both beat Woodley, the former controversially and the latter clearly. It's not like any of this was a mystery even before their first fight.

Nobody is clamoring for a trilogy after that debacle. It's hard to feel like Thompson got a raw deal in a fight (or fights) where he did so little to put his stamp on a win. To be the champ, you have to beat the champ, and there's little argument to be made that Thompson did everything he could have to beat Woodley. That's not a robbery.

 

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.