LAS VEGAS — Tyron Woodley described the main event of UFC 209 as a “chess match” and in many ways he was right. Woodley’s majority decision victory over Stephen Thompson was strategic, slow-paced, tactical and cautious, much like a showdown between two grandmasters across 64 squares.
But there is a reason why they don’t sell chess matches on pay-per-view and why crowds of close to 20,000 don’t typically turn up to watch guys pushing pieces around a board several times a year.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s latest major card can only be described as a disappointment, proven by the resounding boos of the T-Mobile crowd at the lack of excitement between Woodley and Thompson, the downcast look on the face of company president Dana White at the end and even Woodley’s own gloomy expression.
“It is easy to sit in your seat and eat popcorn and boo people,” White said. “But at lot was at stake and these guys were doing what they thought they needed to do to win.”
However, White knows as much as anyone that the bout, a rematch of an exhilarating draw with the pair at UFC 205, did no one any favors. The UFC has built its brand on high-octane, ferociously contested showpieces, but this was one of the worst title fights in its history.
Woodley retained his welterweight belt on the scorecards but gained little else, as the live and television audience was forced to sit through five rounds of, well, not much at all.
In the third round Woodley got Thompson to the canvas but did little with the advantage, and rocked his rival with a flurry of punches in the final 30 seconds of the fight. Yet for the rest of the time the pair paid each other too much respect, dancing around, staying comfortably out of harm’s way, and in general being pretty friendly, with taps of respect before and after each round.
Not every fight has to be a blood feud packed with constant fury, but this one was a real dud. It was nothing like the superb scrap when they met in November and did nothing to save a card that became mightily thin on star power when Khabib Nurmagomedov suffered weight cutting issues and had to pull out of the co-main event, an interim lightweight showdown with Tony Ferguson.
For the second pay-per-view in a row, there was little to celebrate. The company, bought by WME-IMG for $4.2 billion last year, closed 2016 with a bang, albeit one that might have ended Ronda Rousey’s career.
It has started 2017 with a whimper. Last month’s UFC 208 card in Brooklyn was far from being a showstopper and the organization could use a bit of a boost right now. The next couple of marquee cards feature strong UFC talent, but nothing much in the way of crossover appeal. As Conor McGregor continues his flirtatious dance with Floyd Mayweather and a potential boxing match, the company likely has to wait until the summer return of legend Georges St-Pierre for the kind of occasion that will grab the focus of the wider masses.
Thompson and Woodley are both good men and great fighters, but they effectively cancelled each other out here.
“I am disappointed man, I worked my whole life to get here,” Thompson said. “The fans pay for a show. Our job is to put on a performance, but one shot can end your career. Got to pay attention to your safety.”
It is hard to argue with that sentiment, but the tough reality of mixed-martial arts is that it is those who take the greatest risks and provide the biggest thrills who attain the greatest popularity.
Woodley left still a champion, but may find he needs to break out of his shell if he is to gain the kind of relevancy he craves.