Pre-Fight Thoughts: Tyron Woodley -vs- Kamaru Usman
Serving as the co-main event for UFC 235, long-reigning welterweight champion Tyron Woodley defends his belt against a challenger as potentially difficult as he is utterly unheralded. Kamaru Usman somehow managed to jump the line — in spite of Colby Covington having held an interim title that has been erased from history (story) — and challenges for a title despite lacking a signature win his UFC tenure. A tenacious and oppresively conditioned wrestler, Usman presents a very dangerous challenge while offering nothing in terms of marquee value — this is as risky as a title defence gets. The main event of UFC 235 is almost a foregone conclusion, while this bout poses a lot of questions and I see good arguments made for either fighter to win.
Usman's chief skill has been his ability to relentlessly pressure his opponents, using a seemingly endless amount of cardio and elite wrestling to take opponents down, control and smother them. It's not been the most riveting to watch, but Usman's ascent up the UFC rankings has been a series of fights wherein his opponents were simply overwhelmed and neutralised for the entirety of the fight. He's not racking up finishes, but he's winning, and impressively — just in a manner that is much harder to appreciate. As Woodley has the tendency to fight with periods of little-to-no activity unless he's pressured, there is a good chance this fight features a lot of stalemates which turn into staring contests as the two men circle each other.
Woodley can absolutely compete with Usman's wrestling, however his style doesn't lend itself to the pace that the challenger likes to fight at. Woodley is a much more measured and composed fighter, sticking to his gameplans and metering his energy very well. The Joe Rogan narrative of Woodley being too swole to have good cardio is misguided; Woodley is an explosive fighter, his style lends itself to burning a lot of energy — it's how he fights not his build. Now, if Woodley falls into a pattern of consistently backing into the fence, looking to counter Usman as he shoots in or otherwise advances, then he could get clinched against the fence and worn down, but I think this may be the type of wrestler-versus-wrestler fight that turns into a mostly stand-up fight. (Whether it's a good or bad stand-up fight is a whole other matter.)
Woodley's boxing is underrated, so if this turns into a wrestling stalemate and he doesn't get locked into being tentative and risk-averse, I think Woodley should be able to win this fight, most likely by decision. Usman's skills are impressive, but fairly one-dimensional; Woodley is not without his faults, but he's beaten a solid list of fighters with a variety of skills and has largely done so without being put in much danger. Woodley's advantages are experience, raw power and a much more diverse skillset. Usman's almost a one-trick pony, even if he does happen to be very good at that trick. Provided that Woodley has taken this fight serious in his preparation and isn't injured or otherwise compromised, I think this is a bad-looking fight on paper but in reality a good match-up for him. If Woodley solves the wrestling problem, he should win this fight handily.
I can't completely discount Usman's chances, as he is a very gifted athlete and this is his big chance at fame and fortune. Dethroning Tyron Woodley, who has held the welterweight title since his KO win over Robbie Lawler at UFC 201, in mid-2016, would be a huge feather in Usman's cap; he may be an unheralded challenger, but the easiest way to build a name is to snag a title and go from there (individual mileage may vary) so it goes without saying that you should expect him to show up in shape and in top form. However, unless there has been significant improvement since he smothered Rafael Dos Anjos — a fighter who historically has struggled against wrestlers — then I think he's going to come up short. Usman can win rounds, but I don't think he will win the fight.
Chances of a stoppage in this fight are pretty low, I suspect. The most likely outcomes are the three flavours of decision: unanimous each way or a contentious split decision. The amount of activity in the fight will determine whether or not we get a decision that turns MMA social media into a warzone for several days, or if it's a one-way traffic as a fighter gets an advantage and exploits it for all 5 rounds. Woodley is much more likely to finish than Usman, but I still lean towards a decision here. I see Woodley landing some big shots and using them to take Usman down and control him, and possibly working for submissions. My main concern is that this fight doesn't live up to its maximum potential for boredom.
Published: March 2nd, 2019.