Tyron Woodley wishes to end a three-fight skid when he faces 10th-ranked welterweight Vicente Luque on Saturday at UFC 260. Woodley’s UFC career might be on the line in this bout, too. The 38-year-old has lost 15 consecutive rounds in the Octagon while looking like a shell of his former self.
In the past year, the UFC has made several cuts to its roster, attributing this to the financial losses caused by the pandemic. Several aging big-name fighters, including Anderson Silva, Fabricio Werdum, Anthony Pettis, Yoel Romero, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem were all let go by the organization. If Woodley loses to Luque, he could end up joining the aforementioned names outside of the promotion. It has been a steep decline for the former champion, and it all began when he lost his title.
Going into his fight with Kamaru Usman at UFC 235 in March 2019, Woodley had successfully defended the welterweight belt four times. His first defense ended in a draw against Stephen Thompson, while their rematch resulted in a majority decision for Woodley. Wins over Demian Maia and Darren Till followed. By this point, Woodley had become a long-reigning champion, albeit an unpopular one due to the perceived uneventful nature of his fights and his risk-averse performances.
The consensus amongst analysts before the Usman fight was that Woodley would use his superior wrestling credentials — he competed in NCAA Division I, compared to Usman’s NCAA Division II credentials — to keep the fight on the feet and win the striking exchanges. The odds reflected this, with Woodley coming into the fight as a -165 favorite.
Usman made a mockery of these predictions. He took Woodley down very early into the fight and controlled the champion. This set the tone for the rest of the contest. Usman continued to swarm Woodley with his wrestling, pressure, control in the clinch, and an endless barrage of strikes. It was stunning to see the challenger out-grapple Woodley, who came into the fight with the highest takedown defense of any male fighter in UFC history. Usman ended Woodley’s reign, as the judges scored the fight 50-44, 50-44, and 50-45 in Usman’s favor.
Woodley then had a prolonged absence due to an injury. A proposed bout with Leon Edwards was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. This bumped Woodley’s return to May 2020, when he met Gilbert Burns.
Burns came into his fight with Woodley high on confidence after knocking out the aforementioned Maia two months prior. Woodley had a bad start to the fight, as he was knocked down within the first 30 seconds. He survived, but Burns dominated for the rest of the fight. Woodley backed himself up against the cage and looked extremely tentative as Burns landed strikes at will and mixed in grappling to further neutralize the ex-champ. Burns eased to a unanimous-decision win on the judges’ scorecards.
Woodley’s next fight came against bitter rival and former American Top Team teammate Colby Covington. It was thought that a fight against a man who had been incessantly taunting him for years would bring the best out of Woodley. Instead, the fight played out as an almost identical copy of his previous two affairs.
Woodley did not throw enough strikes to deter Covington from moving forward, and he ended up being out-struck by a significant margin. In the final round, a bloodied and battered Woodley suffered an injury to his ribs from which he could not continue. Covington took the TKO victory.
This weekend at UFC 260, Brazil’s Luque presents yet another very difficult challenge for Woodley. Luque is a hard-hitting, durable fighter with excellent cardio. He has won 12 of his 15 fights in the UFC. Luque, unlike Woddley’s last three opponents, is not a grappler. Woodley won’t face the dual threat of striking and wrestling that has completely shut him down in recent fights.
Woodley has never been a high-output fighter, but in his prime years he carried the threat of his powerful, explosive punches. Thompson, Maia and Till, to their detriment, all experienced this power. Meanwhile, Woodley’s last three foes have fought him without concern for danger.
Injuries and age take a toll on all fighters, but Woodley has also seemed to suffer a mental block in his last three fights. Even when it was clear that he was going to lose these bouts by lopsided decisions, he did not show the urgency needed to win. There have been moments during these appearances when the Missouri native clapped his hands together in order to try to will himself to attack.
The fact that he has seemingly ignored the instructions of his longtime coaches Duke Roufus and Din Thomas to be more active in these fights could indicate that Woodley simply no longer has the motivation to win and is now purely viewing fighting as a job.
The 38-year-old’s mobility may be inhibited, but power is one of the last attributes to diminish for older fighters. The former champ will not want to get into a brawl with Luque, but he has to impose his will on the feet and get the younger fighter’s respect if he is to be victorious.
This Saturday’s bout will reveal whether Woodley just happened to lose to three of the world’s best in their prime who were also stylistic nightmares for him or if this is the end of his time at the highest level of the sport.
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