When Rory MacDonald won the Bellator title, it had to be asked whether he or Tyron Woodley was the best welterweight in the world. The UFC’s virtual monopoly on talent makes this type of question a rare one and involves some oh-so-dreaded MMA math.
Tyron Woodley is the best
Woodley has the quantifiable achievement of being an undisputed champion in the toughest organization on the planet. He won that title by knocking out the seemingly indomitable Robbie Lawler in the first round. He then defended it three times; twice against Stephen Thompson and once against Demian Maia. Respectively, that is the division’s best striker and best submission artist.
Woodley fights like a bulldozer with only two levers; simple but devastating.
Part of a new breed of grapplers who use their ground prowess for defensive purposes, Woodley’s offense is built around his right hand. Thrown with skull-shattering power, no fighter can afford to eat more than a couple. If opponents times the right hand, Woodley plows through for a takedown to smash them. His immense physical strength and wrestling pedigree let him snatch takedowns from positions most fighters can’t even dream of attempting.
But is he?
Woodley’s wins are feast or famine.
At his best, Woodley slashes through opponents record time. At his worst, he is easily the most boring fighter on the UFC roster. The simple but disciplined approach seems so elegant when it works is also his downfall; deny him a right hand or take down and he’s helpless. Despite being wins, his last 2 fights are a great example.
Thompson had eaten tremendous damage in their first fight from, you guessed it, getting taken down and a pair of right hands. Meanwhile, Woodley ate stinging shots at range that sapped his gas tank. The rematch degraded into a staring contest as neither fighter committed to entering the other’s wheelhouse. In the Maia fight, Woodley was unwilling to risk going to the ground and constantly stayed at range. Maia had neither the speed nor explosiveness to get in deep on Woodley’s hips and would either get shucked off or eat a right hand.
Those are very one-dimensional fighters and one has to question whether Woodley has looked dominant because of his match ups. Besides his one-hitter of Lawler, he’s looked unimpressive against every other top flight opponent. In fact, the one that beat him most convincingly in the UFC is the man he’s being compared with.
Rory MacDonald is the best
At 28 years old and over 24 professional fights, Rory won a long overdue belt with Bellator. The title fight was a brutal back and forth affair against Douglas Lima, arguably a top 3 welterweight in the world. He is the only man to finish Tarec Saffiedine and did so back when Saffiedine was coming into the UFC 7-1 as the Strikeforce champion. He nearly beat Carlos Condit when he was only twenty years old before the wiley vet TKO’d him with seconds left in the fight. But most importantly, he boxed Woodley to pieces.
In terms of skill, Rory is a paradox.
On the one hand, he may genuinely be a prodigy. He made his debut at 16 years old and was undefeated in his first 10 professional fights, winning the KOTC Canadian lightweight and overall lightweight championships sequentially. On the other hand, he’s workman-like in his approach to fights. Apart from the occasional knockout, Rory is all about stringing together long punches and takedowns to shut his opponent down.
Don’t let the 19-4 record fool you, as Rory has only lost to 3 men total. One was Condit, who overwhelmed him when he was young and inexperienced. He lost to Lawler twice in very close fights, both times being a single good punch away from winning a decision. In fact, the only person to legitimately overwhelm him was Stephen Thompson.
But is he?
Lawler is a terrible stylistic match up for Rory, but he also fell off shortly after their horrific second fight. Was Lawler even that good when they fought? How much does a close loss to him even mean? You can argue that Lawler was at his peak when Rory met him in the rematch and it was the punishment he absorbed that caused him to stumble, but that’s speculation.
No one has had the answer for Thompson, but Woodley was at least able to “freeze” him and squeak by with a decision. Rory couldn’t figure out how to close distance and got his nose shattered again. The lack of depth at the UFC welterweight division means that Rory lost to the very best of his time, but the men he beat were usually a tier below.
Both men are hampered by style match ups.
Woodley has no answer for fighters who can mitigate his two largest weapons while top strikers with good takedown defense still flummox him. Woodley’s recent record is better, but that may be because he hasn’t met bad match ups recently. Lima is no Lawler, but he still presented the archetype of a fighter who could blow Rory away. Yet Rory persevered and won.
Honestly speaking, I think present day Rory could still own present day Woodley.
All hail the red king/Ares/the mass murderer/etc . . .