Since Tyron Woodley’s knockout over Robbie Lawler, the welterweight division has exploded with talent; however, despite the rise of great fighters such as Rafael dos Anjos and Till, the historically popular division has somewhat struggled for attention. A lot of that blame can be placed with Dana White, who has been loath to promote Woodley; however, it also isn’t shocking to see why the public have struggled to get behind “The Chosen One.”
Of the two champions who have defined welterweight, Woodley seemed for his first two defenses as an unfortunate middle ground; the risk aversion of Saint-Pierre but without the dominance, and the close fights of Lawler but without the violence that made it worthwhile. Woodley did a great deal to reform that image by decisively turning back the aggressive Darren Till, but he now faces a fighter the likes of whom he hasn’t yet faced in his title reign. A win is a win in terms of title retention, but a finish would further aid in giving Woodley a claim to being a top pound-for-pound talent.
His opponent is Kamaru Usman, whose win over Rafael dos Anjos swung him from the shadows into the limelight as a legitimate challenge for the champion. Usman’s status as a dark horse seemed to stick with him for far too long, even after his main-event win over Demian Maia, but he proved undeniable and his relatively long stint among the unranked (for someone undefeated and who had run into no trouble) just made his title opportunity all the more deserved. Usman’s domination of an all-time great in his last fight earned him a shot at Woodley over Colby Covington, and the “Nigerian Nightmare” looks to make good on the potential that those paying attention saw in him a long time ago.
The Chosen One
Tyron Woodley is the definition of being “more than the sum of one’s parts”; despite one of the most minimalist striking games in the UFC and wrestling that he doesn’t use a whole lot, Woodley has risen to the top of a deep division and stayed there by any means necessary. As mundane of an answer as it is, a great deal of that success comes down to being one of the best athletes in the UFC as a whole; Woodley’s signature right hand is backed by closing speed that isn’t often seen at 170-pounds, and that blow is stern enough to cause serious damage to anyone. This does a lot to make up for a relatively simple technical striking game that largely comes down to “back to the fence to draw them in, counter-overhand if they charge forward, feint forward and throw the right hand if they don’t”.
Woodley’s fights tend to be very slow-paced if he doesn’t decide to take the initiative, as the risk of getting cracked is too high for most fighters to consistently engage him offensively. Add a sporadic wrestling threat and even long-range kickers like Stephen Thompson are incredibly reluctant to engage Woodley; this allows him to work at his own pace, doing very little for long stretches of the fight before charging forward with the right, and punishing opponents like Darren Till who try to push the pace recklessly.
It’s obviously a viable strategy, considering that Woodley has been champion for over two years now, but it’s also likely a lot more fragile than it seems. One interesting quirk of Woodley’s elite tenure is how many southpaws he’s faced; he got his title shot off a razor close win over Kelvin Gastelum, faced Robbie Lawler for the title, and defended his title against Demian Maia and Darren Till. His only elite opponent who has not played a dedicated southpaw game has been Stephen Thompson, whose stance varies. Woodley’s reliance on the rear hand makes facing southpaws a great deal easier; it allows his primary weapon a great deal of utility, since the shoulder isn’t in the way of the rear hand in a southpaw-orthodox fight. Facing southpaws has also kept him away from the jab (which was how Rory MacDonald stymied Woodley in Woodley’s last loss), since it’s a lot harder to leverage the lead hand when there’s a shoulder in the way, and Tyron hasn’t defended his title against jabbers refined enough to beat that obstacle. This has led to fighters being too cautious to take advantage of Woodley backing to the fence (since he has the more dangerous rear hand), also not having the tools to pick at him from range, and Woodley being able to pick his shots at will.
The Nigerian Nightmare
Kamaru Usman has actually made a great deal of technical striking development in a short period of time, looking at the difference between his fights against Maia and dos Anjos. Going into the fight against Maia, Usman was expected to dominate; he’d put together lopsided (if low-action) showings against multiple solid fighters, and his rare athleticism combined with his wrestling prowess meant that he posed a serious challenge to an aging and limited grappler. Colby Covington had thrashed Maia in the fight prior, and Usman was expected to do the legend even worse, but Usman somewhat underperformed. Against Maia, Usman looked like the quintessential wrestler on the feet, in the sense that he was athletic but uncomfortable getting hit; without the option to take down an elite grappler, Usman’s primary skillset as a wrestler was nullified and he was forced to win a relatively unimpressive kickboxing match.
Just over six months later in his fight against dos Anjos, Usman’s striking looked a lot more put-together. While he took the first two rounds to wrestle and didn’t get a whole lot done, Usman opened up on the feet later in the fight and dealt serious damage. Usman’s commitment to pressuring was evident in this fight; as the bigger man against dos Anjos, he really only needed to be in contact to be winning the fight in some capacity, so Usman did a good job getting the Brazilian to the fence. He mostly did this with the jab; it wasn’t a particularly versatile one, but powerful enough to back dos Anjos up, and Usman found the opportunity to follow it with the straight right at times. When dos Anjos was against the fence, Usman was terrifying with swarming combinations that he used to open up more takedown opportunities. For such an imposing presence, the scariest part of that performance was that Usman only got stronger as the fight went on; the fight started with dos Anjos being able to hold off the wrestling (to a point) and strike a bit, but he eventually got drowned by Usman’s sheer relentlessness.
Conclusions and Capping
Tyron Woodley has shown excellent takedown defense, but he also hasn’t faced a wrestler as strong as Usman; Demian Maia is a crafty single-leg artist, but he isn’t nearly as athletic as Usman, and Usman is as persistent and a fundamentally sounder wrestler. Usman’s ability to dominate a fight from start-to-finish is a serious threat to Woodley’s relative inactivity in the cage, as Usman likely won’t allow Woodley to have the fight that he wants, and Usman isn’t athletically overmatched enough that Woodley can just force his game with no difficulty.
The question is whether the swarming style of Usman will be able to withstand the counterpunching of the champion; both in terms of ending the fight and forcing Usman to be more skittish, one clean connection could be all it takes for Woodley to win the fight. Usman can take advantage of Woodley being against the fence better than any of Woodley’s previous opponents, and he can jab well enough to keep the pace up without necessarily exposing himself to the right hand; past the second round or so, if Woodley can’t scare Usman off with his power, it’s likely going to be a long night. Woodley finding the right hand against a disciplined and stylistically unfavorable opponent seems slightly less likely than Usman gaining momentum down the stretch; Usman’s defense isn’t good enough in the pocket to trust him fully against the dangerous and savvy champion, but he should be slightly favored to get the belt in Nevada.
Prediction: Usman via TKO (Round 4). This writer caps Usman at -130.
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