Analysis. Picks. Betting Tip: UFC 209 – Woodley vs. Thompson

After one of the worst pay-per-view events in recent memory three weeks ago at UFC 208, one of the best is up next as it’s off to the T-mobile arena this Saturday night for UFC 209. On paper this card is superb throughout but it’s topped by two fights which would fit perfectly in any of the greatest cards of all time.

In the main event, a rematch for the welterweight title leads the way as messrs Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson square off once again following a tight tussle at UFC 205 before the turn of the year.On that occasion the judges correctly scored the fight a draw (despite Bruce Buffer mistakingly reading Woodley out as the winner) with Thompson taking three of the last four rounds and Woodley getting a definite 10-8 in the 4th. We’ll get to that more analytically in a little while.

Coming into the last fight, Ferguson, Missouri native Woodley had a seven year career behind him full of ups and downs. He made his professional debut in 2009 and went on to win ten in a row with names like Paul Daley and Tarec Saffiedine on his list of victims. His first career loss was against Nate Marquardt for the Strikeforce title in 2012 before he jumped over to the 8-sided enclosure.

Woodley quickly took out veterans Josh Koscheck, Kelvin Gastelum and Carlos Condit but losses to Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald were also setbacks on the road to where he is today. That road also saw Woodley sit on the sidelines for 18 months to wait for a title shot but it took mere seconds to finish Robbie Lawler when it finally happened. Since then he has campaigned for big money fights but it’s Wonderboy for a second time despite all of that.

A student of the toughest man in South Carolina, Simpsonville’s Thompson is a champion karateka and kickboxer who made his MMA bow back in 2010 with a lifetime of martial arts experience in his and his father’s back pocket.

Five wins outside of the UFC saw Thompson signed up by the Las Vegas based promotion while a foot-to-head knockout of Dan Stittgen in his debut made him a top prospect. In stepped grizzled veteran Matt Brown at that stage who manhandled a clearly inexperienced Thompson for three rounds and slowed his roll quickly.

In hindsight that turned out to be a the best thing to happen to Thompson who has become an altogether more well rounded and better MMA fighter since. Top class wins over outstanding wrestlers Jake Ellenberger, Rory MacDonald and former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks all followed in his path to the title shot where he also showed his ability despite leaving without the belt.

As they meet for a second time it’s interesting to note, when looking at it in a broad analytical sense, that this is a particularly simplistic match-up in terms of who wins, who loses and why.

In the first fight, Thompson had it all his own way when he was able to control range. He kicked Woodley to the body, jabbed him in the face and was altogether quicker in most of the exchanges.

That changed when Woodley took away the range. All of his best strikes came with his big right hand when he was able to catch Thompson at close quarters on the inside. While in taking the first round, Woodley showed that if he can get Wonderboy to the ground (which he did by catching a kick) then he has a huge advantage there and can dominate.

Coming into the second fight nothing changes. Woodley wants to close the distance. Thompson wants to keep the distance. And they’ll both be looking for changes to do that in a better way than the first fight.

On Woodley’s side it’s pretty simple. Be patient and defensive when striking while trying to take any chances to get off strikes while he can when Wonderboy is close and not in a position to counter. An uptake on wrestling is also a must for the champion. By his nature, Thompson kicks a lot and that is a very available road from where Woodley can get it to the ground. Thompson has improved a lot in the fence and open-field takedown game but when he’s on one leg it gives Woodley a huge chance.

For Wonderboy, the task is a little more complicated. He needs to do something which everyone talks about but is very hard to actually produce. Land more and take less shots.

In the first fight, despite dominating range for long periods, Thompson never got into a rhythm or a flow where he was landing big shots regularly on Woodley like he had in previous fights. A lot of his shots were quick combinations but weren’t sustained for long enough.

The reason for that is obviously an anxiousness about Woodley’s power and wrestling but the change in this case in also the antidote. Back Woodley up more, don’t throw any lazy kicks to give him takedown opportunities, land more shots and you’ll give him less of a chance to establish his game. That though is way easier said than done.

When looking at who can implement those changes it’s pretty hard to tell. Both undoubtedly can do it but we have no idea who will. And that’s what makes this one such an interesting fight again.

If your seeking out reasons to pick a winner, I think wrestling, or stopping wrestling, is the biggest factor here. Now both men can get the finish on the feet, but if the fight stays standing you would have to favour Wonderboy. That means takedowns are likely to decide who wins this fight. For me, if Wonderboy makes a slight adjustment so he can whip in and vary his kicks to prevent Woodley from getting a chance to catch them it’s a huge camechanger in this one. So much so that it might just be the reason he wins the fight.

UPDATE: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson has been removed from UFC 209. Nurmagomedov was not medically cleared because of weight management issues.

If the main event is one of the easiest fights to understand from a technical point of view, the co-main event might be one of the most complicated. In that spot, Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on Tony Ferguson for a particularly unnecessary interim version of a lightweight title currently held by Irishman Conor McGregor.

For Dagestan’s Nurmagomedov this will be the first real step up into the very top tier of MMA despite winning all of his twenty four fights. His best win to date arguably came in his 2014 bout with Rafael Dos Anjos (who later win on to win the title)  while his last outing against Michael Johnson showed he is still a force to be reckoned with despite a few injury ravaged years.

At this stage in their careers, Khabib has the bigger reputation but Tony Ferguson has by far the better curriculum vitae. Like Khabib, Ferguson has a win over Rafael Dos Anjos while also taking names like Edson Barboza, Lando Vannata and former Strikeforce champion Josh Thomson.

As a fight this one is about as good as anything you have ever seen before in the history of the UFC. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson are two of the best fighters in the best division in MMA. And although they find themselves in a similar position, they are very different fighters.

On one side you have Tony Ferguson. A no-nonsense technical brawler who will take 10 to land 11. And on the other you have Khabib Nurmagomedov who is one of the most dominant wrestlers in the sport. That makes for an extremely interesting fight just viewing it from a basic outlook.

If we get a little more deep what we see is supernatural ability.

When looking at Tony Ferguson and trying to categorise his game it’s basically impossible. He doesn’t fit into one of your normal MMA fighting mould – he fits into all of them. Ferguson can wrestle. He’s great off of his back. He can counter. He can go forward. He can really do just about anything.

That wide range of techniques makes him an absolute nightmare to prepare for. One second he could be jabbing as a southpaw, the next he’s throwing a lead left uppercut. Usually, when you take someone down you have the advantage but with 10th planet jiu-jitsu’s famed rubber guard Ferguson can submit or sweep you in a flash.

Nurmagomedov, conversely, is a much more orthodox yet still extremely gifted and dominant. On the feet he may not be up there with the best in the division but he can more than hold his own. He has a nice jab which he follows with a stiff right hand and the occasional leg kick. In reality, that’s all done to set up the takedown.

For some fighters to get you to the ground, they need to attack you in a certain way. Not Nurmagomedov. If he can get a hold of you, literally anywhere, you’re going on to your back. He has a great double leg, his trips are fantastic while his takedowns against the fence might be the best in the UFC. Once Khabib catches you, he doesn’t let you go.

And that’s only where the problems begin. On the ground he is up there with Jacare Souza, George St-Pierre and Demian Maia in terms of greatness. His top game is unbelievably strong and it’s basically impossible to get away once he gets in any position on top of you. Nurmagomedov likes to get to side-control and does lots of work in half-guard but from every position he shatters souls with vicious, unrelenting ground and pound.

In all likelihood this is set to be 1 to 5 rounds of absolute magic mixed martial arts which will produce a few surprises along the way.

Normally, Tony Ferguson’s insanely attractive style is why he wins fights but here I think it will either be the reason he wins or the reason he loses. In the Michael Johnson fight, Khabib’s vunrabilities on the feet were shown up and that’s probably Ferguson’s best path to victory – if still not the most likely. But on the path you have to get close to Khabib and avoid the takedown. As of yet, nobody in MMA has been able to do that.

Then the debate is how well will Ferguson be able to cope on the ground against Nurmagomedov. There’s always the possibility Ferguson snatches something from the rubber guard, or maybe even from the lockdown – in fact that’s probably his most likely method of victory. And although until it happens we don’t know, my thoughts about how most people fare on the ground with Khabib would be not very well at all.

Outside of that you can look forward to the return of Rashad Evans against Dan Kelly, uber prospect Mirsad Bektic vs. Darren Elkins, striking phenom Lando Vannata vs. David Teymur and the heavyweight showdown between Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem.

In that one, I think Overeem will be looking to either stay outside of range or wrestle Hunt because of the fragility of his chin. The fragility which, incidentally, I see Hunt preying on to get the KO after stuffing takedowns and leaping into range.

FIGHT PICKS
Tyron Woodley (c) vs. Stephen Thompson – Wonderboy gets the win this time
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson – Takedowns get Khabib a late stoppage
Rashad Evans vs. Dan Kelly – Evans via KO
Lando Vannata vs. David Teymur – Great fight, taking Lando here
Alistair Overeem vs. Mark Hunt – Hunt via leaping left hook
Marcin Tybura vs. Luis Henrique – Tybura
Mirsad Bektić vs. Darren Elkins – Bektić
Iuri Alcântara vs. Luke Sanders – Alcántara
Mark Godbeer vs. Daniel Spitz – Spitz
Tyson Pedro vs. Paul Craig – Craig
Amanda Cooper vs. Cynthia Calvillo – Cooper
Albert Morales vs. Andre Soukhamthath – Morales

BETTING TIP
Nurmagomedov via TKO/KO at 7/1

UPDATE: With Khabib out the bet of the week is now Mirsad Bektic via submission at 9/2

START TIMES
Early Prelims – 12am on Fight Pass
Prelims – 1am on BT Sport and Fight Pass
Main Card – 3am on BT Sport

Lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Co-host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Tuesday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma