Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley meets challenger Stephen Thompson for the second time on Saturday at UFC 209 in a rematch of their epic, back-and-forth draw last November.
When the two men first met at UFC 205 in November, it was an odd-couple pairing.
Woodley had waited patiently for his shot at the belt, sitting out 18 months until Robbie Lawler was available and then making the most of his opportunity with a thunderous right hand that leveled the champion. Thompson was the picture of activity, putting together a seven-fight winning streak that included a knockout of former champion Johny Hendricks and a decision over former title challenger Rory MacDonald.
Stylistically, the two men couldn't be more different. Woodley is a lifelong wrestler and an incredible athlete with a smart, measured style that plays to his physicality. Thompson, by contrast, is a lifelong striker, a karate-focused kickboxer who stings his opponents with slick kicks at range and punishes them with counters.
Their first fight was notable for how effectively Woodley put Thompson off his preferred game. The real question for the rematch is how each fighter adjusts, and that's what we'll explore here.
Woodley's best attribute—and the secret to his recent success—has been his ability to subtly control the pace, range and type of fight. This minimizes his disadvantages—offensive volume, lack of diversity in striking, a lack of height and reach—while maximizing his advantages, namely his crushing power and ridiculous speed.
At his best, Thompson circles through the cage, cutting angles and peppering his opponent with side and round kicks to set a long distance. With that distance established, Thompson can either blitz in with combinations or, better, let his opponent come to him and then counter. As a counterpuncher, Thompson uses his opponent's momentum against him and excels at finding blind angles from which to land.
Woodley simply refused to engage in this kind of fight. He caught the first kick Thompson threw and used it to take the challenger down, then badly beat him up from top position. After that, Thompson threw only a few kicks for the rest of the fight.
With his kicking arsenal limited by fear of the takedown, Thompson couldn't set his long range, which left him close enough to be vulnerable to Woodley's blitzing right hand and didn't allow him to find his timing and range on his counters.
Thompson is normally a high-output striker, but Woodley did two things to take that output away. First, he did an excellent job of countering Thompson when he blitzed into range. Second, Woodley feinted and faked with regularity.
The combination of counters and fakes got Thompson thinking and prevented him from finding his rhythm. Thompson is very much a rhythm fighter who takes some time to get comfortable and builds momentum as he gauges the timing and distance, and Woodley stopped him from doing so until the fifth round.
In sum, Woodley took away Thompson's best weapons with the threat of the takedown and therefore stopped him from setting his preferred range. He took away Thompson's rhythm and therefore his offensive output. Woodley turned a slick, high-volume kickboxer into a slow-paced, low-powered boxer and very nearly finished him with both strikes and a choke in the fourth round.
For Woodley, nothing much needs to change in the rematch. He lost three rounds against Thompson, to be sure, and could stand to do more with kicks and with his takedown game to give himself a better chance of winning a decision. Still, he'll live and die by the threat of the finish: It's unlikely that he'll win a fight in which he doesn't put his powerful right on Thompson's chin, as he did in the fourth round.
Thompson has far more adjustments to make to give himself a better shot of winning.
First, he can't let the threat of the takedown stop him from throwing kicks. Without the extra distance they give him, he's far more vulnerable to Woodley's explosive lead right hand. That punch caught him over and over despite, as he told me in the lead-up to the fight, his habit of preparing for an opponent by having sparring partners throw his signature strike repeatedly to give Thompson practice at timing and countering it.
Second, Thompson needs to do a better job defensively. He has always tended to rely on distance and angles to avoid his opponent's shots rather than a layered combination of range, parries, blocks and head movement, and Woodley exploited that by firing his strikes from an unexpectedly close range. Thompson now knows just how hard Woodley hits, and he may not be lucky enough to survive a second time.
Finally, Thompson simply needs to pull the trigger more, especially when Woodley lets himself get backed into the fence. Over and over, Thompson would pressure and land perhaps one shot before Woodley escaped into open space. When Woodley gives him opportunities, Thompson has to let his hands go in combinations to capitalize and put a stamp on the rounds he wins.
The second and the third items might seem to be contradictory: Throwing more means that Thompson will necessarily expose himself to more risk in the form of counters and perhaps takedowns, but that risk can be minimized by focusing his offense on hitting Woodley when he backs up.
This was how MacDonald had his greatest success against Woodley back in 2014, since the attacker has all the room in the world to retreat when Woodley throws back.
This is the path of least resistance for Thompson, but it's easier said than done. Woodley is one of the most dynamic and dangerous fighters in the sport, and he needs only one clean punch to finish the fight.
However the fight plays out, it should be a treat. Their first meeting was outstanding, and there's no reason to think the second will be any less compelling.