Stephen Thompson v. Tyron Woodley, Better Than We Wanted
It was midway through the second round that the boos cascaded down on the Octagon. It must have been Stephen Thompson’s 24th feint that did the trick. Or was it Tyron Woodley’s 20th non-commital? Maybe it was 'The Chosen One's choice of a stoic expression for nine and a half minutes that finally brought the vengeance of the T-Mobile Arena on him? Who can tell? The boos came regardless.
In what was a highly anticipated rematch for the welterweight strap at UFC 209, the Woodley versus Thompson match up left many feeling the exact opposite. Very few will be calling for a third bout between the two. Or maybe even a bout of any kind against anyone else. Maybe somewhere in between. Who can tell?
In the end, Woodley walked away with his second successful title defense of the 170-pound title. What he and Thompson accomplished in the process was nuanced. Therein lies the rub. Fighting, we tend to believe, is no place for nuance.
It’s an oddity that many MMA fans likely consider themselves fans of other major sports, specifically the NFL. It is odd in the sense that the NFL, NHL, and, to a lesser degree, the NBA and MLB, are built entirely on parity. Any two teams are meant to be closely matched at all times to ensure teams in all markets, big or small, are given a chance to compete and succeed.
The question is: what is entertaining about everyone being excellent some of the time as opposed to a few being excellent most of the time? History has always been written by excellence – not parity. The Anderson Silva’s and Georges St. Pierre’s. We weren’t fascinated by their mortality until they had built their towers so high that mortality becomes almost unthinkable.
This is what makes the NFL playoffs (outside of this year) so compelling. The mos excellent teams match up against one another like a puzzle, each with more defined shapes and contours, strengths and weakness, that align imperfectly against eachother. The margin for error is tenable. The winner takes the day and the loser goes home. The stakes are huge.
In MMA, we don’t want puzzles. We want giant games of Jenga. We want the stacking of skills and abilities to reach so high that they inevitably collapse, preferably with someone unconscious. Yet we forget that the best games of Jenga, the true tension of the game, come in the slow and methodical attempts at pulling out a piece to stack. The tension is in the anticipation of collapse at any given moment. It does not matter how high the tower goes when the stakes are always higher.
Because whether it's a puzzle or Jenga, the stakes are the same. After such a tightly contested first fight and with the welterweight title again on the line, the stakes were huge. This wasn't just about titles, it was about reputations. It was about which fighter could be shown to have adjusted and truly conquered the other. The manner in which fight played out proved that. Both men were so aware of the fragility of winning, the threshold between success and failure that they probed instead of committed - because one small misstep certainly led to losing. Thompson, for example, made only a few mistakes in this fight and it nearly cost him each time.
Fans want and expect two fighters to be forgetful; to ignore what’s at stake and how to properly achieve it. We want them to press forward, throw strikes when it may not suit them. But the paradox of that is Mirsad Bektic, who brutalized Darren Elkins on the undercard, and then did the less intelligent thing – the thing we fans apparently pay expecting him to do – and it cost him the fight. In the end, Bektic lost his opportunity for excellence.
Thus, Woodley stayed on the perimeter and countered only when Thompson over-committed. Thus, Thompson stayed at distance and attempted to find the few openings Woodley would give him. Thus, Woodley won by an inch and not by a mile.
Few fans will accept this. We expect to be entertained after all. We’re who Maximus is hurling his sword at in Gladiator, after butchering five men for our spectacle. To Thompson and Woodley we say, “We are not entertained.” As fans, we pay our money to see Thompson’s face become petrified in hideous grimace, much as it was when Woodley stunned him in their first fight.
In that sense, the boos we inevitable. If we chose to anticipate this fight, not aware that this would be a very real possibility, then we no on longer know what it is we are watching.
Who can tell?