Rarely is there a fight where the gameplan for each man is so simple to put together. Woodley needs to close distance using his leg kicks and the threat of his power until he can either land a big right hand or take Wonderboy down. Wonderboy needs to control distance using his feints, angles and long strikes, ideally ending up with Woodley covering up against the cage getting picked apart. There really isn’t much more to it than that, on paper. Of course simple to plan does not equal simple to execute. As we saw in the first fight, it can be very difficult to press forward against an elusive out-fighter, and it can be just as difficult to let your hands go against a wrestler with the power to change the entire fight with a single punch or shot. With the first fight ending in a draw, the slightest adjustment from either fighter could be enough to tip the scales in their favor. Both men have already shown the tools they need to beat the other, so the most crucial factor in the rematch will be initiative.
Initiative is an interesting concept in fighting. Put simply, it means leading the dance. That doesn’t necessarily translate to going first. Instead it translates to being proactive: always working to put yourself in better positions to both act and react. It means making the opponent do what you want them to do, instead of waiting on them to do what they want. This could mean pressuring the opponent and opening him up with combinations, but it could also mean baiting the opponent and countering. The man who controls the initiative will build momentum, while the man who fails to control it will be overwhelmed—unless he does something dramatic.
After the first fight, both Woodley and Thompson admitted to struggling with initiative. Woodley failed to make use of his wrestling and spent too much time at Wonderboy’s range, while Wonderboy was reluctant to let his hands go and almost completely abandoned his kicking game. Neither fighter was so tentative in a vacuum—they made each other hesitate and thus prevented the other from fully seizing the initiative. The question is: what can either fighter do to control the initiative this time?
As we established, Woodley needs to close distance. On the outside he has very little to offer Wonderboy, but once he’s in arm’s reach he has devastating power and dominant wrestling. There are two basic methods to close distance on an outfighter: pressure, cut him off and corner him, or step back and make him come to you. Woodley had success with both in the first fight, and should look to do so again in the second.
The idea behind drawing the longer opponent in is simple. When you step back, he steps forward. The trick is to time his forward step and change directions when he expects you to retreat. If you can take a step forward at the same time he’s taking one, you can close the distance twice as fast as he’s expecting while making it more difficult for him to dynamically retreat. Even if you don’t time the step in with an intercepting counter, you may be able to counter after he attacks and finds himself out of position (this is the strategy Cody used to dominate Cruz). If Woodley is able to draw Wonderboy in, he should be able to land significant counters.
Woodley starts in the center of the cage after doing a bit of pressuring. He sees Wonderboy has set his feet and is low in his stance, ready to throw. As a result he decides to alleviate the pressure and let Wonderboy come to him. He steps back, inviting his opponent to step forward. When Wonderboy does, he changes directions and loads up his lead leg, coming forward to crack Wonderboy with the left and narrowly miss with the right. Solid head movement gets him out of the way of the counters, and despite putting Wonderboy against the cage he backs off again. Now the timing was a little off on Woodley’s misdirection. If he took his committed step a half-second sooner, on the same beat as the forward hop step of his opponent, this exchange could have been much worse for Wonderboy—he would have been caught square in Woodley’s range instead of having barely enough time to pull back. A little refinement on that timing would go a long way, but the concept is effective regardless. It’s also what won him the first round.
Here we see Woodley taking slow, small steps back. He keeps his weight forward and his stance low as he circles back towards his left, hopping back when Wonderboy feints. Note that he keeps his lead knee bent and pointed forward, while his hands are up high with palms turned outward in parrying position. As he moves this way, the most obvious opening is a right low kick. Wonderboy sees this and steps in to throw one, expecting Woodley to retreat again. However, Woodley sets his feet and drops his left hand to catch the kick, missing with a big right hand before running Wonderboy to the ground and landing in side control. His movement to bait the kick made it easy to catch and scored him an easy takedown, allowing him to dominate the rest of the round and hurt Wonderboy badly from top position.
It isn’t always possible to make the longer fighter come to you—especially when they have as many tricks as Wonderboy. Sometimes it will be necessary to forcefully take away their space, walking them down until they have no room to retreat. Not only does this make it easier to explode in and unload on the opponent (think Woodley’s knockout of Lawler), it also makes it easier to force them to open up with the shots you want when they try to alleviate the pressure:
Here we see Woodley transition from drawing Wonderboy in to pressuring him. A few steps back, then he explodes forward with a right hand. He manages to smother Wonderboy’s side kick, which leaves Wonderboy scrambling to recover his stance and distance. Back against the cage in his southpaw stance, Wonderboy gets ready to counter. However, Woodley pressures intelligently. He feints to draw out Wonderboy’s counter right hook (Wonderboy almost exclusively counters with his right hand regardless of stance), then blocks it with his left and fires back a counter right hand in classic catch and shoot style. Wonderboy evades the hook and even gets off a counter, but Woodley punches his way into the clinch with the second one. While Wonderboy mostly did a good job neutralizing Woodley’s offense in the clinch, he was stuck on the cage for extended periods of the fight. That could be trouble in the rematch if Woodley works his takedowns, improves his clinch striking, or even engages in wall and stall. The clinch isn’t the real danger of the pressure though, that right hand is.
This was the most significant sequence of the entire fight, and the closest it came to being stopped. It is also the greatest showing of initiative from Woodley. He starts off backing Wonderboy against the cage, pumping his lead hand to feint. He sees Wonderboy leaned forward with his feet set, indicating that he’s preparing for a pull counter. As a result, he uses his lead hand to feint his way into range before launching a 3-2 combo. The 3 triggers the pull then the 2 counters the counter. Wonderboy goes down and Woodley gets right out him—moving laterally to cut him off, feinting high and low to set him up, and trying to make him circle into a hook. Wonderboy tries to change directions, but Woodley stays on him. Desperately needing to get Woodley off him, he decides to attack. However, watch Woodley’s lead hand. He uses it to measure distance, and as soon as Wonderboy is in range he unleashes a bomb of a right hand. They trade right hands, but Woodley’s head movement takes him out of the path of Wonderboy’s while his measuring with the lead hand helps him line his own punch up perfectly. Wonderboy goes down hard, yet miraculously survives the ensuing onslaught and an arm-in guillotine. If Woodley can replicate this, the fight should be his. Wonderboy has always been susceptible to this kind of measured pressure—it’s how Ellenberger dropped him early in the first and Rory landed his best punches in the fifth. Woodley should be looking to seize the initiative to combine his drawing strategy with bursts of pressure when he manages to establish superior cage position.
Hold ground against blitzes:
A final important point for Woodley is that he must hold his ground when Wonderboy blitzes. He showed a bad habit of retreating in straight lines, which is when he ate some of the hardest shots of the fight and gave up some great positions. When Wonderboy blitzes, he tends to commit to straight lines and switch stances. This allows him to cover distance quickly while attacking with both hands, but also leaves his hips completely open and puts him in poor position to get hit. Against those blitzes, Woodley will lose every exchange on the back foot, but he will win every exchange in the pocket—either with his boxing:
Or with his wrestling:
By doing these things, Woodley will have full control of the initiative and Wonderboy will be in the fight of his life to steal that initiative before he gets bulldozed.
Now that we know how Woodley can take the initiative, let’s examine how Wonderboy can do the same. First and foremost, feints. Woodly is a prolific feinter himself, so it’s important for Wonderboy to establish dominance in that area. Feint high, feint low, feint with kicks and with punches. Woodley is very dangerous on the counter and Wonderboy has to be careful not to open up at the wrong time. Ideally, Wonderboy should try to keep Woodley guessing enough that he never establishes a serious pressuring gameplan. If he can be active enough with his feints to keep Woodley on the back foot, he’ll never have to worry about being cornered and can chose his shots at will.
In this example I don’t want you to just look at the strikes thrown. I want you to look at Woodley’s reaction to the strikes that AREN’T thrown. Several times he flinches and overreacts to feints. He’s purely reactive here—showing absolutely no initiative beyond one lackluster kick. This should look very familiar to anyone who saw Rory McDonald pick him apart. You have to watch out for his explosive right hand, but when he’s backed against the cage he can be kept swatting at flies. Plus his right hand is much easier to deal with when he’s relying purely on his speed to land it, instead of walking you into it or taking away your space to retreat from it.
While Woodley is often content to back himself to the cage, it would be foolish to count on spending the entire fight there. Wonderboy needs to have a plan to defuse Woodley’s aggression when it materializes. He can do this with angles and long range strikes.
At the beginning of the third round, Woodley comes out listening to his corner and tries to establish some pressure. Wonderboy immediately gets his feet moving, bouncing in and out as he circles in both directions. Because he is unsure how to approach this mobile target, Woodley backs off and tries to lure Wonderboy in. He didn’t even need to strike to get Woodley on the back foot again, he only needed to distract him with enough movement to make him think it wasn’t worth the effort. If Woodley did try to blitz, he could simple cut hard in either direction and be out of the line of attack—ideally angling off with a counter right like the one he rocked Hendricks with.
Long range strikes:
Woodley tries to explode forward twice here, both times while Thompson is in the center. With so much room behind him, Wonderboy easily breaks ground and smacks Woodley in the mouth with his long arms. These disrupt Woodley’s forward momentum, and leave him open to further counters. They also convince him that he’s better off hanging back. Note that in each sequence, Wonderboy changes the angle after his counters. It’s vital for him to combine his long counters with his lateral movement if he wants to avoid getting caught. These counters should allow him to keep Woodley at bay, but if he gets desperate he may have success with a more aggressive attack
These combinations give Woodley a little taste of his own medicine, but also expose Wonderboy to greater risk. If he’s going to use them, he has to be sure that Woodley is going to retreat, because if Woodley holds his ground then Wonderboy will be stuck trading at a range where Woodley has the advantage in both boxing and wrestling.
There’s room for him to implement his kicking game as well, but he has to be similarly careful with it. We already saw two examples of him ending up in bad positions as the result of a kick—getting taken down off his low kick and pushed to the cage off his side kick. The last thing he wants is another low kick getting caught for an easy takedown, or a whiffed side kick giving up his back. His high kicks were also entirely ineffective against Woodley’s high guard. If he wants to kick, I think he’s best off using snappy kicks to the body mixed in with his straights to the body—McGregor vs Mendes style. His side kicks could be valuable as well, but he has to be careful with the distance and timing. However, I don’t think kicks should be the core of his gameplan—they should be a supplement. In my opinion, this is what the perfect fight for Wonderboy looks like:
Woodley backed against the cage, reacting to feints as Wonderboy moves in and out, attacking high and low, letting Woodley’s explosive attacks fall short and punishing him for attempting them. When Woodley tries to get aggressive and come off the cage, long jabs in his face to disrupt him and a change of angles. In short, Wonderboy being proactive and Woodley being reactive. This is what initiative looks like.
Both men have already established that they have the ability to beat the other man—dominate him, even. However, in order to do so, they must win the invisible fight for initiative. They must work to lead the dance, control the distance and set their own pace. If either man starts to build momentum, the other must fight to swing it the other way. The adjustments are made, the game plans are drawn up, and tomorrow night we get to see who can take control.