When Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley face off at July 30th at UFC 201, it will have been almost exactly a year and a half to the day that Tyron Woodley last fought. His opponent Robbie Lawlor has dispatched two opponents in that time span, both in thrilling back and forth affairs, the kind every fight fan wants to see, every fight promoter wants to put on, but maybe not the type fighters themselves wish to make a habit of getting involved with if they value their long term health. Between the drama of those title fights, the rise of Stephen Thompson, the recent decline of Johnny Hendricks, and the ongoing Saga of Rory MacDonald’s contract negotiations, it is pretty safe to say that the UFC’s Welterweight division is a very different place to the one it was when Woodley last stepped in to the Octagon.
To me Tyron Woodley has always been an infuriating bundle of obvious physical gifts with an often overlooked but just as obvious lack of either the tools or the training to fully maximize his potential. When you watch his fights the same few problems show up for him time and time again, an over-reliance on his right hand, an inactive clinch and top game, and just generally throwing his strikes like if he holds on to the ones he doesn’t use and bring them back to his gym after the fight then they will reimburse him for the hours he trained them.
What has always made Woodley such a dangerous opponent to anyone has been his explosive power. When you’re 5 8″ and you walk around at what must be close to 200 pounds, you’re going to be carrying some serious muscle mass. With those muscles came a right hand that genuinely seems capable of knocking out anyone in the division if they get caught flush. It’s not the kind of hurting power you see from a Nick Diaz or a Rory MacDonald, it’s the disorientating, earth shattering, Dan Henderson kind of power that cannot be taught: you either have it or you don’t, and Woodley most definitely has it.
There is a saying in boxing that the worst thing a young fighter can find out about himself is that he can take a punch. This is because knowing you can take a shot means you will be more likely to take one to give one, instead of learning the defensive craft that keeps a fighter alive in their later years when that chin cracks. If finding out you have a solid chin is the worst thing that can happen to a fighter, discovering that you have dynamite in your hands is a close second. Woodley is so focused on landing his killshot that he is almost entirely right handed in his boxing. His left hand is almost always used to gauge distance immediately before a right hand or as a meek attempt at a feint, pumping it out from the shoulder with no weight behind it and certainly with no intention for it to land or even look like it might land.
There is a difference between a feint and a wasted movement, and that is that a good feint is identical to the real technique, just a few inches short of it’s target. If the motions are not the same, you cannot expect your opponent to bite if they are in any way a disciplined striker, especially on the arm waving jabs Woodley pumps out three or four at a time. His strategy is always the same: stay on the outside, parry jabs with his hands, feint a few jabs, give ground to draw his opponent in to chasing him, then catch and pitch with the right hand. If his opponent refuses to chase him, and instead linger on the outside, the explosiveness that served him so well in his collegiate wrestling career serves to ferry him across the floor towards his opponents at a speed that clearly troubles his opponents. Sometimes he will flat out run at his opponents, and while committing your weight like that is generally a big no no in striking, he is so quick he has been able to get away with it.
That is the A Game of Tyron Woodley, the right hand as a counter or a lead. What is fascinating is just how successful the rest of his tools can be, when he uses them. It might be because he is so one handed that anything else he throws goes against his opponents expectations, but it surely wouldn’t hurt to see a bit more versatility from Woodley in the future.
His kicks are probably the most underrated kicks in the game at this point. When he kicks, they are hard, fast, and clearly hurt his opponents, sometimes even lifting them off their feet. He can kick quickly and because he is normally so right hand obsessed, he catches most people off guard with his kicks. The only criticism of his kicks are that he never conceals them by throwing a hand combination first, and he simply doesn’t go to them enough.
Although he rarely brings it out, his jab actually isn’t that bad, in fact it was his only real significant offence in the third round of his fight with MacDonald, again it seemed like MacDonald just wasn’t expecting it and he ate 3 or 4 of them before he even began to adjust.
His takedowns can be pretty spectacular when he commits to them, but he has always been a wrestler at heart, and if an opponent is happy to hold him there Woodley rarely makes it out of full guard, he seems happy to hold top position for a while and if he gets a few strikes off that’s great, but I would by no means call him a great ground and pounder, even though when his opponent is hurt he can pour it on like few others.
You will sometimes see Woodley switch briefly to Southpaw stance during his fights, and every time it leads to the same move. The only thing Woodley will throw out of Southpaw is a spinning back fist. The way he uses them you would think it was in his contract that he could only use one per fight, but he is so quick in his turn that he almost always lands it.
Where Woodley has run in to trouble has been when he has faced experienced, disciplined strikers who are expecting his right hand. The thing about knockout power is that if you want to knock someone dead, the best way to do it is to hit them with a punch they are not expecting. If you are braced to take a blow you are going to be in a much better position to take the impact (for a fun and completely hypothetical example of this, tell your friends to brace while you hit them on the arm, then do it again while they aren’t looking!). Against people who could cut the cage and wouldn’t run on to his right hand, Woodley looked off. When Rory MacDonald threw out a few feinted jabs, Woodley’s hands open parrying style of catching punches instead saw him eat them as his hands were drawn out of position and he was left flattened against the fence in no position to defend himself. When his opponent comes in with shots then gives ground on the expected return, like Carlos Condit does here, Woodley’s dependency on his right hand showed in his combinations. His right hand catch and pitch counter is similarly affected by his opponents staying on top on their feet and giving ground after they throw a strike.
Speaking of disciplined strikers, discipline is the key word you must talk about when talking about the late career resurgence of Robbie Lawler. Always a supremely gifted fighter, Lawler’s downfall has always been his motivation. It came out a few years ago that for 6 years of his career, Lawler had been refusing to spar as a part of his training. This time spent away from sparring also coincided with the worst stint of Lawler’s career. His recent return to the UFC has seen him turn around a lot of old habits, and it has obviously been as a result of hard training and dedication outside of the cage as well as inside.
Where as in his youth Lawler was known as a man with thunderous power, but also a wild and crazy striking style, Championship Lawler is much more subtle in his approach. When he wants to fight on the counter, Lawler will often use his right hand to smother his opponents, denying them a jab and instead waiting for them to attack with a power punch, which he will look to avoid and counter with his right hook. It is a pretty simple sounding strategy but it takes tremendous focus and reactions to constantly be in front of your opponent waiting for them to make a move, and this tactic along with his improved ability to get up off the bottom when taken down was enough to see him to victory in his little talked about first fight with Rory MacDonald at UFC 167.
What is unusual about Lawler is that he is famous for the power in his right hand, but he is a Southpaw. You will see this sometimes in boxing where a fighter puts there strong hand in front to add the speed of a lead hand to the power of your dominant hand, most famously Marvin Hagler. This serves to give him a powerful knockout punch in his right hook that most people wouldn’t expect from a lead hand. His left straight has serious power too, and like any other good southpaw he can thread it down the centre corridor to devastating effect, but make no mistake Lawler’s right hook is the focal point of his entire game. He is constantly using it on the counter or on offence, and he usually finishes combinations with it, resetting himself and returning himself to his stance.
When he wants to be however, Lawler has shown to have one of the most accurate southpaw jabs in the game. Because in Orthodox Southpaw engagements the lead hands clash, most southpaws disregard their jabs in favour of the left straight, as it occupies the normal path of a jab but with added power. Lawler does an excellent job of hand fighting with those who look to establish a jab, but as soon as they want to hand fight, he removes his hand and starts to land his jab.
This is one of the things that Lawler has seen a great improvement in from his younger years: his ability to play with his opponents expectations. He will often throw the left straight a few times by itself, only to follow it with the right hook the second his opponent starts trying to counter it or avoid it. By showing the right hook and following with the left, he knocked MacDonald down in the pivotal moment of their first meeting, just as MacDonald looked to capitalize on Lawler’s exposed liver. He similarly hurt Carlos Condit during their bout by catching him with the second shot, be it the left or right hand, once he convinced Condit to come in to him.He is also adept at mixing the middle and high left round kicks, along with a front kick to the body. His kicks rarely come when his opponents expect them, and he has never really had to deal with people catching them. Often his opponents can be seen reaching for something else as they eat the kick. He also likes to show the jab and throw the left knee as his opponent reacts to the jab. Against Hendricks it was enough to drive him to the cage and land a solid body shot. Against Jake Ellenberger, it provided the knockout.
The reckless aggression that defined Lawler’s early career is still there, but Lawler and his team seem to have harnessed that power for use in the later rounds. Lawler has made it a habit of his last three fights to come out for the 5th round like the guy on the other side of the cage owes him money, and after 4 rounds already it is a little astounding to see the flurries he can put together.
What Lawler has always been susceptible to throughout his entire career is leg kicks. Because he is always looking for the right hook or left high kick, his right foot is always planted firmly on the floor, and that has been a weakness that has been exploited by many an opponent since his first loss to Pete Spratt (a TKO due to injury sustained by leg kicks). It is simply a sacrifice Lawler makes for the ability to hit with such power from seemingly every position, your feet must remain planted while you throw. This has lead to his leg being punted out from under him on multiple occasions. Against Rory MacDonald at UFC 189 Lawler looked much more mobile than he has in the past, but it is still a question as to how he would deal with someone who specifically goes after his lead leg.
This fight is more interesting in practice than it seems on paper. Woodley is a short Welterweight, and his problems have come against the more experienced strikers against whom simply charging in with the right hand or waiting for them to charge you doesn’t cut it. Woodley has often seemed to fade in fights and that is because he fights a very physically taxing style of constantly looking to explode and constantly trying to hit with power. The only time we have seen Woodley in a 5 round fight was also the only time we have seen him finished, in the fourth round, where as Lawler seems to thrive off of dragging people in to deep waters and then attempting to drown them.
If Woodley is going to win this fight it is going to have to be early, and his best chance is always that right hand. Robbie Lalwer is a Southpaw and that means that the path of the right hand is shortened and seeing as Woodley almost never uses his jab anyway, you could see him being comfortable firing power shots down the chamber from the get go. What I would also like to see from Woodley is more of his kicks. Because Lawler stands so heavy on his lead leg when he wants to punch, he has proven susceptible to leg kicks in the past, most notably against Pete Spratt, Melvin Manhoef, and Johnny Hendricks. The kicks can be used as a way to take some spring out of Lawler’s step, some starch out of his punches, and get Lawler’s weight off his hips, so he can begin to mix his wrestling in to keep Lawler off balance, and above all else from Woodley I would like to see some positional awareness. In all his losses Woodley’s downfall has been that he lets himself get walked on to the cage, where he flattens himself out waiting for an opening that if his opponent is careful will never present itself. It should therefore be in Woodley’s best interest to try and keep this fight in the centre of the cage, or even better to try and back Lawler on to the cage, where he would have nowhere to escape from Woodley’s explosive charges.
Lawler meanwhile will as always be looking for that right hook, and his ability to mix up jabs with hand fighting could play havoc with Woodley’s notoriously handsy defense. Similarly if Lawler can flatten Woodley out against the fence and get him reacting, don’t be surprised to see a few knees thrown out after the jab in the hopes of catching Woodley shooting. In the open Lawler’s ability to give ground and counter could dispel Woodley’s wild charges and leave him gassed early, or it could walk him to the fence and see Woodley catch him.
Regardless of how this fight plays out, the only thing it is not likely to be is boring. Both men like to finish early and while many are favoring Lawler to defend his title, that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from tuning in to see it.