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Gilbert Burns in the UFC on ESPN 9 main event did what no one had previously been able to do: He did not get knocked out by former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley.
Context is important here. After Woodley’s first career loss against Nate Marquardt in a failed bid to capture the Strikeforce welterweight crown in 2012, he bounced back with a 36-second knockout of Jay Hieron in his next fight. After dropping a controversial split decision against Jake Shields in 2013, he returned five months later with a hellacious first-round knockout of Josh Koshcheck. After getting outpointed by Rory MacDonald in 2014, he rebounded with a 61-second technical knockout of Dong Hyun Kim two months later. In the next fight after each of his first three losses, Woodley not only won but did so with highlight-reel knockouts in the first round.
Then Kamaru Usman thoroughly dominated “The Chosen One” in March 2019, taking the welterweight strap and derailing Woodley’s five-year, seven-fight unbeaten streak. This being Woodley’s comeback fight, you would expect him to show signs of reinvigoration like he did in the past. Expecting another monstrous knockout would be too much, and expecting a win would probably be, too. Yet to come back in his first fight after losing the belt and lose in an almost identical fashion? It was genuinely shocking. The initial trend of Woodley bouncing back from a loss with a spectacular win is not just a fun fact. It’s a testament to the tactical mind behind the tireless competitor. Woodley is a cerebral fighter and a student of the sport, and the lessons he learned studying his losses were evident in his subsequent wins.
Against Marquardt, Woodley was most successful in the third round, where he pushed “Nate the Great” against the fence and exploded with a barrage of heavy right hands. Though he gassed himself out in the ensuing flurry and ended up getting TKO’d in the next round—remember, it was Woodley’s 11th pro fight and Marquardt’s 44th—he clearly understood what worked. In his next bout, he was more aggressive more quickly and overwhelmed Hieron out the gate.
Woodley arguably beat Shields, but in general, the dynamic was similar: He was put on his back foot for most of the fight. Shields nipped him with punch-kick combos and shot innumerable hopeless takedown attempts, but in the end, the judges sided with that over Woodley’s backpedaling inactivity. Lesson learned. When Koscheck pressured him in his next fight, Woodley planted his feet in the center of the cage and hurt him. That early exchange led to the fight-ending combo at the end of the first round.
Then there was the MacDonald fight. MacDonald was the first opponent to truly figure out Woodley. He stayed in Woodley’s face and tagged him with kicks, punches and standing elbows. The constant pressure froze Woodley and allowed MacDonald to tee off on him throughout the fight—to the point that in between the second and third rounds cageside commentator Joe Rogan said the following: “It’s hard to imagine Woodley taking the entire fight with his back to the cage and his offense limited to a few leg kicks and telegraphed punches.” Yeah, imagine that. In a way, it’s kind of incredible no one managed to capitalize on that blueprint until Usman. Nevertheless, Woodley rebounded against Dong Hyun Kim and uncorked a homer of a right hand when Kim attempted a hilariously reckless spinning backfist.
Though there are more nuances to the adjustments Woodley made—use of feints and lateral movement, small battles for foot position at mid-range—the general dynamic has always been a matter of forward versus backward movement. When aggressive, he has had consistent success. When he sits back and waits for a single massive counter, the results have been mixed. Even if you consider the 75 minutes of high-intensity staring against Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia rational strategy in response to unique stylistic challenges, which is partially true, there is no denying that Woodley has been on a conservative streak. He kicks less often and throws fewer multi-punch combos than he used to. He lets himself get pushed into the fence more readily, and unless his opponent is foolishly aggressive like Darren Till or Robbie Lawler, he and everyone watching end up waiting for a single big right-hand counter for most of the fight.
What struck me about the losses to Usman and Burns, however, was not just that both of them successfully employed MacDonald’s template but that they physically overwhelmed him. This is hard to believe given Woodley’s ridiculous physique, which at 38 still looks like someone packed as much fast-twitch muscle as could possibly fit on a human frame. That physical intensity is the difference between the ineffective stalking of Thompson and Maia and the lopsided victories for Usman and Burns.
There is a disconnect between what Woodley is trying to do and what he’s actually doing. His last 50 minutes in the Octagon have been marked by being a half-step too slow and a half-second too late. He said that he “wasn’t really in [his] body” against Usman, and against Burns, he was literally trying to slap himself into the moment mid-fight. Barring any major injury about which we do not know, these are the first signs of being shot. Not much can be done once that threshold is crossed. It’s like the event horizon of a black hole, an invisible and seemingly arbitrarily placed point of no return. Unfortunately for Woodley, who will likely go down as the consensus second-best welterweight when he decides to hang up the gloves for good, no one has figured out how to bounce back from that final athletic decline. Eventually, no amount of diligent study can match life’s hardest tests.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.