At UFC 209, everyone booed the main-event. As Tyron Woodley’s name was announced as winning a majority decision over Stephen Thompson, the cascade of hate from the crowd drowned any celebration from the champion. Woodley was none too pleased. At the post-show press conference, he defended his performance. After all, Thompson is an incredibly tricky person to prepare for and while the fans may want a blood and guts war, Woodley noted that his primary duty is to win the fight. He’s right. So too, are the fans. They feel what they feel and reacted the way most did in response. I sat on a couch and reacted the same way and I’m pretty sure my ticket was cheaper than theirs. Still, lost in it all is the simple truth that the fight was an almost identical repeat of their first fight at UFC 205.
One was considered an “instant classic” (to borrow a term from Jon Anik) and the latter is seen as a death blow to Woodley’s immediate prospects as a PPV draw. What happened? Why was it different? Why ask questions only to immediately answer them?
Because in life, timing is everything.
UFC 209’s fight essentially went as follows: three of the five rounds were conducted on the feet. Neither man landed anything significant in those rounds, mostly engaging in a point fighting battle straight out of karate. The other two rounds showcased a lot more action. In one of them, Woodley took Thompson down and pounded him, including landing some heavy elbows that cut Wonderboy’s face, bloodying the challenger. In the other round, while boring as sin for 4+ minutes, it ended with a bang when Woodley dropped Thompson with a huge punch, jumped on the opportunity and attempted to finish. Woodley wouldn’t get that finish but the fight certainly finished strong. For a brief moment, the crowd forgot they were bored – because they weren’t. But, those brief moments are just that: brief. The boos returned as the scorecards announced Woodley retaining his belt.
By contrast, UFC 205’s welterweight title fight went as follows: three of the five rounds were conducted on the feet. Neither man landed anything significant in those rounds, mostly engaging in a point fighting battle straight out of karate. The other two rounds showcased a lot more action. In one of them, Woodley took Thompson down and pounded him, including landing some heavy elbows that cut Wonderboy’s face, bloodying the challenger. In the other round, Woodley rocked Thompson. He badly hurt the challenger, jumped at a chance to finish, but couldn’t pull it off.
The biggest difference between the two fights was their placement on the card. At UFC 205, Woodley vs Thompson was sandwiched between two other title fights, and the crowd could afford to be more patient as they still had a Conor McGregor fight ahead. 209 saw the two men carrying the PPV. They were the main-event and so the pressure to deliver was greater.
Beyond that, it was mostly the order in which the rounds took place. At 209, nothing happened for almost ten minutes. The crowd had time to make up their mind that they were going to hate the fight unless something extraordinary happened. At 205, the fight started with a good round of action, buying both fighters a bit of goodwill.
On both shows, the dominant round’s placement influenced the fans’ reaction. With round four being the action round at UFC 205, it created drama in the fifth. Suddenly, because the crowd had just seen Wonderboy rocked and almost finished, every punch thrown in the fifth had the possibility of ending it all. Was Thompson still hurt? Could he make it to the end? What would happen?
At 209, the big round ended the fight. While that provided some intrigue at the end, it also meant that the third “point fighting” round had no stakes. Otherwise they were both fights with three rounds of point fighting, one round of ground and pound, and one round where Woodley badly hurt Thompson but couldn’t finish it. Had round five of UFC 209’s fight taken place in round four, the fifth may have borrowed some of 205’s drama, and the fight likely would’ve been better received. But it wasn’t, so it wasn’t.
Following the fight, Dana White criticized Woodley’s performance. As mentioned before, Woodley became defensive. Both were right, in a way. White doesn’t care why a fight was boring, he just cares that it was. Same goes for the fans. But Woodley and Wonderboy did nothing wrong. They fought exactly the same way as before, and the fight’s rounds were almost identical to those at UFC 205, just in a different order.
On paper, some fights should be great and aren’t and some should be boring but aren’t. Look at the two Stephan Bonnar vs Forest Griffin fights. Their first fight is legendary, and both men have had numerous other fights be entertaining, but their second bout was dull. It happens.
Tim Sylvia vs Randy Couture should’ve been awful. If it featured two other fighters, it probably would’ve been awful. But because of who they were, and the context of the fight, no one will ever forget and Columbus, OH was the site of a legendary victory.
Much of the blame for UFC 209 seems to be falling on Woodley’s shoulders. On the one hand, this makes sense. Woodley has had dull fights in the past, has chosen to sit out a year and a half to get a title shot, calls his critics racists, and doubled down on the “my job is to win the fight” narrative after the fight.
However, it takes two to tango. The majority of the fight was standing. That was (and is) Thompson’s world. Thompson has all of the flashy kicks and knock outs, he has the decades of experience fighting on the feet, and yet when it was in his wheelhouse, he didn’t do much with it. In fact, in both fights, the major instances of entertainment were when Woodley did something, not Thompson.
Woodley vs Thompson 2 was boring, no doubt. Woodley vs Thompson 1 was not, no doubt. Yet, Woodley gets the blame for UFC 209. He shouldn’t.