On March 2, the UFC will return to the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada for UFC 235.
Headlined by a Light Heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Anthony Smith, the stacked card will co-feature an intriguing Welterweight title tilt between defending champion Tyron Woodley (19-3-1) and surging contender Kamaru Usman (14-1).
Since 2014, the 36-year-old Woodley has been on a tear of sorts, winning six of his seven bouts. He won the title with a vicious first-round knockout victory over Robbie Lawler at UFC 201. He has since defended it four-straight times, drawing with Stephen Thompson before winning a rematch, in addition to getting the better of Demian Maia and Darren Till.
Stylistically, Woodley possesses a plethora of physical attributes that aid him inside of the cage. Aside from being an elite level athlete, he also has a rare combination of explosive speed and power that make him a dangerous threat to any opponent.
A highly successful collegiate wrestler at the University of Missouri, Woodley relies on his wrestling base, possessing both strong offensive and defensive wrestling skills. But that department is not the only thing that makes him dangerous. Coaches Din Thomas and Duke Roufus have helped him round out his game with superb striking and grappling.
On the feet, Woodley has consistently improved since his UFC debut in 2013—that bludgeoning right hand of his undoubtedly being his best weapon. His power and explosiveness come in handy in this department, as he’s proven to have legitimate fight-ending power, as evidenced by his seven career T/KO victories.
In addition, the Welterweight king is also a skilled fighter on the ground when it comes to his grappling. Following his most recent victory, a second-round submission win over Darren Till, Thomas awarded him a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Overall, he owns five submission victories and has never been submitted himself.
In terms of his fighting style, Woodley is an incredibly intelligent fighter, often entering the Octagon with a clear strategy and game plan. Demonstrated by the fact that he’s faced a wide variety of fighting styles during his title reign and has adapted well to each and every one of them.
Typically preferring to circle backwards along the cage and draw his opponents in, Woodley has developed into an effective counter fighter. Once able to draw opponents into his trap, he looks to land his right hand or shoot in for a takedown.
This strategy was on full display in his last fight against Till, as he baited the dangerous striker in before unleashing a brutal right hand that dropped him.
Moving onto Usman, the 31-year-old has continuously worked his way up the Welterweight ranks. He’s currently riding a 13-fight winning streak, dating back to his professional debut in 2012, that includes nine-straight UFC victories.
Like Woodley, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has an established wrestling background. Usman was actually a three-time NCAA Division II All-American before winning a national championship in his senior year at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
This wrestling foundation has served Usman well in his transition to mixed martial arts. He’s often used his offensive wrestling in addition to his relentless pace and high-level cardio to break down his opponents.
After securing a takedown, Usman possesses a stifling top game and dangerous ground-and-pound. But not exactly known for his submission game, he only has one submission win to his credit, and event submitted once himself—though that was in his second pro bout.
In addition to his grappling skill set, Usman has worked endlessly to improve his striking game under the tutelage of Henry Hooft. And these improvements have shown to an extent in recent years, scoring a spectacular knockout of Sergio Moraes in 2017 and picking apart Rafael dos Anjos a bit on the feet this past November.
All told, Woodley still holds an advantage in the striking department. So MMA fans can expect Usman to look to put the pressure on Woodley and take the fight to the ground.
That strategy surely plays to Usman’s strengths; the championship challenger is averaging 4.47 takedowns per 15 minutes according to OddsShark.com. Of course, it’s important to note that Woodley has defended 94% of all takedowns attempted against him. However, Woodley has never faced a wrestler in the prime of his career like Usman. No wonder the bookies have this fight about even, with Usman just a slight underdog (+150).
That said, this fight may come down to whether or not Usman can take Woodley down and control him. And in my opinion, I’m not sure he’ll be able to do so. I think Woodley’s intelligence, wrestling, and counter striking will be the difference here.
I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Woodley land a big right hand as Usman moves forward and finish the fight on the canvas. If not, expect the champion to win the bout on the scorecards.