Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight strap-hanger, Tyron Woodley, will return to the cage opposite rising Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace, Gilbert Burns, this Saturday (May 30, 2020) at UFC on ESPN 9 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s been 14 months since Woodley coughed up his title to Kamaru Usman in a disappointing performance. At 38 years of age, it’s impossible not to wonder where Woodley goes from here. Does “T-Wood” remain an elite contender and title threat, or is the Usman loss the beginning of a more serious fall? Until Woodley walks into the cage and competes this weekend, it’s impossible to know.
Everything is on the line for the former champion, so let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
I once read a description of Woodley’s whole approach to MMA as minimalist (apologies for not remember where/who said it), and there’s really no better word for it. Woodley captured and defended the title with like two primary weapons and one strategy ... and it worked!
Woodley’s approach is rather unusual for an explosive wrestler, as he is perfectly content to sit at range and wait for his opponents to come to him. He’s very patient at distance or against the fence, sometimes to a fault. Against men like Rory MacDonald and — bizarrely — Jake Shields, Woodley hung around far too long at the end of his opponent’s strikes, waiting for them to over-commit.
Instead, they simply beat him by volume.
Usman punished this habit further. Generally, fighters do not want to clinch with Woodley given his strength and wrestling, but Usman proved himself superior in both areas. As a result, Woodley found himself in a forced position of having to avoid the clinch, yet his footwork kept leading him back to the fence in a vicious cycle.
That fault aside, Woodley can be very effective even if his opponent doesn’t lead the charge. When Woodley is fresh and on point, he’s actively feinting toward his opponent with the threat of a sudden lunging right hand.
Woodley relies almost exclusively on his right hand to do damage. That’s not exactly textbook striking, but it’s a style that has worked repeatedly for numerous fighters. Basically, it all comes down to whether or not the fighter can set up his right, and Woodley has a few strategies to that end (GIF).
Much of the time, Woodley is using the threat of the takedown to land the right hand. That can be as simple as ducking low before throwing an overhand, but it’s not usually a single cause-and-effect with Woodley. Instead, Woodley changes levels and fires and repeats, forcing his opponent to attempt to keep up with the rapid threats of double leg and right hand. Often times, Woodley will also mix an uppercut into his offense, which can be disastrous for an opponent who ducks at the wrong time.
Besides springing into a sudden combination, Woodley does have some powerful kicks. Against most Orthodox opponents, Woodley sticks to the outside low kick, which is more than capable of knocking his opponent off-balance. Opposite Southpaw opponents, Woodley can open up more and kick to the head and body as well. Overall, his kicks are seriously hard, and a weapon he should definitely use more often.
If Woodley does convince his opponent to reach for him, he’s in great position to counter with his massive right hand. Whether he tries to slip and strike or block and return, Woodley’s counter right is his best weapon (GIF).
The counter right has earned Woodley most of his real knockout wins. Against Dong Hyun Kim, he simply watched the South Korean walk forward and try a spinning back fist without any rhyme or reason. Being a high-level athlete with good reaction time, Woodley simply interrupted the slow spin with his fist.
Woodley’s brutal knockout win over Koscheck was a bit more technical. As Koscheck over-extended on his right hand, Woodley blocked but kept himself in position to counter. With his opponent out of position, Woodley was easily able to blast “Kos” into unconsciousness (GIF).
Opposite Thompson, Woodley’s right hand found its mark several times. At his best, Woodley was using the jab to keep Thompson honest, as “Wonderboy” would stand at the edge of Woodley’s range hoping to draw him out. As Thompson was forced to take greater risks to land, Woodley found the counter right hand more often. Additionally, even a striking master like Thompson has momentary defensive lapses, and it takes a great fighter like Woodley to identify those moments and land (GIF).
Finally, Woodley’s performance against Darren Till is likely the best of his career. Woodley frustrated the Englishman with his movement and clinch, completely nullifying him for the first round. Till was forced to up his aggression, but Woodley timed him with a perfect right hand, slipping his head off the center line and landing directly on the chin (GIF).
Woodley has some majorly impressive wrestling credentials. As a two-time All American and Big 12 conference champion, Woodley is undoubtedly one of the most talented wrestlers in the 170-pound division.
In the UFC, Woodley has only relied on his wrestling to any consistent success in one bout. Against Carlos Condit, Woodley really did fight well before the somewhat untimely end to the bout. Using his athleticism edge, Woodley was able to quickly bounce in and smash Condit with hard punches and land counter blows when the kickboxer tried to wade in with his own combinations.
Additionally, Woodley made full use of his wrestling. Whenever Condit got especially aggressive or backed Woodley into the fence, he’d simply change levels and power double through his lanky foe. One of those takedowns eventually tore apart Condit’s knee, ending the bout (GIF).
In his two bouts with Thompson, Woodley was able to land two takedowns. Those takedowns won him a pair of rounds, but it also seemed to slow Woodley down a bit, as he did little else in the round after he wrestled.
Back in Strikeforce, Woodley’s wrestling approach was far more straight forward. Walking down his opponents and forcing him to shell up under the threat of overhands, Woodley would dive forward into double and single legs against the fence. From there, Woodley managed to lift and slam even the most stubborn foes, proving to be quite controlling from top position. Additionally, Woodley showed a powerful clinch game, making it quite difficult to tie up with him for any length of time without being placed on the mat (GIF).
One of the more interesting things about Woodley’s willingness to fight with his back to the fence is that it does affect wrestling exchanges. Woodley is unafraid to get taken down along the fence — his defense held up perfectly until he met Usman — but having his back to the fence guarantees that his opponent does not. If Woodley is able to duck under a punch or catch a kick, he has about 30 feet of space to finish the takedown before his opponent can rely on the fence to remain standing.
A black belt under Ricardo Liborio, Woodley has won four fights via submission. All but one came over a decade ago, so let’s focus on the exception.
After dropping and battering Till from within the guard, Woodley pulled off a pretty brilliant sequence to finish him. From half guard, Till secured an underhook with the hopes of returning to his feet. Instead, Woodley applied such pressure with his overhook that Till could not move. With his foe stuck in place, Woodley started dropping elbows.
When Till ducked his head, Woodley swam the arm deeper and locked in a d’arce choke.
Woodley did also nearly secure a front choke opposite “Wonderboy.” After rocking the Karateka, he found his opponent’s neck and secured a deep grip, pulling gull guard and attempting the guillotine choke. Unfortunately, Woodley’s arm-in grip and choice to jump full guard made it a difficult submission to finish. Furthermore, Woodley attempted to finish by pulling through the arm-in guillotine, which is more difficult than sitting up into the choke (GIF).
Woodley is really at a crossroads. Dispatch Burns, and he proves his position in the top five and is back in the title mix. Come up short, and Woodley would need a multi-fight, likely multi-year win streak to earn another shot at gold, which just doesn’t seem likely.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.