After his win over Darren Till, a one-sided contest in which the British prospect landed nothing significant and was finished in the second round, Tyron Woodley’s title reign seemed to gain new life. “The Chosen One” had already defended the belt twice, against Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia, but both were tepid and uninspiring wins; with his defense against Till, they were reframed as an example of the champion’s fight IQ. Offensive inertia had been renamed as intelligent risk management, and simply winning against different opponents had been painted as uncommon adaptability. At UFC 235, Woodley closed at odds of around -200, and even that didn’t adequately represent the public opinion; his challenger was painted as a budget version of Woodley, going against someone more athletic, more technically sound, and more intelligent.
Over 25 minutes, Kamaru Usman dispelled every single one of those claims and then some, turning in a comprehensively dominant underdog performance on par with TJ Dillashaw ripping apart Renan Barao or Rafael dos Anjos lamping Anthony Pettis from pillar to post. Usman made Woodley look like he didn’t belong in the cage with him, and made the oddsmakers and the public look like utter fools. It was a -1000 performance from a +140 underdog, an absolutely sensational one that cemented Usman as a pound-for-pound talent.
Post-fight, as they often do, the outside explanations flowed; Woodley claimed to have an off fight and that he felt “hypnotized” and “flat,” and the public seems to have gravitated towards the notion that Woodley simply seemed disinterested. Not only does this do a tremendous disservice to Usman, who put on the fight of his life, it also does a disservice to Woodley, who showed the heart of a champion despite being dragged through a nightmare. Usman’s win may be attributable to Woodley being unable to pull the trigger, but Usman did a great deal to exacerbate that and pursue his win condition.
Orthodox Stance, Unorthodox Positioning
Kamaru Usman had actually been a relatively unstable striker until his last two fights; especially in the Maia fight, Usman looked fairly unimpressive without the option to wrestle. Legitimate power, as clear from his frame and his build, but without the confidence to swarm an opponent without his wrestling available as a backup plan. His best striking performance up to the RDA fight may have been against Sergio Moraes, and that wasn’t particularly promising; he was willing to walk through strikes to knock Sergio out, and that didn’t bode well against a hitter like Woodley (especially on the counter).
Woodley’s countering ability also made Usman’s tendency to shift a bit dangerous for him. Usman liked to cover distance with the shift, which helped him with pressuring, but there was the risk that one of those could just run him into a right without being positioned rightly to defend.
Usman backs Moraes up with a straight left and shifts forward into orthodox as he feints an uppercut. Left hook misses but leaves Moraes totally squared up against the fence, and lets Usman crack him with the fight-ending right.
Usman throws a 1-2 and shifts into a right hook; the shift covered a lot of distance and allowed him to force dos Anjos backward, and the takedown attempt covered the rest in pushing RDA to the fence.
Usman showed the ability to soundly pressure without shifting against dos Anjos; while he still had those stance switches and shifts, as he grew more comfortable, he started to push the Brazilian back with the jab from both stances. This kept him from possibly running into counters as he shifted, and allowed him to use his range more intelligently.
Usman prods at RDA with an orthodox jab and follows him to the fence with a southpaw jab to tee up a bad beating against the fence.
Against Woodley, the stance switches were (mostly) gone, and the pressure came with jabs and feints more refined than Usman has ever shown prior. In general, shifting on the front foot is dangerous; however, staying in orthodox is even more brilliant considering that the fight was against Tyron Woodley.
Woodley’s success at the elite level has mostly been against dedicated southpaws; this matters in the defensive options that his opponents have against his relatively limited arsenal. Especially considering that Woodley hasn’t faced a great pocket defensive operator (such as dos Anjos), Woodley’s opponents being southpaws meant that he could get away with being one-handed as a boxer; the lead shoulder wasn’t in the way of his right hand, so his thunderous power had a route straight to their chin. This especially mattered against Till; while the rest of Woodley’s opponents didn’t really want to take advantage of Woodley’s preference against the fence, Till did, but couldn’t attack as a southpaw without putting himself in harm’s way.
Darren Till tries to enter with a lead uppercut followed by the straight; Woodley pulls from the uppercut to counter with the right, and Till eats it clean as the southpaw-orthodox matchup keeps his lead hand out of play defensively.
Woodley’s tendency to back up, to draw his opponent into him, left him as a good stylistic foil to Usman’s forward-motion; it became whether Usman could defend the right on the way in, and he did a great job of it. The feints became less to push Woodley back (since he already was backed up of his own volition), but more to keep Woodley uncomfortable and unable to time counters. When Woodley did time a counter, Usman was behind his lead shoulder, and that’s something Woodley isn’t used to.
Usman surges forward and Woodley throws the right hand, but it rolls off Usman’s shoulder. Usman stalks forward with lead-hand feints, making it difficult to time another one.
Even past just committed orthodoxy, Usman took another brilliant step to mitigate the threat of the right hand in his positioning as a pressurer: keeping his entire body slightly to Woodley’s left. To keep Usman in trouble of eating a right hand without awkwardly punching across himself and killing its power, Woodley would have had to reposition. It seems simple, but usually comes with a trade-off for someone trying to keep his opponent on the fence; Woodley could’ve circled to his own right and alleviated the pressure, but he usually wants to be backed up anyway. Usman sacrificed some cutoff ability to keep Woodley’s counters and linear explosions less potent.
Note the positioning of Usman’s lead foot, basically lined up with Woodley’s; he was off to Woodley’s left, which meant that he was somewhat insulated from Woodley’s most potent weapon. Also note Woodley’s rare effort to jab, since his rear hand was nulled, and Usman’s jab snapping his head back.
Orthodoxy and positioning really simplified clinch entries, as the biggest threat for Usman was getting cracked on the way in; Usman being able to continually enter the clinch was half the battle, as even if Woodley were able to defend takedowns, Usman’s gas tank and persistence likely would’ve gained him the upper hand as the fight went on. Usman being a monster once he got there from the jump was just a bonus.
A Brutal Clinch
One point going into the fight was Woodley’s sterling takedown defense; at about 97%, Usman’s wrestling was in danger of being frustrated by Woodley’s sound fundamental wrestling (helped by being one of the best athletes in the UFC as a whole). Usman shot for takedowns a decent amount, but he dealt a great amount of damage in the clinch when Woodley defended; he dealt enough damage, in fact, that Woodley jumped a guillotine in round 4 (after feeling Usman’s crushing top control) because he couldn’t get any offense off except for Hail Marys.
The biggest singular blows generally came off elbows on the break:
Woodley has an underhook, but he’s unable to get off the fence as Usman’s head is pressed into his chin (breaking his posture, in a sense). Usman switches from controlling the other arm to a clean elbow and follows up with another clinch entry and a body lock takedown.
The threat of the takedown from double-underhooks allowed Usman to deal serious damage in the over-under; Woodley would be consumed with holding an underhook as Usman pressed him into the fence with his own, and that left Usman a free hand (on Woodley’s underhooking side) to smash Woodley’s ribs with uppercuts.
Usman ribroasts Woodley in the clinch.
Usman also did some good work from collar ties late in the fight; it wasn’t a tool Usman’s used a lot in the past, but Woodley was basically done at that point, and Usman was just dealing damage in creative ways.
Usman lands a knee to the body and an elbow from the double collar tie, and follows up with an uppercut from the single collar tie that severely hurts the champion.
Usman did great work from on top, but the fight largely hinged on the body-blows from the clinch; they absolutely sucked the wind from Tyron, left him inert on the bottom, and left him wounded every moment he was on the feet. Combined with Usman’s excellent gas tank, the fight was destined to be harder to pull from the brink as it went on.
In a sense, this fight was a clash of exactly opposite fighting philosophies, which explains why Woodley looked so unimpressive. Usman’s fights tend to snowball; even for a cardio monster like Rafael dos Anjos, Usman’s beatdown left him unable to meaningfully function in the championship rounds. In contrast, Woodley’s fights are defined by long stretches of inactivity punctuated by explosions of offense; Usman took those stretches away from Woodley, mitigated the explosions, and left Woodley with exactly no options. Minimalism can go a long way, but Usman made Woodley’s brand look totally unviable.
Some credit has to go to a continually maligned coach in Henri Hooft; while his corner advice in previous fights (“don’t give up”) has been suboptimal, he’s historically done an excellent job taking pure wrestlers and turning them into capable strikers. A few of his fighters, Michael Johnson and Anthony Johnson among them, have shown real discipline issues under fire, but Usman was a picture of composure under the blows of the most notorious hitter at 170 pounds.
If Usman doesn’t fall off as a tactician (a la Michael Johnson after his excellent showing against Edson Barboza), he’s a nearly insurmountable challenge for anyone in the division. The Usman Era has begun, and while it may not last long against the contenders to come in a deep division, he deserves all the credit for wiping out a champion who seemed as unstoppable as any in modern MMA.