Artwork by Gian Galang
Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson fought a blistering five rounder at UFC 205 last year. The action was universally acclaimed but the result pleased no one. A majority draw undermines the authority of the champion, but he retains the belt. The challenger is applauded, but he goes home with nothing. To some everyone wins, to a world class athlete everyone loses. The one upside of a draw is that if it came at the conclusion of a heated contest, the rematch is the first order of business and so at UFC 209 Thompson and Woodley will go at it once more, in a fight which will struggle to live up to the excitement of the first, but which will hopefully give us some closure.
The Ol' Dagestani Backstep
One consistent feature of Tyron Woodley's game throughout his career has been a willingness, or at least a tendency, to back himself onto the fence. We cannot tell if this is just poor awareness and movement or a tactical decision because while being on the fence is typically seen as bad ring generalship, there exist some advantages to the position. The most obvious is that almost every opponent is taught to see this as the time to attack, making drawing strikes to duck under or occasionally even counter a lot easier. The second is that it puts the largest possible distance between the opponent's back and the opposite fence—the man with his back to the fence is always finishing his takedown attempts into space, rather than running onto the fence which can be used to hold an opponent up as he fights off his man's hands. The Dagestania wrestlers Ali Bagautinov and Rustam Khabilov do most of their fighting with their back nearing the fence.
When Thompson was first confronted with Woodley along the fence, appearing to be a sitting duck, he rushed in to punch Woodley and found himself being turned onto the fence.
Thompson did a good job of preventing Woodley from getting off his right hand along the fence, controlling Woodley's wrist and when the champion did free his hand, Thompson had jammed in the post on his biceps and was breaking his hips off the cage and into a swift jog to the other side of the cage.
Where Woodley's ring positioning started to hurt him was as Thompson worked more cautiously along the fence. Sitting back, feinting, countering when Woodley lunged off the fence and fell short. The temptation was for Thompson to go to Woodley, but that would be giving up his reach. It is certainly a awkward gameplan to employ—like cornering a rat and waiting for it to leap at your neck before attempting to deal with it.
Rory MacDonald was able to do his best work against Woodley in this way. Walking him onto the fence, pounding his body and legs with kicks, and then giving ground and attempting to counter punch before doing it again. Thompson was largely ineffective with his kicks for reasons we will explore further in a minute, but did the smart thing along the fence and attack Woodley's body as the champion's stance shortened and he began to square up. The rear straight to the body is especially useful against an opponent whose stance has begun to square along the fence or ropes, and Thompson went to it a good few times.
Here you can see Woodley struggling with Thompson's more cautious approach along the fence, diving after a clinch before having to retreat. Then Thompson sets up a nice low high using the left straight to the body.
Another nice low-high set up from the final moments of the fight.
Thompson also attempted to time a back kick as Woodley changed direction along the fence. The fence is the best place to attempt turning kicks because the opponent has no retreat. As soon as he moves you could close your eyes and spin, and there's a 50/50 chance he will be moving into it. Out in the open, any turning kick can be defused by a rapid retreat, as Yair Rodriguez so often finds. The other advantage of back kicking along the fence is that if the opponent is allowed to circle past the lead foot and shoulder, he convinces himself he is out of harm's way, but he is in fact shortening the path of the back kick. Notice that as soon as Woodley begins circling back past Thompson's lead shoulder, he begins to spin.
The Kicking Game
Most of Thompson's offence along the fence was pretty unremarkable though. Thompson's kicks seemed largely ineffective throughout the bout. This fight actually pointed out something of a hole in Thompson's arsenal—a lack of a probing technique from which he can build. He uses Bill Wallace's holy trinity of side on kicking: the side kick, the hook kick and the round kick, but where Wallace would pump out the jab into the side kick constantly, and could throw kicks without fear of getting pushed to the mat, Thompson has to be a good deal more cautious. His side kick scarcely made an appearance in the twenty five minutes of action with Woodley, appearing once as a defensive side kick which did little but put him on the fence.
And so when Thompson threw up his high kicks, Woodley had no expectation of anything else. Through five rounds Woodley's hands were always ready for the high kicks and he had no trouble with them. Where Rory MacDonald had dug kicks to the body on Woodley along the fence, he could drop into the clinch afterwards and comfortably shuck Woodley off. Thompson was much more reluctant to get dragged into prolonged clinches and trying to fight at distance, making him less keen to really attempt to dig kicks into the midriff of the champion.
Nowhere was the awkward dilemma of kicking more obvious than in the first round of the fight. Thompson found himself being taken down off the first meaningful kick he threw: a right low kick which was caught on Woodley's thigh.
Thompson cannot thrust out side kicks to the body with impunity as Ryan Hall can, because the threat of being taken down has rarely been an issue for Hall so far. Thompson can, however, utilize linear kicks to the lead leg. Low line side kicks are easily the most frustrating kicks for wrestlers to deal with because they are only within grabbing distance for an instant, are longer than round kicks, and can easily be faked and followed with lead leg hook or round kicks. Unfortunately some fighters seem to feel honour bound not to throw them. Few fighters could benefit as much from utilizing them as Thompson, however. If you want to see a fighter building off the low line side kick effectively, just watch Conor McGregor's performance against Max Holloway where the low line side kick turned into jumping bicycle kicks to the head, to the body, and then allowed McGregor to get inside and use the left hand Holloway had been trying to deny him.
Woodley's best successes in the first fight came from half guard. He is truly exceptional there, clearing the bottom knee and smashing in punches and elbows with impunity. Even as Thompson got a butterfly hook in, or a knee shield, or an underhook, Woodley was able to set his weight and pound away without any hinderence. Woodley's sole takedown of the fight came off that ill-advised low kick. After the first instance of getting turned onto the fence after overcommitting, Thompson's distance management prevented the sneaky shots underneath his punches.
Woodley's big hurting blows on the feet came when Thompson's finger slipped off the trigger. Thompson was out at range attempted to pull his head away from jabs and counter with right hands over the top:
Or letting Woodley's long lunges for right hands fall short:
Thompson worked in bursts, countering the lunges of Woodley, or putting his own offence and getting out of dodge. On one of the few occasions when Woodley followed up after Thompson thought he had escaped, he caught Wonderboy resting on his laurels.
For Woodley, coming forward seems a better approach against a Wonderboy whose team will have pointed out the amount of time Woodley spent along the fence. However, coming forward could play into Thompson's retreat and counter punch strategy, particularly from the open side, which has done in so many opponents. As with any fighter who wants to give ground and counter when the opponent falls short, the way to make that a tougher task is to stay tight, feint lots, and throw the punches out while staying in stance, rather than throwing them out and falling face first in behind them—as so, so many MMA fighters can be tempted to do with a little bit of distance.
Considering that Thompson was attempting to time his right hands and right low kicks through the wake of Woodley's fairly obvious, single, heavy jabs—it would be worth throwing out plenty of feints and moving forwards just to see if Thompson will throw himself into a bad position when he attempts to counter strikes that aren't there. After all, a low kick in the wake of a missed jab is a great hurting blow:
But a low kick into the braced thigh of a man who only feinted and is still in position to burst in with punches or run through into a takedown, is just a badly timed low kick.
Woodley might also do well to make use of low kicks, which are powerful and fast but Thompson's main means of defending low kicks from his lengthy stance is retreat. By taking Thompson's finger off the trigger with constant forward pressure and plenty of feints, Woodley could move himself into position to utilize the inside, counter low kicking game that Robin Van Roosmalen brings world class kickboxers to the brink of tears with. The first fight gave us a quick chuckle when Thompson attempted one of his darts—which can set up nice counter side kicks:
But instead had his trailing leg punted out by Woodley.
For Thompson, obviously the low line side kick would be a brilliant addition to his game and better his chances of actually employing his usual lead leg triple attack. From his southpaw stance, he could pick and probe at Woodley's lead leg while inviting him forward and checking him each time—as Jon Jones often does. Along the fence it would be interesting to see him try to dig in the front kicks to the body that he showed occasionally against Johny Hendricks, though it would be risking getting dragged into a clinch on recovery.
It would also be interesting to see Thompson attempt more of his counter punching from the southpaw stance. Often he would switch to orthodox, wait, and then counter with his right hand after pulling straight back. If Woodley comes out double jabbing and feinting this becomes very dangerous as he could pull back, begin to counter and eat the second jab or the right hand. It would be good to see Thompson switch to southpaw and attempt to retreat to his left side in order to line up that left hand over the right shoulder, through the angle on the open side. That counter that he shares with Conor McGregor. It might be his weaker hand but he has hurt men with it before, and Woodley's guard was high and active throughout the bout: punching into the open side takes away the issue of hitting the shoulder and leaves on the glove and forearm as a barrier. Of course, there's likely a reason Thompson wasn't as keen to look for this counter against Woodley. The more you start playing out to that right side, the closer you get to that deeply unsettling right hand.
The same angle against a southpaw, from the orthodox stance.
The nature of a draw is that each man needed only to make slight adjustments to his gameplan to win. In theory only needs to stick to the stuff that went well the first time, and avoid the areas where he struggled. Except his opponent has been away from the cage for just as long as him, studying the film and training specifically to counter anything that did prove effective. And that is one of the few reasons you will hear anyone say they love a draw: both men are forced to change, neither man did enough the first time around. A standard rematch can often leave the winner of the first fight thinking he just needs to do 'more of the same', but there's none of that room to kid yourself with a draw.
We could see Tyron Woodley coming forward and pressuring the fight, we could see him diving for takedowns, we could see him sticking to the fence like glue. We could see Thompson more cautious than ever, uncharacteristically aggressive, or even fighting exclusively orthodox in a more familiar kickboxing style. It depends what each camp has seen, what weight they put on their successes, and what they think they can do to avoid their weak moments from the previous bout. Whatever happens, get back here Monday to go over how the belt ended up around whichever waist it did.
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