LAS VEGAS — Sequels are rarely better than the originals, and that idiom rang true at UFC 209.
Tyron Woodley left the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night still in possession of his UFC welterweight title, having captured a majority decision victory over Stephen Thompson in UFC 209’s main event. But his rematch against “Wonderboy” paled in comparison to the action-packed first meeting between the two welterweights, as Woodley and Thompson found themselves locked in an uneventful stalemate for large portions of the bout. And both men were well aware of the optics of how things played out.
“When you fight somebody for the second time, especially somebody like ‘Wonderboy,’ he’s really crafty,” Woodley said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference. “A lot of people don’t realize, what I’m seeing when I’m in there is not the same thing the fans may see. They want to see the bulldozer come forward, because they’ve seen me do that so many times.
“But when I came forward a few times, you saw me get those double right hands upside the head. He’s probably the best counter-attacker in our division, so I had to be cautious, I had to be patient, I had to really block out the boos. And I had to find the right entry to get in close enough to do damage, and it took awhile for me to get there. But I got it done.”
Rather than being the aggressor, both Woodley and Thompson opted to let the other lead the dance at UFC 209, leading to long periods of inactivity that plagued the early rounds of the fight. According to FightMetric, the significant strike count for the opening two frames of the bout was virtually nonexistent — 6-5 in Thompson’s favor for round one, tied 8-8 for round two — with zero combined takedown attempts and zero combined minutes of control time over the course of the first 10 minutes, Woodley and Thompson largely staying out of range while trying to bait the other inside.
Business eventually picked up as the fight went on — Woodley scored a takedown in round three and had Thompson on the ropes in the closing minutes of the fifth — but altogether the fight was one of the most inactive UFC title fights in recent memory, resulting in an anticlimactic conclusion to the pair’s rivalry.
“We’re both counterpunchers,” Thompson said at UFC 209’s post-fight press conference. “He was waiting for me to come in and I was waiting for him to come in. And it’s kinda tricky, especially with somebody who fights like that, because you’ve got to kinda lure them out. I was throwing a lot of feints and hoping he would bite on it — in and out, in and out, hopefully he’ll try and hit me so I can counter him.
“But he made it very tricky. He wouldn’t go when I wanted him to go. He went on his terms, and it was a little bit hard. I hit him with a lead hand hook a few times, but no real big, big shots. So I think with two counterpunchers, it makes it a little interesting. It makes it hard to kinda lure them out to do that, to be able to counterpunch them.”
Woodley ultimately won in the judges’ eyes, claiming a majority decision by scorecards of 48-47, 47-47, and 48-47 — and in the process, narrowly avoiding a repeat of the majority draw that plagued the pair’s first fight at UFC 205. Thompson indicated afterward that he believed he did enough to win three rounds to Woodley’s two, but regardless, both men admitted that there were tactical decisions they wish they could revisit once the fight was over.
“It was frustrating,” Woodley said. “There were moments where I should have maybe faked a shot, came up punching, went back to the shot, came up punching — just some stuff to chop the tree down and get a little closer to a longer opponent. So yeah, I could’ve done a little bit more of that. But there were times where the opening wasn’t there for the takedown. Trying to just jab him in the face is hard because he looks a lot closer than what he is, and he’s waiting to fade back and counter with his right hand. And I’ve seen it time and time again, he fades back, counter right hand, lead leg roundhouse, and that’s where he knocks guys out.”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the fans in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena to turn on the action unfolding inside the cage. Woodley and Thompson were both roundly booed throughout the fight, and a frustrated Thompson admitted afterward that he was surprised by the champion’s mirrored tactics of hanging back and electing to be a counter-striker.
“I didn’t realize he was going to be as hesitant for this one,” Thompson said. “He was backing up a lot. And I knew he was waiting for me to come in. I could feel that. You know when you’re out there, there’s a feel thing, that, this guy is looking for me to come in so he can hit me with a right hand or take me down. So I had to play it smart. I had to keep him away with my side kicks, flick the jab out there every now and then, throw the left hand, threw a left hand, threw the leg kicks. But when he explodes, he explodes.
“The fans, they paid for a show. It’s our job to go out there and put on a performance. But then again, you’re thinking about our safety as well. The one shot could be the end of your career. I’ve seen punches like that end dude’s careers. So, I thought I went out there, and that was my whole plan. ... I had him backing up the whole time, pretty much the whole time. I thought I had good cage control, just being aggressive, moving him back. But [the boos don’t] bother me one bit. I know I got a job to do out there and my goal was not to get hit. So if the crowd boos, they boo. But they’re not the ones out there fighting.”
Scoring for the rematch was all over the board online, and even Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett publicly criticized judge Sal D’Amato for scoring a 10-8 round five in Woodley’s favor. (Although it should be noted that D’Amato’s score ultimately had no impact on the outcome of the fight, as he was already the lone dissenting judge.) UFC president Dana White chimed in with his own scorecard as well, revealing that he gave the edge to Thompson.
White also joined in the criticism of the tentativeness of the bout. But in the end, none of the noise mattered, as Woodley left the arena as the reigning and defending UFC welterweight champion.
“I want to see Dana get in there and fight ‘Wonderboy,’” Woodley said. “Watch everybody else who walked in there (against him). Watch Patrick Cote, watch Robert Whittaker, watch all these guys that thought they were just going to bulldoze him and they disrespected his style. I did the opposite, I embraced his style.
“You can’t disrespect that style. What happens is you think you’ve got it figured out, and kicks and punches come from weird angles, and you find yourself without [the UFC title] and you find yourself knocked out. So, I know this is a sport where you guys love to see knockouts, you love to see the gore, you love to see blood, guys getting beat up and then they find a way to come back. I love watching it as well. But guess what? I love being the world champion, and sometimes it’s not the sexiest fight on Earth.”