Artwork by Gian Galang
UFC 205 is just days away and so far we have suffered only one high profile withdrawal: that of Rashad Evans against Tim Kennedy. On perhaps the most star studded card to date, New York will be treated to three title fights and a heap of big names. We discussed the ins and outs of the Eddie Alvarez – Conor McGregor lightweight title belt at length in The Tactical Guide to Conor McGregor versus Eddie Alvarez.
Today we will focus on the women's strawweight title fight between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and the hotly anticipated welterweight title fight between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is heading into her fourth defense as the women's strawweight champion and few can even imagine the idea of losing this one. Compared to her previous opponent, Claudia Gadelha, this challenger hasn't looked that threatening. Karolina Kowalkiewicz took ho-hum decisions over Randa Markos and Heather Jo Clark before edging a split decision victory against fan favorite, Rose Namajunas. If Kowalkiewicz has one very noticeable habit in her game it is her tendency to step in and square up on her right hand, dropping her left to her side and failing to move her head in the process. Markos and Clark both caught her repeatedly with right hand counters as a result.
Namajunas had success with a left hook for the same reasons. Kowalkiewicz seems to disregard defense as soon as she wants to land her right hand.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz's hand speed is impressive and she ferries across the mat well with decent lateral movement and fast linear movement. She also has the ability to put together crisp flurries when her opponent draws it out of her.
But her direct retreat from attack makes her legs very susceptible to kicks. Randa Markos was successful on the couple of occasions she tried to low kick Kowalkiewicz while she retreated, it's easy to see Joanna Jedrzejczyk attempting to exploit the same habit. Jedrzejczyk is a master of small, phasic linear movements, allowing strikes to fall just short of her and then returning to connect perfectly on the end of her reach. In-and-out, out-and-in.
Which is a stark contrast to a lot of the striking in the young strawweight division which still consists of head down running while performing a front crawl motion with the upper body, and running straight backwards on the retreat.
Jedrzejczyk is full of tricks that you don't see used often enough in mixed martial arts, from horizontal elbows to opponents working on single leg takedowns, to beautiful use of flurries to set up long right straights to the solar plexus along the fence. In her last bout she found herself on the receiving end of Claudia Gadelha's blanketing wrestling for two rounds but Gadelha was unable to do anything with her takedowns and soon tired from the effort of keeping the strawweight champion down.
One thing which Kowalkiewicz might bring to the table in this bout is her length combined with a decent jab. Jedrzejczyk loves to lunge in with jabs but often has her right hand either loading up or pinned to her jawline.
Meeting her with the counter jab each time she steps in might surprise her and removes the necessity of speed by being a strategy which works on timing. Though Jedrzejczyk is an active feinter that can hinder the work of a fighter trying to time simultaneous counters.
If you are having trouble getting excited for this match up it is understandable, Jedrzejczyk is a tremendous champion but it seems as though the UFC is struggling to find challengers in the young division. But then you can never count an underdog out in this sport and the two do know each other fairly intimately having fought as amateurs.
More exciting and expected to be more competitive is Tyron Woodley's first welterweight title defense against Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson. That Woodley won the title in the modern era seems strange as he is essentially the wrestler with the big right hand that has been a standard in the welterweight division for years now. Yet within moments of being in the cage with Robbie Lawler, Woodley had decked the long time champion and taken the crown.
That threat of the takedown has always been the most reliable way to get a fighter who should know better to drop his hands while still in range. The performance also marked a departure from the Woodley norm as he took the center of the cage.
Against MacDonald, Condit, Koscheck and Shields he often conceded the center and fought with his back on the fence, lashing out with powerful, running right hands.
Against some fighters the stutter step right hand was enough, against Rory MacDonald he was picked apart with long kicks then easily shoulder rolled or stiff-armed off when he came back.
But working off the fence paid off excellently against Carlos Condit. Each time Condit threw a high kick or a knee, Woodley would step inside of it, uncork a right hand, and seize the takedown if it was there. In this simple catch-and-pitch manner he was taking it to Condit from the start of the fight until the injury which saw the contest end early.
Though he wasn't getting off entirely free.
Perhaps the most interesting point of the Woodley – Thompson match up is that Thompson is often a linear kicker, using the lead leg side kick as both an offensive and defensive strike. Not only that, but all of Thompson's kicks chamber with the knee between himself and his opponent. This can make him far more difficult to run in on after a kick than a traditional round kicker like Carlos Condit. Thompson, from his southpaw stance at any rate, is a kicker in the Bill Wallace style. Three different kicks: the side kick, the round kick, and the hook kick, all out of the same chamber. Almost indistinguishable until the last instant.
Thompson was brilliant under pressure against Rory MacDonald, easily his best opponent to date, and quickly established the distance that the fight would be fought at. Denying him the distance to work is the job of anyone placed against Thompson and no one has had much joy attempting this yet. It is in rushing to close this distance that fighters run onto Thompson's fade away left and right straights.
If any weakness has been exposed in Thompson's game it has been when his composure and discipline fail him momentarily. Similar to Lyoto Machida he will occasionally forget about getting out of the way after a counter and hang around to attempt more. This was when Jake Ellenberger caught him with a headache maker. And these are the areas that both the strikes and takedowns are a danger against Woodley.
With just days to go until the fights, UFC 205 is looking like it could be one for the history books and if any one of these title fights disappoints the participants of another will have the chance to steal the show. Whatever happens get back to Fightland on Monday and we'll discuss all the interesting bits.
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