Stephen Thompson has finally earned his shot at the UFC's welterweight belt. It took seven consecutive wins—including a spinning-hook-kick knockout of Jake Ellenberger, a first-round knockout of former champion Johny Hendricks and a clean decision over former title contender Rory MacDonald—but at long last, Wonderboy will fight with the belt on the line.
Facing him across the Octagon will be newly minted champion Tyron Woodley, who made the most of his unexpected title shot in July by knocking out the venerable and beloved Robbie Lawler with a thunderous right hand. Prior to that, Woodley had been on the shelf for 18 months following a contentious decision win over Kelvin Gastelum and a devastating knockout of Dong Hyun Kim.
This is a tremendous stylistic clash between two polar-opposite fighters—the karate master and the All-American wrestler—so let's dig in.
Record: 16-3 (6 KO, 5 SUB, 5 DEC)
Woodley is a marvel of athleticism, speed and power. The two-time All-American wrestler from the University of Missouri has built his game around his physical gifts, and the result is an efficient, stripped-down approach to fighting.
The right hand is Woodley's bread and butter, and everything he does on his feet is designed to enable him to land it.
He probes with his lead hand, rarely throwing an actual jab and usually pumping it to measure the distance. This also serves to accustom Woodley's opponent to a particular speed and rhythm. When he explodes forward into a fully committed right hand, the speed and power are shocking and unexpected.
A potent right kick serves a few different purposes for Woodley. He's adept at moving it between the legs, body and head, and he uses it in crafty ways to manipulate his opponent's hand positioning. If the opponent responds to a hard body kick by dropping his hand, Woodley shoots an overhand or straight right into the gap. Woodley also likes to move from kicks to punches, firing off a hard right immediately after a kick.
Nobody will confuse him with Anderson Silva or Conor McGregor in terms of depth of skill, but Woodley is a decent counterpuncher with excellent timing and speed. In terms of his overall development as a fighter, he'd be well-served to keep working on this facet of his game, because he has real gifts.
It's easy to look at Woodley and see nothing but the right hand and the power and speed with which he delivers it, but his craft shouldn't be underestimated.
Woodley hasn't forgotten his roots as a wrestler. The former All-American is a grinder of a clinch fighter who uses his squat, powerful frame to pin his opponent in the fence with a mixture of raw strength and excellent technique. While not particularly dangerous on the inside, Woodley isn't easy to escape and excels at wearing his opponent down.
He's not an active takedown artist, but Woodley hasn't forgotten how to shoot a beautiful, explosive and well-timed double. His chains against the fence, moving from singles to doubles to trips, are technical and finished with authority. Defensively, he's almost impossible to take down unless he's exhausted.
With that said, Woodley has some real drawbacks. The first is ringcraft. While the specifics of Woodley's footwork aren't bad—he takes short steps and has a knack for finding angles—he tends to lose track of the big picture of where he is in the cage. It's not hard to back him up to the fence, and he doesn't show much urgency in getting back to open space.
The second major issue with Woodley's game is pace. Every shot he throws can finish the fight, but that's exactly the problem: It takes a tremendous amount of energy to explode the way he does, which makes it difficult for him to score enough points to win rounds if he can't get the finish.
Moreover, he seems to slow badly even over the course of a three-round fight, and we have yet to see him go for 25 minutes.
Record: 13-1 (7 KO, 1 SUB, 5 DEC)
Thompson has spent his entire life competing in karate, kickboxing and now MMA, and he has built his unique approach to fighting on the basis of that exceptional depth of experience.
Creating and managing distance is the cornerstone of Thompson's game. Already tall for the division at 6'0", Thompson fights even longer than his height would suggest by consistently switching stances and taking a wide base that keeps his head far away from his opponent.
An array of kicks and a busy lead hand keep his opponent outside. Thompson moves seamlessly between side, front and round kicks that are deceptive and difficult to predict, and if his opponent focuses too much on the kicks, he places a hard, consistent jab in his face. That lead hand is constantly probing and measuring, and it helps to set the kind of bouncy rhythm that makes Thompson so hard to figure out.
Precise, technical footwork and efficient movement likewise help to maintain distance. Thompson rarely moves in straight lines and constantly cuts angles with pivots and sidesteps to avoid being pinned against the fence or forced into a range with which he isn't comfortable.
It's hard to overstate how good Thompson's command of the range is. He has an otherworldly sense for where he is relative to his opponent, how much time that amount of space gives him to react and what his various options are.
Once he has established his preferred range, Thompson goes to work. Having space to play gives Thompson two basic options: blitzing forward with combinations or timing vicious counterpunches as his opponent is forced to lunge in to cover the distance.
A blitzing Thompson is effective, stringing together sequences of straight punches behind which he hides sneaky head kicks. His use of angles on these blitzes is impressive, cutting a bewildering array of approaches on lines relative to the plane of his opponent's body.
Thompson is much more dangerous as a counterpuncher, though. His command of angles here is even more important, as it allows him to land strikes that opponents can't see coming.
The karate master has a particular knack for landing from the inside angle, the same punch that McGregor has popularized. Standing in the opposite stance to his opponent when he tries to charge in, Thompson steps diagonally back and to the outside and pivots as he throws the straight left hand. This allows it to land perpendicular to the plane of his opponent's body, where it lands with the greatest possible force.
Strikes like this are the best piece of Thompson's game, and he has a deep well of options available when opponents try to pressure him. If he's feeling especially confident, he's willing to exchange punches in the pocket, something that's rare with most karate-based fighters.
In addition to all of his technical skill, Thompson pushes an outstanding pace. He never forces the finish and is happy to pepper his opponent with enough strikes to score and win rounds.
None of that striking wizardry would matter if Thompson couldn't keep the fight standing. Years of training with Chris Weidman and other elite wrestlers have given him exceptional technical skills as a defensive wrestler, and his command of distance and angles makes it difficult to get a clean shot at his hips in the first place. He can hit the occasional takedown of his own for the sake of variety as well.
It's difficult to hold Thompson in the clinch if he doesn't want to be there, and his long frame gives him surprising leverage on the inside. He's scrappy in the clinch, too, and throws hard knees and punches on the exits.
There are some weaknesses to Thompson's game, though. Defense isn't his strongest suit. Thompson relies heavily on distance and angles to avoid his opponent's strikes, and he's rarely there to be hit. When he is forced into range, though, Thompson isn't hard to hit. He doesn't have great head movement and sometimes backs away with his chin in the air.
In practical terms, this means that an opponent who succeeds in pinning Thompson in boxing range or against the fence can do real damage. This is easier said than done, obviously.
That's about all we've seen in terms of potential problems with Thompson's game at this point.
Thompson -200 (bet $200 to win $100), Woodley +170 (bet $100 to win $170)
This is a tough matchup for Woodley in his first title defense: a crisp, active striker who controls the distance, works at a quick pace and is difficult to hold in the clinch or on the ground.
Woodley does have a path to victory. Thompson can be hit, especially early in the fight as he's still trying to gauge the range and his opponent's speed and timing, and few fighters are better equipped to exploit that brief period of adjustment than someone as fast and powerful as Woodley.
For the same reason, it's not especially hard to grab ahold of Thompson early in the fight, and Woodley will look to grind on him in the clinch and with takedowns.
The longer the fight goes, however, the better things look for Thompson. He works at a drastically quicker pace, targets the legs and the body to wear his opponent down, and sets such a long range that Woodley will have to expend even more energy than normal just to cover the gap.
Add to that the fact that Woodley isn't particularly skilled at ringcraft, and it's likely that the champion will be spending most of the fight where Thompson wants it, in the middle of the cage.
The most likely outcome, then, involves Thompson eating a few scary shots early and having to work through Woodley's takedown attempts and grinding against the fence before breaking out into open space and steadily upping the volume as Woodley slows. Eventually, Woodley will run into a big series of counters. The pick is Thompson by knockout in the third round.
Odds courtesy of Odds Shark and current as of Tuesday.
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.