UFC 201: Lawler vs. Woodley Preview

UFC 204

“If I hurt (Conor McGregor), I wasn’t taking his neck.”

What were you gonna take?

“His soul.”

If that doesn’t sum up UFC welterweight champion Robbie in a nutshell, I don’t know what does. That quote from the champ came in early June in an interview with The Fight Life featuring Lawler and Tyron Woodley, who Lawler will defend his belt against this Saturday at UFC 201 in Atlanta. Give credit to Woodley for keeping a straight face during that portion of the interview, but no one would have blamed him for emitting a nervous laugh or two. Lawler is a scary dude.

At this point, Lawler is a longtime veteran of the sport who made his UFC debut at UFC 37 in 2002, while Woodley was still working to make a name for himself as a wrestler at the University of Missouri. Lawler was arguably MMA’s first ‘bro’ (you know what I mean). Young, brash, incredibly skilled, and incredibly confident. He made waves in his first run in the UFC, but back-to-back losses to Nick Diaz and the late Evan Tanner led him to leave the UFC for more than 8 years. When he returned in 2013 after the UFC absorbed the Strikeforce promotion Lawler was fighting in, he came back with vengeance. With improved grappling and a more calculated approach to complement the power that’s been there all along, Lawler has gone 8-1 since his return. The lone loss came in a title fight against Johny Hendricks in March 2014, a loss he avenged to win the title 9 months later. After defending his title in a pair of instant classics against Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit, Lawler prepares to face fellow American Top Team alum Woodley.

Lawler vs. Woodley breakdown.

In Woodley, Lawler faces a dangerous opponent who possesses a decorated wrestling background and tremendous knockout power of his own. Woodley was a two-time All American wrestler at Missouri in 2003 and 2005 before making his MMA debut in 2009. Like Lawler, he came to the UFC in 2013 from Strikeforce, where he once fought for the welterweight championship. While Woodley’s striking may not be as technically refined as Lawler’s, he still packs immense power that can put away anyone in the division. Woodley also boasts tremendous striking defense, but he hasn’t faced a striker of Lawler’s caliber in the UFC, save for Rory MacDonald (who he lost to). Additionally, Woodley hasn’t fought since UFC 183 in January of last year, but the extended layoff hasn’t been due to injury, so it’s tough to say whether or not Woodley will be rusty come fight night. He was scheduled to face former champion Johny Hendricks at UFC 192 last October, but the fight was cancelled on the day of the weigh-ins after complications with Hendricks’ weight cut.

This presents an interesting dynamic to this fight, as while Woodley has been inactive, Lawler has gone through hell and back with MacDonald and Condit. With some fighters that might be troublesome, but I don’t worry about it as much with Lawler. Over a long career, during which he fought bigger fighters at middleweight for 8 years, he has only been knocked out once, when he was 22.  Lawler thrives in deeper waters than Woodley has even attempted to tread in at this point in his career, and his last two fights are prime examples. He finished MacDonald in the 5th round of a fight he may have lost if it had gone to the scorecards, and battered Condit, who is equally durable, for the better part of the 5th round, en route to a razor-close decision victory. Woodley is dangerous, and his cardio may very well be up to the task of going five rounds. And if recent trends hold, there’s a good chance that he might just knock Lawler’s head clean off in the first round (a la Stipe Miocic, Michael Bisping, Eddie Alvarez, and Amanda Nunes in the past few months). Lawler has laughed in the face of wrestlers who have tried to take him down and stifle him. Talented as he may be, Woodley hasn’t overcome any kind of adversity in any of his recent wins, at least not the kind that Lawler can put him through. My money is on Lawler staying composed in the early goings and capitalizing as the fight enters the championship rounds. Prediction: Lawler via (T)KO, Round 4.

Main card predictions for UFC 201

Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Rose Namajunas

UFC 201 was supposed to feature a flyweight title fight between Demetrious Johnson and Wilson Reis in the co-main event, but in early July, Johnson was pulled from the fight with an injury. Reis will remain on the card, but will fight on the Fox Sports 2 portion of the event. The new co-main event is a women’s strawweight fight between Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Rose Namajunas (between the two of them and strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk, it’s kind of a pain in the butt to write about the division’s happenings), which may determine the next challenger for Jędrzejczyk’s title. Kowalkiewicz is 9-0 in her career and 2-0 in the UFC after spending the majority of her career in the Polish fighting promotion KSW. Meanwhile, Namajunas is on a three-fight win streak after losing to Carla Esparza in the inaugural UFC strawweight title fight. Namajunas has an unorthodox fighting style, both in her striking and her grappling. Kowalkiewicz, on the other hand, is a more technical Muay striker. I expect this t be a case of substance over style. The women’s MMA European invasion continues. Prediction: Kowalkiewicz via decision.

(Side note: Anyone who was a Twins fan 15 years ago should have some idea of how to pronounce Kowalkiewicz’s last name)

Matt Brown vs. Jake Ellenberger

In another high-profile welterweight fight, Jake Ellenberger squares off against Matt Brown. Ellenberger hits like a Mack Truck, and Brown is tough as nails and never stops moving forward. Sounds like an unstoppable object meeting an immovable force, right? Right. Problem is, Ellenberger can’t pull the trigger anymore. From 2009 to 2012, Ellenberger was on a six-fight win streak with four knockouts, but a knockout loss to Martin Kampmann (who Ellenberger all but knocked out early on in the fight) and a one-sided decision loss to Rory MacDonald seem to have taken a mental toll on Ellenberger that he’s been unable to overcome. Brown’s toughness should allow him to move forward and overwhelm Ellenberger with volume. Prediction: Brown via (T)KO, Round 2.

Erik Perez vs. Francisco Rivera

Earlier on the pay-per-view, Erik Perez takes on Francisco Rivera in a bantamweight fight. Perez entered the UFC in 2012 as a highly-touted prospect, but two losses in his last four fights compounded by a long layoff have taken some of the luster off of Perez’s shine. Meanwhile, Rivera enters this fight having lost four of his last five fights, but I believe the raw wins and losses don’t tell the story. He was the victim of a questionable judges’ decision in his last fight, and was giving long-time standout Urijah Faber problems with his power early on in their fight before Faber capitalized on an unnoticed eye-poke and caught Rivera in a choke. Rivera packs a ton of power for the division, and recent losses aside, I still believe he has the greater momentum of the two and the kind of game-changing power that Perez hasn’t faced. Prediction: Rivera via decision.

Ian McCall vs. Justin Scoggins

Opening up the pay-per-view portion of the card is a flyweight fight between former #1 flyweight Ian McCall and Justin Scoggins. Both fighters are fairly well-rounded, with McCall favoring his grappling slightly more while Scoggins utilizing his striking skillset. McCall fought to a draw with current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson early in 2012 (Johnson’s only non-win in the division), but has failed to return to that level in his five fights since. And, like Tyron Woodley, McCall hasn’t fought since January of last year. Meanwhile, Scoggins, who is only 24, has looked sensational in his last two fights, sweeping the scorecards in decision wins over Josh Sampo and fellow highly-touted prospect Ray Borg. I sense a close fight here, and while it may not represent a changing of the guard, may springboard Scoggins in to the contender conversation. Prediction: Scoggins via decision.

Undercard predictions.

Light heavyweight bout: Nikita Krylov def. Ed Herman via submission, Round 2.

Welterweight bout: Jorge Masvidal def. Ross Pearson via decision.

Heavyweight bout: Anthony Hamilton def. Damian Grabowski via decision.

Flyweight bout: Wilson Reis def. Hector Sandoval via submission, Round 2.

Welterweight bout: Bojan Velickovic def. Michael Graves via submission, Round 1.

Flyweight bout: Freddy Serrano def. Ryan Benoit via decision.

Lightweight bout: Cesar Azramendia def. Damien Brown via submission, Round 2.

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