Tyron Woodley already has established himself as one of the greatest welterweights of all time. This weekend, he will try to prove he’s one of the greatest welterweights right now.
Woodley (19-4-1, 9-3-1 in the UFC) will meet rising 170-pound contender Gilbert Burns (18-3, 11-3 UFC) in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night at the promotion’s Apex facility in Las Vegas. The event will air on ESPN+, with the main card starting at 9 p.m. ET, the prelims at 6 p.m.
For Woodley, 38, it will mark his first appearance since he surrendered the welterweight title to current champion Kamaru Usman at UFC 235 in March 2019. Woodley’s historical resume is ironclad. He won the title in 2016 and retained it through four challenges. He is on the short list of greatest welterweights of all time, perhaps only eclipsed by Georges St-Pierre.
But the fact is, Woodley has not won a single round of an MMA fight in over 20 months. He has suffered multiple hand and shoulder injuries during that time, and some have questioned his commitment to the sport due to a budding career in music and entertainment.
It all leads to a wide-ranging set of potential outcomes. If Woodley looks terrific on Saturday, it will feel as though talks of his demise were greatly exaggerated, and he will find himself right back in the thick of title contention. If he loses, he’ll have a lot of ground to make up to prove that his best days are not behind him.
And the 33-year-old Burns is highly motivated to take Woodley’s torch. After making his UFC debut as a welterweight in 2014, Burns moved to lightweight for his next bout and had an up-and-down run. He was on a two-fight win streak when he elected to move back up in weight in 2019, and since then he has reeled off three more consecutive wins. Saturday will be his first opportunity to headline an event, and Woodley is by far the highest-ranked opponent he has ever faced.
This main event will mark either the return of Woodley to welterweight greatness — actually, if he wins, he’ll likely say he was never gone in the first place — or the emergence of a new name among the very best of the division. Should be interesting either way.
By the numbers
5: Consecutive victories for Burns. (But see below.)
51.9: Percentage of significant strike attempts landed by Burns during his win streak. That is the second-highest in the UFC over that span (since Dec. 8, 2018) — and a 32% increase over Burns’ accuracy in his first nine UFC fights (39.3%).
10: Knockdowns landed by Woodley, tying him with Stephen Thompson for the most among active 170-pounders.
93.7: Percentage of opponent takedown attempts successfully defended by Woodley, the best all time among UFC welterweights and third-best among fighters in any division. That will come in handy against a four-time jiu-jitsu world champion like Burns. In a 2017 fight against another Brazilian jiu-jitsu master, Woodley fended off all 21 takedown tries of Demian Maia.
0: Fights that have reached a fourth round during Burns’ 21-bout career. Woodley, by contrast, has gone the distance in a five-rounder four times.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
A look back
Five vs. five
Tyron Woodley’s most recent results
Loss: Kamaru Usman (UD, March 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Darren Till (SUB2, Sept. 8, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Demian Maia (UD, July 29, 2017)
Win: Stephen Thompson (MD, March 4, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
Draw: Stephen Thompson (MD, Nov. 12, 2016; watch on ESPN+)
Gilbert Burns’ most recent results
Win: Demian Maia (TKO1, March 14, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Gunnar Nelson (UD, Sept. 28, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Aleksei Kunchenko (UD, Aug. 10, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Mike Davis (SUB2, April 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Olivier Aubin-Mercier (UD, Dec. 8, 2018)
Brett Okamoto’s prediction
It’s tough. I honestly don’t know what to expect from Woodley. We’re talking about one of the all-time greats, but he’s had a long career, he’s coming off a long layoff and this was an extended camp due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Stylistically, I like Woodley here. Burns can submit just about anyone in the world, but it’s going to be real hard against Woodley, another physical, talented grappler. Woodley also is the bigger man with power and speed advantages, in my opinion. I’m going to side with the former champ, but Burns would not shock me in the slightest if he pulled off the upset. Woodley via TKO, second round.
Saturday’s fight card
ESPN/ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET
Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns | Welterweight
Blagoy Ivanov vs. Augusto Sakai | Heavyweight
Billy Quarantillo vs. Spike Carlyle | Catchweight (150 pounds)
Brok Weaver vs. Roosevelt Roberts | Lightweight
Mackenzie Dern vs. Hannah Cifers | Strawweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Antonina Shevchenko | Women’s flyweight
Daniel Rodriguez vs. Gabe Green | Welterweight
Jamahal Hill vs. Klidson Abreu | Light heavyweight
Tim Elliott vs. Brandon Royval | Men’s flyweight
Louis Smolka vs. Casey Kenney | Men’s bantamweight
Chris Gutierrez vs. Vince Morales | Men’s featherweight
A small Octagon? No big concerns
You might notice on Saturday that the fights are at a higher level than what’s usually seen at the Apex, home of “Dana White’s Contender Series” and its weekly array of hopefuls. This week’s fighters have already made it to the UFC. But they’re going to notice something different, too. The promotion will be using its 25-foot cage, not its usual 30-footer. That means less room to maneuver and closer quarters for full-on engagement — a good thing for grapplers, in particular.
We asked some of the fighters for their thoughts:
Tyron Woodley, who must deal with a jiu-jitsu world champ in the main event: “More angles, less lateral motion. So just some things you’ve got to figure out. Mike Tyson did it for years in the boxing ring. He used angles to cut off [opponents], used his footwork. He had a lot of dominant performances.”
Gilbert Burns, that elite grappler opponent: “The biggest [cage], the ginormous one where they fight for the title, that one is too big. But this one, yeah, it works a little bit to my advantage. I like to grapple. That’s where I feel most comfortable. But a fight is a fight, you know?”
Mackenzie Dern, another jiu-jitsu world champ: “I think it’s less space for them to run away, you know? So I think it’s good for us. Mostly the people that fight me, their strategy is to get in and get out, and keep the space. So smaller Octagon, less space to run around, and I’m able to take you down. So I am happier about that.”
Katlyn Chookagian, a striker who’ll have less room for her footwork: “For my whole life, I’ve trained boxing, and the cage that I’ve been training in is smaller. So I’m used to that. … I kind of like it. I think it pushes the action more. I think the smaller cage is better for the fans. … I can use my footwork and movement and everything just as well. And I think I’m just a better fighter, so whether we fight in a 30-foot Octagon or a 5-foot Octagon, I think I’m going to win regardless.”
Brok Weaver, a Contender Series alum whose last fight, his UFC debut, was in the 30-foot Octagon: “The Contender cage and the UFC cage are different sizes?”
What else to look for … beyond the main event
Will it be mother’s day for Dern?
Last October, Mackenzie Dern suffered her first career loss. She made no excuses, but she had a living, breathing one napping at home. Her unanimous-decision loss to Amanda Ribas came just four months after Dern gave birth to her first child.
Now it is time for Dern (7-1, 2-1 UFC) to get back on track. And she is fully expected to by those who put their money where their mouth is, as Caesars Sportsbook lists her as the biggest favorite on Saturday’s card, at -400 for her strawweight fight with the tough-as-nails Hannah Cifers.
Dern, a multiple-time world jiu-jitsu champion, has four submission victories. Cifers (10-4, 2-2 UFC) has five wins by KO/TKO.
Spiking the punch with Carlyle
Spike Lee wrote and directed the groundbreaking film exploration of racial tensions “Do the Right Thing.” Spike Jonze made the quirkily inventive “Being John Malkovich.” Spike Robinson played bebop on tenor sax.
But among Spikes, the true Mr. Entertainment might just be Spike Carlyle.
The 27-year-old from San Diego made his UFC debut in February, and it was something to see — unless you tuned in late. He knocked out Aalon Cruz in just 85 seconds, during which time Carlyle managed to squeeze in 29 strikes (on 38 attempts, for 76% accuracy).
Now “The Alpha Ginger” faces Billy Quarantillo (13-2), winner of six straight, most recently his UFC debut in December (second-round submission of Jacob Kilburn). They are featherweights, but they will compete at a 150-pound catchweight because it is a short-notice booking.
Bits ‘n’ pieces
Augusto Sakai will face Blagoy Ivanov in the heavyweight co-main event. Sakai (14-1-1, 3-0 UFC) has scored all but three of his wins by KO/TKO, and his current five-fight win streak features four finishes. Ivanov (18-3,1 NC), a former combat sambo world champ, has gone to decision in all four of his UFC bouts (he’s 2-2).
Brok Weaver, who fights Roosevelt Roberts at lightweight, has won eight in a row, including his UFC debut in February. Weaver (15-4) has scored more than half of his wins by decision, while Roberts (9-1, 3-1 UFC) has four submissions and three knockouts.