It’s flying under the radar thanks to the magnitude of UFC 205 but Saturday’s co-main event pits newly-crowned welterweight champion Tyron Woodley against the seemingly unstoppable Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
Despite his brilliant performance against Robbie Lawler, Woodley is the first champion to open as a betting underdog since Jose Aldo went up against Conor McGregor last year. Thompson’s exceptional karate/kickboxing style will pose a serious threat to Woodley but the champion has the athletic advantage.
Here are three keys to victory for each fighter:
1. Cut off the Cage
The effectiveness of Thompson’s striking runs through his ability to maintain his distance and keep the fight at range. Like most fighters with a karate style, he needs a lot of space. If Woodley shrinks the cage by cutting Thompson’s angles he limits his arsenal of moves, particularly his long-range kicks. Woodley can utilize the clinch, dirty box and grind Thompson to frustrate him and make him fight a style he isn’t used to.
2. Keep It Simple
Woodley has been inconsistent throughout his UFC tenure. In some fights, he was too tentative and appeared to overanalyze. Against Rory MacDonald, he froze and was less aggressive but in the fight against Lawler he displayed his explosiveness. Woodley can ill-afford to play mind games with Thompson who is by far the more meticulous fighter. He should keep to his strengths, utilize his speed and power advantage and keep the fight simple.
3. Apply Heavy Pressure
Woodley is at his best when he is aggressive and Thompson’s style dictates he quickly establish himself as the predator. The more time and space Woodley gives Thompson the more likely the striking phenom picks him apart from angles. Woodley should attack with a measured but consistent aggression and keep Thompson imbalanced. He has the speed, power and athleticism to make it a long (or short) night for Wonderboy.
1. Control the Distance
Like many karate fighters before him, Thompson’s success can be attributed to his mastery of range and distance control. The fifth-degree black belt regularly confounds his opponents with his elusive movement, unorthodox technique and precise striking. We saw that in his win over Johny Hendricks where Thompson broke him down beautifully by hitting him from every angle. Hendricks had no answers. Against a similarly smaller Woodley, Thompson could just do a repeat performance.
2. Neutralize the Takedown
Thompson was taken down repeatedly by Matt Brown back in 2012 in his only career loss. But since training with Chris Weidman and the Serra-Longo fight team, he has made significant improvements to his defensive grappling and is now a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Against Jake Ellenberger, he not only stuffed his takedowns but also out-scrambled him. Woodley will look for the takedown and Thompson should be prepared to defend it and get back to his feet.
3. Head Movement
Despite having more than 60 total fights under his belt (combination of professional and amateur MMA and kickboxing bouts), Thompson has displayed a remarkable chin but his lack of absorbing damage is mainly due to him not being hit. He did get dropped by Ellenberger when he got clocked on the temple with an overhand punch, which just happens to be a favourite technique of Woodley’s. Thompson must be wary of this and respect Woodley’s hand speed and power because all it takes is one punch to end his night.
Whichever fighter can follow their game plan the best will likely emerge victorious. If Woodley simplifies the fight, establishes his power early and neutralizes Thompson’s range control he’ll walk away still the champion. If Wonderboy confounds Woodley early with his slick striking he’ll piece him up at some point to win the belt.
Power is the great equalizer, however, and as Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Come Saturday, the world will see which elite fighter will punch or kick his way to victory.