Woodley vs Thompson: Early Analysis


Woodley faces a tough first test as champion

UFC 205 is right around the corner.

We don't know who will be headlining the event yet- speculation is currently running rampant around the trio of Conor McGregor, Eddie Alvarez, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. If Conor McGregor does end up headlining, UFC 205 could possibly break the PPV record he already set against Nate Diaz at UFC 202. It already has a bit of that UFC 200 vibe, with a plethora of excellent bouts, involving recognizable names like Meisha Tate, Cowboy Cerrone, Chris Weidman, Frankie Edgar, Rashad Evans and Yoel Romero, as well as two title fights already. The first is the all-Polish fireworks display that will be Joanna Jedrjezczyk vs Karolina Kowalkiewicz. The other is Tyron "The Chosen One" Woodley putting his belt on the line against Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson.

Tyron made history by ending the reign of "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler by devastating first round knockout. Many were surprised he received a title shot off a two-fight win streak, but he certainly made the most of his opportunity. Thompson, in the meantime, has run up a seven-fight win streak, beating top contenders Johnny Hendricks and Rory Macdonald decisively in his last two fights.

The oddsmakers opened the fight with Wonderboy as the slight favorite. Is that deserved? How do these two actually match up?

The champion is a remarkable athlete, and his game is centered around his ability to explode out of his deep, wide stance and land his payload, that nuclear right hand. His other skills are ancillary to that main weapon. He uses it as a lead, as against Lawler; as a counter, as against Josh Koscheck; in combination as the telling punch; throws it as a straight or as an overhand; and he will double or triple up on it, often feinting it before throwing in earnest; his setups include a stutter step or a full switch step as against Jay Heiron. That is the main element of danger Woodley brings to a fight, aside from an occasional spinning backfist. The mechanics of his deep, long stance mean that his left hook is fairly meaningless as a power punch. The power in that right hand is not purely athletic, however- it doesn't stem just from how fast he can throw his whole body into it. It has snapping power too, even when thrown without a step, meaning Woodley remains dangerous even later in the fight when the extra spring in his step has gone. His round kicks are heavy, too, from both from his rear and lead leg, and he throws them to all levels, particularly against opponents without a wrestling background. He has a jab, mostly to keep opponents off and set up his right, but his use of it is inconsistent, working better when he is moving his feet. His timing with the right hand is instinctive and excellent; combined with his ability to cover distance, it makes the right hand difficult for his opponents to avoid, even though they know to watch for it.

Woodley is bull-strong as a grappler, both on the clinch and on the mat. In the clinch, he sometimes lands hard knees as he pushes his opponent against the fence, typically with at least one underhook. However, if Woodley is not the one to initiate the clinch, or if he takes his foot off the gas, he can be controlled here, and opponents ranging from Tarec Saffediene to Nate Marquardt to Rory Macdonald have controlled Woodley for minutes at a time. Marquardt famously finished him with elbows against the cage in the fourth round, the only time Woodley has ever been finished in a fight.

Woodley has a diverse takedown arsenal. He is able to grab trips or bodylock takedowns from the clinch, hit a reactive shot as his opponents step in, or occasionally drop for a double against the cage. He doesn't typically set up shots in open space, and doesn't often blend his strikes and his wrestling together. His takedown rate, less than two per fifteen minutes, and takedown success rate, 44%, are both low; at this stage in his career Woodley simply doesn't wrestle often. The last time he was able to hit takedowns was against the ever-reckless Carlos Condit. Once on the mat, he is almost impossible to submit, using his strength and good posture to power out of any submission attempts. He prioritizes control over damage; his ground and pound is limited to short, static shots from the guard. He is difficult to get up from underneath against; when opponents attempt to wall-walk, he does a good job hooking a leg and holding them in place.

His cage craft and stamina are where Woodley draws criticism. He puts his rear foot up against the cage in practically every fight. This seems to have been a choice at some point in his career; a trap, to tempt opponents to come forward so he can time an explosive right hand. However, Rory Macdonald exploited this tendency by backing Woodley to the fence but never covering that final space, picking Woodley apart with jabs, front kicks and round kicks and only occasionally a combination. Woodley was seemingly lulled into a defensive shell, never spotting that decisive opening to counter. Woodley showed improvement against Kelvin Gastelum; while he still backed himself to the cage, he didn't stay there, circling out and keeping his feet moving, throwing his jab and landing his right hand at every opening the aggressive Gastelum provided. Even against Lawler, though, Woodley backed himself into the cage almost immediately. Lawler, though, had no intention to pressure Woodley, and let Woodley move freely in the space of the cage, to devastating consequence.

Woodley is the definition of a burst fighter. He isn't about keeping up a sustained output. What he wants to do is hurt his opponents with a few decisive moments, and failing that, circle out of range or rack up control time in the clinch or on the mat. Defensively, he isn't particularly hard to hit, relying on the threat of his rear hand and his wrestling to keep opponents at a distance. Foes who have been able to get into combination range have been consistently able to land shots; but this isn't easy, as Woodley will either throw a right hand, initiate a clinch, or drop for a single leg if they get too close too quickly. He has been vulnerable to long distance kicks that don't provide him an easy counter; both Rory and Jake Shields racked up points at distance this way.

Stephen Thompson is an out-fighter, perhaps the most offensively potent in the sport. His background is unique; he is one of a handful of karate practitioners to ply their trade at the top of the mixed martial arts game. He is different from many point fighters in that he was also one of the stars of Chuck Norris' World Combat League; the rules were American kickboxing (no kicks below the belt, short action-heavy rounds, no ring or cage). Point fighting prioritizes the ability to close distance very quickly, the ruleset awarding the first contact. This rule set has churned out fighters like Machida, who specialize in blitzing combinations covering huge amounts of distance rapidly. However, with American kickboxing, Thompson added some potent boxing to that blend- excellent head movement and clean straight punches that he throws with little telegraph. His variety of kicks and setups are extraordinarily diverse, and while he maintains that ability to close distance deceptively quickly with a flurry of straight punches, he also keeps up a much higher output than most karate fighters, consistently outlanding his opponents by 2-1 or 3-1 margins.

His side-on stance, and ability to switch stances, allows him to utilize a unique karate flavor of kicks that are very effective at managing distance. He kicks with both legs, but is more dexterous with his right foot, typically landing the majority of his lead leg offence when standing southpaw. In that stance alone, with that right leg alone, he can land a side kick to the body, a round kick to the head or a hook kick to the face with the same setup, not to mention the unflashy but effective lead leg calf kick. He also lands front kicks, round kicks to the body and head from either stance, jump switch round kicks, spinning back and hook kicks, and even the occasional axe kick. Notice my use of the term "lands". Many fighters know how to throw these kicks; not many have understanding of space, time, and the lack of telegraph to land them effectively. Thompson does, and he tailors his selection to his opponent, so that one has to watch two or three fights to see his full arsenal. A favorite trick of his is to throw a body kick and follow immediately with a head kick from the same chambering position. He also pairs his kicks well with his hands, sometimes following his kicks with punches, but more often ending a punching combination with a kick. He does this either to reset the distance with a side or front kick, or to land a head kick knockout, as in his debut against Dan Stittgen.

His kicks aren't the most dangerous part of his game, however. Of his five UFC wins by KO, three are with his hands. Thompson is a believer that speed kills; his simple, straight shots come from his low guard, either as he blitzes or on the counter. He often uses a shift step to cover distance, as he did in the finishing sequence against Johnny Hendricks; a little earlier, he pivoted offline and landed two successive counter right hands in response to Johnny's lunging overhand. His efficient footwork allows him to step in on straight or diagonal lines, exit on a variety of angles, and be ready to continue throwing punches or kicks without needing to reset. His defensive footwork is equally slick. He never backs up too far in a straight line, always circling away, but with a counter in mind. Unlike many famous out-fighters, such as Machida and Anderson Silva, Thompson is comfortable leading the dance as well as countering. He has an active jab that he flicks out and immediately pulls just out of reach of the anticipated counter. He is nearly impossible to trap against the cage, using feints, pivots, and circling out effectively to maintain distance. Sometimes he uses a subtle karate bounce, sometimes not; the bounce sets a rhythm that disguises his blitz entries.

His defense blends seamlessly with his offence. He prefers to keep his hands low and often bends forward at the waist, inviting an attack, which he then leans back from and counters, or slips his head offline. His awareness in the pocket is very good as well, especially when he gets an opponent's timing down. The Robert Whitaker fight saw him ducking and slipping entire combinations, moving both his head and his feet to stay out of danger. The Whitaker fight was also a clinic in jab counters; while Whitaker did land a fair few jabs, I counted at least six different textbook responses, including slips to either side, fade-away counters, slips to lead round kicks, and the eventual parry to counter combination that dropped Whitaker. His footwork is the most important aspect of his defense, however- Thompson relies on only being in range when he chooses to be, dictating the terms of engagement. When he is pressured, he has used a double forearms guard as a fallback. It is not impossible to tag him; Ellenberger and Matt Brown have both dropped him, Ellenberger with a right hand and Brown with an elbow from the clinch as he tired late in the fight. Rory Macdonald hit him with a few good right hands when he bit down on his mouthpiece and exchanged late in that fight, and even the unheralded Nah-Shon Burrell turned him clean around with a punch in the third round of their fight. Thompson's hands-down style is energy-intensive, requiring him to stay mobile and on a hair-trigger at all times; earlier in his career this caused him cardio problems. He was by his own admission carrying around too much weight, walking around above 200 pounds at the time. He has since adjusted his nutrition and weight-lifting regimen, walks around at just above 190, and hasn't had major problems with his stamina since.

Thompson is surprisingly strong and educated in the clinch, controlling accomplished wrestlers like Rory Macdonald and Jake Ellenberger in the tie-ups. He uses diligent head pressure and underhooks to press opponents against the cage, landing good knees and looking for the occasional elbow or opening to dirty box. He sometimes picks up a single leg and traps it between his own legs for added control while landing short uppercuts. He will also look for head kicks off the breaks. Knee-tap takedowns offer a change of pace if he feels the opportunity for one. He rarely allows himself to be held against the cage for too long, breaking off expertly as soon as an opening presents itself.

Thompson actually out-struck Matt Brown in Thompson's only career defeat but Brown was able to win by getting Wonderboy to the floor in all three rounds and brutalizing him from the top. Four years and seven fights ago, that was the last time Thompson has been taken down inside the Octagon. His much-improved defensive wrestling remains bullet-proof, despite facing takedown artists Ellenberger, Hendricks and Macdonald in his last three outings. The long distance he sets makes it difficult to set up shots in the first place. His side-on stance also takes away the traditional double-leg, meaning opponents usually only have the single-leg available to them. When opponents do get in on his hips, he displays a naturally heavy base that makes it difficult to get him to the mat. He reversed an Ellenberger inside trip, displaying strong control from the ride, landing hard shots and even hitting a throw as Ellenberger stood back up. Macdonald wasn't able to get anything going either, resorting to low-percentage Iminari rolls and even pulling Thompson on top of him at one point. 'Careful and composed' would describe Thompson on the floor. He rarely risks position, keeping a heavy base and an escape route in mind.

How these two fighters match up specifically is interesting because the best approach to fighting both men involves the methodical application of pressure- but neither have ever played the role of pressure fighter. That means that either one of them will fight against type, or this match will take place in the open space of the cage.

If anyone is likely to try to pressure, it's Wonderboy. He stated after the Lawler fight that one doesn't want to let Woodley come forward, and he was disappointed with Lawler for not backing The Chosen One up. Wonderboy's pressure won't look quite like Macdonald's; I doubt he will be able to keep Woodley in a defensive shell against the cage as consistently. I do expect Thompson to take the center, and for Woodley to find himself in the outer zone between the double black lines and the cage wall for much of the fight. Like Macdonald, I expect Wonderboy to feed Woodley a steady diet of long-range kicks and jabs, exploiting Woodley's tendency to back himself up, without offering an easy opening to counter. Eventually, either Woodley will leap in with a right, or Thompson will float into punching range with one of his patented combinations. Those will be the decisive moments, and either fighter has the ability land a counterpunch as the other steps in.

The deciding factor in this bout will be an intangible- whether Thompson can read the timing on Woodley's right hand. There is always an adjustment period fighting someone who can cover distance the way Tyron can. Woodley catches a lot of fighters out of position just because of his athleticism. He closes that gap faster than they anticipate, landing that right hand harder than they expect. Thompson has been faster than most, if not all, of the guys he has faced; Woodley just might be an exception, especially early on. Even in the later rounds, while he isn't as prone to bursting forward later in a fight, that right fist packs heat. Thompson will need to beware of it whenever he steps into range. I do expect Woodley to land it at some point in the fight; his timing is excellent and his setups can be tricky. How he lands it will be important. If Thompson misreads it with his hands low, there is a significant chance it leaves him unconscious on the canvas. If Thompson does read it, however, I expect to see him begin to counter it as he did to Hendricks, either by pulling straight back before throwing, or hop-stepping offline and coming back with a right hand. That will spell bad news for Tyron. If Woodley hasn't gotten the job done after the first two rounds, his odds of winning drop dramatically. His chances hinge on the element of surprise and the sheer horsepower in his fast-twitch thighs.

The oddsmakers are correct here- Woodley faces a tough matchup. He either needs to catch Thompson and knock him out in the first two rounds, or find a way to tie Thompson up or take him down for long stretches. Woodley doesn't have the output to match Thompson at range. The former is very possible, but not probable. Thompson isn't Robbie Lawler; he has never been one to stand in front of a foe and brawl with them. He has spent his whole life moving away from opponents who want to spring across the gap between them to land one decisive strike. Thompson has been studying tape on Woodley for over a year now, and is very aware of the only thing he really needs to worry about. Being predictable is never good against a striker as multi-dimensional as Thompson. The longer this fight goes, the better for Wonderboy. As for his second possible path to victory, I don't see Woodley's wrestling making the difference over five rounds. He doesn't wrestle often these days, and the last time Thompson was on his back in a fight was four years ago, when he was only two years into his pro MMA career. It's hard to picture him getting Thompson down often enough to win a five-rounder, and he rarely does meaningful damage with his ground control. His takedowns are dependent on the clinch or on Thompson making a mistake while closing distance; Thompson's strong clinch work and masterful distance management mean both scenarios seem unlikely. What Woodley will likely do is try to control Thompson in the clinch, diving on single-legs just to use them to establish extended periods of control up against the cage. This strategy won't be enough to mitigate the storm Thompson is coming with. Woodley has never been five full rounds, and this fight won't break that trend. My prediction is Wonderboy by mind-bullet in the third round.

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