In the wake of long-time champion #GeorgesStPierre’s departure from the sport, the welterweight division has experienced rapid reinvention.
Previously occupied primarily by wrestlers and grappling specialists, the upper echelons of the division have been in a near-constant state of flux, with each successive champion diverging more and more from the styles of his predecessors. The first to succeed St-Pierre was #JohnyHendricks, an NCAA Division I champion wrestler who relied primarily on a fearless pocket boxing game and a lowkick-heavy outside striking style.
Hendricks would eventually drop the belt in a controversial split decision loss to #RobbieLawler, a boxing specialist with sublime takedown defense, who worked behind a pawing jab and crafty southpaw boxing fundamentals. Lawler would then find himself dethroned and rendered unconscious by current UFC welterweight champion and UFC 205 co-headliner, #TyronWoodley.
Woodley is a singular athletic talent, possessing unrivaled speed and power, but seemed in his formative years to be crafting a style unsuitable to the then-metagame of the welterweight division. A low volume power puncher, Woodley covers distance with incredible quickness, preferring to maintain a great deal of distance before leaping in with right hooks and straights, often before an opponent can react. His crippling power and near-perfect timing make him a unique, but stylistically bizarre knockout threat.
Perennial welterweight elite #RoryMacDonald was able to completely diffuse the threat of Woodley’s power and speed with a deeply layered defense consisting of tight distance management, controlled pressure with minimal risks, blocks with the forearm/elbow, and extending his lead arm against Woodley’s right shoulder to stifle the rear hand before it could even be thrown. Woodley has improved in the time since the MacDonald bout, currently training at #Roufusport under coach Duke Roufus, but with just over two minutes of cage time since January of 2015, the extent of Woodley’s development is currently unknown.
Woodley’s style, though foiled by technicians such as MacDonald in the past, could largely be seen as a reaction to the post-St-Pierre metagame at welterweight, which consisted primarily of aggressive pocket boxing and impenetrable takedown defense. Originally a top control grinder, Woodley has developed into a striker by trade, his takedown game less ubiquitous with each passing fight.
As a striker, Woodley’s low output and focus on the knockout may make his striking game seem rudimentary, but there’s real craft to what he does. The welterweight champion is a fighter who feasts on the pocket boxing archetype; with understated defensive savvy, he largely avoids the pocket, maintaining plentiful space until he chooses to attack.
His success as a knockout artist can be attributed not only to his freakish athleticism, but also to his broken rhythm. Woodley is a striker who works in quick bursts, with remarkable acceleration; his stop-start style of striking, measuring distance with slow, prodding jabs before leaping into vicious power shots and subsequently disengaging, results in offense which is almost devoid of rhythm, and thus exceedingly difficult to predict.
Against foes such as former champion Robbie Lawler, whose wheelhouse is the pocket, these attributes can prove devastating. Refusing to engage in long, intricate in-fighting exchanges, Woodley leverages the speed of his initiations and his impeccable timing to instead accept in-fights only in short bursts. When he senses an opening, he dashes forward, uncorking his laser-guided right hand before retreating into open space. These sequences are often performed in the blink of an eye, demonstrating the unique speed with which Woodley operates.
For a pocket-inclined fighter who cannot remove the escape routes of the ever-improving welterweight king, this presents a grave threat. Woodley’s propensity for slowing the pace of a bout results in a contest in which not much is happening in open space, and the pivotal moments of a fight are contested in the quick bursts of activity which he favors.
While Lawler’s knowledge and depth of skill in the pocket may be superior to Woodley’s, their short bout was never dictated on terms which would allow Lawler to capitalize on these advantages. Frequently feinting with his entry step, Woodley would drop his weight, anticipating his opponent’s reaction to the leap-in, before eventually closing the distance with blistering speed. Lawler, an elite athlete in his own right, was unable to match that quickness, and was sent crumbling to the canvas by a single, perfectly placed right hook.
At UFC 205, Woodley will face an opponent whose approach is not entirely dissimilar, and one who shifts even further away from the established norms of the welterweight metagame.
#StephenThompson is a striker renowned for his versatility and flashy, effortless kicking style. Similarly to the current champion, "Wonderboy" Thompson’s engagements in the pocket are preceded and punctuated by quick bursts of movement. Leaping in and out of range, his timing is no less precise than Woodley’s, though he favors punching combinations over single strikes against advancing opponents.
Thompson can strike from either stance, and is a truly ambidextrous fighter, equally effective with both legs and both hands. Where their styles of in-and-out pocket striking differ is in their focus; “Wonderboy” is a fighter who operates best in the center of the cage and his quick bursts of punching combinations serve to dissuade and punish aggressive foes. Woodley is a fighter whose offense at range is secondary, and serves to enable these quick bursts.
Thompson is a true master of open space, possessing a technical reservoir as deep as that of any fighter in mixed martial arts, and has shown great tactical application of these skills in the past. Against Rory MacDonald, an all-terrain striker with one of the sport’s most consistent and well-applied jabs, Thompson dismantled the Canadian's jab and forced him to engage nakedly in open space by fighting primarily out of the southpaw stance.
From there, “Wonderboy” effortlessly danced around the outskirts of his jabbing range, and actively smothered MacDonald’s lead hand with his own when the distance collapsed. Outside of the boundaries of punching range, Thompson is unrivaled. His repertoire of kicks is endless, seemingly possessing every conceivable variant, including front kicks, snap kicks, side kicks, and even Thai-style low round kicks, though he prefers to target the calf rather than the thigh. All of his kicks are thrown with equal proficiency, speed, and immense dexterity from either stance, and with both his lead and rear legs.
Any foe forced to fight Thompson at kicking distance is all but helpless. Targeting the head, body, and legs, he is content to chip away at an opponent and land strikes until they attempt to forcefully close the distance. From here, he has many options. The front leg side kick to the body, a normally swift kick delivered with even more exceptional speed by the karateka, is one of Thompson’s favorite tools for shutting down aggressive advances. When opponents open up with punching combinations, Thompson deftly evades, before stepping in with lengthy counters, catching opponents directly on the end of his considerable reach.
He may seem to an opponent as if he is there to be hit; Thompson likes to bait his mark into swinging aggressively by leaning forward over his lead leg with his head on the center line. Pulling back as his foe engages, they are left swinging at air as he is presented with the option to either counter or simply allow their momentum to carry them onto a side kick to the gut.
Thompson’s strings of punching combinations also allow him to mask his kicks, something he is particularly adept at. In his UFC debut against Dan Stittgen, Thompson threw a jab, cross, highkick combination, stepping to an angle outside of Stittgen’s field of vision as the kick arced upwards, sailing over his opponent’s shoulder through a blindspot. The kick was never seen coming, and his foe crashed to the canvas.
Like Woodley, Thompson is a fighter with an unusual rhythm, feinting his aggressive leaps forwards and backwards to elicit a reaction. Flurrying on opponents as they retreat is a favorite tactic of his, ensuring that they are out of position to retaliate and leaving them constantly on edge, denied the opportunity to navigate the space around them safely as “Wonderboy” himself does.
Thompson’s takedown defense has become more nuanced and consistent over the years, to the point that this welterweight title fight is likely to be contested almost entirely on the feet. Though it would be easy to assume that his extreme depth of technical skill gives him the advantage in this phase, that is true only in certain areas. In open space, Woodley is likely to have little in the way of effective offense, and will probably be greatly hindered by the active kicking barrage of Thompson.
Conversely, in punching range, no opponent in the welterweight division may pose the kind of standup threat to Thompson which Woodley does. As defensively responsible as “Wonderboy” is, his leaning forward at the waist with his hands by his hips is a dangerous tactic against a fighter so capable of closing distance in the blink of an eye.
Few fighters in any division carry the raw power which Woodley does, and while a prolonged striking battle is to his detriment, this brutal power in tandem with the speed and precision which the champion possesses serve to create a very real threat, one which Thompson must not take lightly. A single opportunity can be game-changing, and Woodley has shown the willingness and ingenuity to pounce on any opening afforded to him.
While the battle in open space may be one-sided, it is the skirmishes in the pocket, and the terms on which they are dictated, which are likely to decide this matchup. Thompson is currently a -200 betting favorite, and with good reason. He has shown in the past that he possesses the skill and technical acumen to dismantle opponents who possess a linear approach or limited toolset on the feet.
However, should he enter the octagon on November 12th ill-prepared for the champion’s unique combination of physicality and sharp punching fundamentals, Thompson may find himself falling helplessly to the canvas, staring up at the lights like so many Woodley opponents before him.
Many concepts in MMA, such as speed, athleticism, and explosiveness are quite nebulous in application, and are often used to describe a wide variety of physical attributes in the loosest sense.
UFC 205’s welterweight title bout is a clear illustration of this, as the champion and challenger possess such resoundingly different kinds of speed; one holds the singular distance-covering ability indicative of his truly special physical gifts, while the other moves with a litheness which can be achieved only through repetition of technique, performed over the course of a lifetime. That perhaps the sport’s most gifted representatives of these two forms of speed should clash inside the Octagon is a fitting contest for the UFC’s long awaited journey to #MadisonSquareGarden.