Tyron Woodley is back in action on Saturday after more than one year away from the Octagon.
On Saturday in Las Vegas, Woodley will try to return to the upper echelon of the welterweight division against Gilbert Burns. In the co-main event, Blagoy Ivanov will face Augusto Sakai in a heavyweight matchup.
Woodley was unbeaten in seven straight and hadn't lost in five years prior to the Usman defeat. He was considered one of the best UFC welterweight champions ever with four successful title defenses. Will he be able to get his groove back and make another run for the belt? Or will Burns, who is on a five-fight winning streak, put in a breakout performance against his toughest test to date?
Our MMA insiders Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim answer the biggest questions surrounding Saturday's UFC Fight Night, as well as the recently announced bantamweight title fight between Petr Yan and Jose Aldo.
What do you expect from Woodley in his return?
Helwani: I expect to see a motivated Tyron Woodley. I like the way he sounds. I like that we aren't seeing a lot of distractions from him right now in terms of other things he has going on. I think if you are a fan of Woodley, these are all positive developments because, as he admitted, he had too much on his plate when he fought Usman last year. We sometimes forget the fact that Woodley is 38 years old, so this could be the start of the final chapter of his career, but I think a motivated Woodley can still be a big player at 170.
Okamoto: I expect Woodley to look good -- but it's a fair question. It's an important question. On one hand, there's no reason to suspect Woodley is anything less than world-class. He has lost exactly one fight in nearly six years. I know some of his performances drew criticism from an entertainment sense, but I also always thought that was overblown. He knocked out Robbie Lawler in two minutes. Then he had two very awkward stylistic matchups against Stephen Thompson. He injured himself in a five-round win against Demian Maia. And then he demolished Darren Till. That's a pretty good run. On the other hand, he hasn't fought in 14 months. He's 38, and he has suffered his share of injuries. He lost every round of his last bout against Kamaru Usman. These are all red flags, and I can't say with certainty Woodley's best years aren't behind him. But at the end of the day, I do expect him to look good on Saturday.
Raimondi: He seems very much rejuvenated and I'm extremely excited to see if he can reinvent himself against Burns. I feel like people forgot how good Woodley was prior to losing the belt to Usman. He was one of the best UFC welterweight champions in history, with a cerebral approach to picking apart his opponents. Woodley wasn't always the most exciting fighter in the cage, but look at the way he dismantled someone like Till. I welcome the return of that strategic, tactical Woodley to go along with his incredible knockout power and explosiveness. At 38 years old, he isn't getting any younger. But I believe he has another run in him.
Wagenheim: Tyron has not fought since his dud of a performance against Usman, which by Saturday will have been just under 15 months ago. But I'm not too concerned about ring rust, because Woodley has been here before. Twice he has fought after a layoff of at least a year, and he won both times. I feel good about him extending that success because of this number: 93.7. That is the percentage of takedown attempts that Woodley has successfully defended, and it's the third-best in UFC history. That is especially important against a multitime jiu-jitsu world champion like Burns. Just ask another Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace, Demian Maia, who tried 21 takedowns against Woodley and didn't get him to the mat even once.
Will a win put Gilbert Burns into the title picture?
Helwani: It certainly gets him in the mix, but I feel like there's a massive logjam at the top of 170 right now. I don't think he'll leapfrog Jorge Masvidal, Leon Edwards or Colby Covington, but it will definitely get him in that discussion, and rightfully so. He'll earn that spot with a win over Woodley.
Okamoto: Depends what your definition of "title picture" is. I don't think it will catapult him into a title shot right away, but it will send him into the kind of fight that will get him a title shot if he wins. In other words, I believe Burns is two wins away from a title shot. Saturday, plus one more.
Raimondi: I don't see how it couldn't. If you beat the former champ, someone who has only one loss since 2014, you're automatically in that conversation. Woodley is still ESPN's No. 5-ranked welterweight, too. If Burns pulls it off, he'll have to be considered somewhere in the top five, right under Usman, Covington, Masvidal and Edwards. With the conflict going on now with Usman and Masvidal over the next title shot, who knows how the division shakes out? Burns could theoretically be only one or two wins away from a title shot if he beats Woodley.
Wagenheim: A victory on Saturday would be Burns' sixth in a row, and this one, over a former champion still ranked among the welterweight elite, would be the most notable of his career. Would it put him in the title picture? That depends on how many faces fit in the group photo. Burns wouldn't likely be situated right next to Usman in that picture, because accomplishments aside, star power and schtick all too often determine matchmaking, even at a championship level. Consider this: Masvidal is the current occupant of the No. 1 contender spot, and as bad a you-know-what as he is, he has never defeated anyone as brilliant as Woodley.
Outside of the main event, which fighter are you most excited to see?
Helwani: My initial response to this question was Kevin Holland, since he was fighting for the second time in 14 days, but now he's out due to a shoulder injury. Womp womp. So, I'll go with Mackenzie Dern. She's coming off her first pro loss in October. I'm curious to see how she rebounds from that loss to Hannah Cifers. I think a lot of people thought she might not fight again after that loss, so this is an indication that she is still motivated and dedicated to having a successful MMA career.
Okamoto: Spike Carlyle. I got to know Carlyle a bit during his last fight week in February in Virginia, and let's just say "The Alpha Ginger" is a character. He's a different kind of cat. He has some very intense philosophies on life, spirituality, and the role spirituality plays in his fight career. He's got a loud personality, and he fights in the same way. It's too early to know exactly what Carlyle's long-term outlook is in the UFC, but he's already got my attention one fight in.
Raimondi: Antonina Shevchenko. What an incredibly interesting, unique matchup she has against Katlyn Chookagian, who just lost to Shevchenko's sister Valentina, the UFC women's flyweight champion, at UFC 247 in February. Antonina has a chance to make a huge surge against Chookagian, ESPN's No. 3-ranked flyweight. That will create an interesting discussion with regard to Valentina being champion. If Antonina wins, she'll be in the title discussion, and obviously the two sisters won't fight each other. Does that then spur Valentina to move back up to bantamweight for another challenge of champion Amanda Nunes? It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.
Wagenheim: Augusto Sakai is one split decision away from being undefeated, and 11 of his 14 career wins have come by knockout. He's not anywhere near the top of the heavyweight hierarchy, but five straight wins (four KOs) have the 29-year-old Brazilian headed in an upward direction. His opponent in the co-main event, Blagoy Ivanov, is a credible veteran who owns several notable MMA victories as well as a win over Fedor Emelianenko in the combat sambo world championships. If Ivanov slows the pace to his liking, this fight could drag. But if Sakai can let loose, watch out.
How will the smaller Octagon impact the fights? Does it give anyone on the card an advantage?
Helwani: Historically, the smaller cage has led to more exciting fights and finishes. If you don't believe me, watch some old WEC fights or those Fight Night events at the Palms or Hard Rock. When the smaller cage is used, it forces the fighters to engage more, which usually means more action. So I can see every fight being impacted by this, to be honest, especially the main event. Both Burns and Woodley like to swing hard, as we all know. Also, I can see the heavyweight fight between Blagoy Ivanov and Augusto Sakai being more exciting as a result of the smaller cage.
Okamoto: It will have a significant impact, and a potentially enormous one in certain matchups. Look, it's not rocket science. There's a lot less room to maneuver in a smaller cage. That's going to hurt fighters who like to point-fight, keep distance, use footwork and angles and avoid clinches and takedowns. Brawlers love the smaller cage, as do wrestlers. You're fighting a highly skilled, technical striker? Great. Get in the phone booth and take him or her down. I'm simplifying a bit, of course -- I don't think the smaller cage will end up shaking up entire divisions -- but it's definitely significant. We'll be talking about it all summer, I have no doubt.
Raimondi: According to MMA stats guru Reed Kuhn's book "Fightnomics," finish rates go up with the smaller cage. So it should make things very interesting. I'd argue that Woodley, with his superior strength, good clinch game and one-punch knockout power, would benefit from less real estate for his opponent to escape to. It could also help someone like Mackenzie Dern. She has enough power as a striker to keep Hannah Cifers honest, but a smaller cage could also make it easier for Dern to take Cifers down to utilize her world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Wagenheim: I'm not so good at math, but even I can figure out that there's significantly less fighting room in a 25-foot cage than in a 30-footer. What that really means is there's less room for maneuverability, for escape. I see that Marc has already mentioned "Fightnomics," and I, too, remember the eye-opening numbers Reed Kuhn presented. Here's what I extrapolated from the stats: Expect more finishes and earlier finishes on Saturday. That plays to the advantage of grapplers, who would fight in a phone booth if allowed. (Ask your grandpa what a phone booth is.) Expect jiu-jitsu world champions Gilbert Burns and Mackenzie Dern to be among those who'll be smiling during walk-outs.
What's your bold prediction for Saturday?
Helwani: I think we see the old Woodley back. I don't know if he wins, but I think we see him fight much better than he did against Usman. More motivated. More aggressive. More like the Woodley of old.
Raimondi: One of the names everyone will be talking about after this card is Spike Carlyle. The California native finished Aalon Cruz with a violent TKO at just 1:25 of the first round in his UFC debut in February. Carlyle has the action fighting style, the look and the charisma to become a well-known figure in MMA. He just needs to continue to rack up the wins. Carlyle fights Billy Quarantillo on Saturday. If he can stop him in a similar way that he finished Cruz, Carlyle will prove himself as someone to keep an eye on. I think he gets it done.
Wagenheim: Katlyn Chookagian is an underdog going into her flyweight fight with Antonina Shevchenko. Are the Vegas oddsmakers confusing Antonina for her sister? Chookagian did not fare so well in February's title fight with Valentina Shevchenko, losing by third-round TKO. But Chookagian had won five of six before that, facing stiffer competition than Antonina. I expect Katlyn will end Saturday night with a 1-1 record against the Shevchenko family.
What's your reaction to the news that the UFC is targeting Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the bantamweight title?
Helwani: I genuinely feel like they should have made Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen for the vacant title. A second title fight would have been a nice addition to UFC 250, and both guys deserve it. The timing is perfect, too, because Henry Cejudo just retired. Then I would have had the winner face Yan in August. Perfect. Yan should be fighting for a belt next, so this is not meant to be a knock on him by any means. I think they could have bolstered UFC 250 with another legitimate title fight and then having the winner face the No.1 contender, Yan.
I still don't think Aldo deserves a 135-pound title fight, but alas, I digress. I feel like I have been talking about this for months since they booked him versus Cejudo, and people think I am disrespecting the legend, Aldo. I am not. I have the utmost respect for what he has done and how he has done it. I just don't get how you can justify giving him a title shot with a record of 0-1 at 135. One positive: I like that they are keeping their word to Aldo, even though the booking makes little sense to me. It's not his fault the pandemic hit. He had a signed bout agreement to fight for the belt, and it's good that they are honoring it, even though the opponent and date changed. So, mixed emotions, I guess. Here's hoping the winner of Sterling-Sandhagen fights the winner and this division gets active again.
Okamoto: It's the fight I expected from the beginning. The UFC was keen on Yan from the moment Cejudo vacated, and remember, Aldo was the one originally scheduled to fight Cejudo on May 9 in Brazil, before the coronavirus interfered with the UFC's schedule. There were a lot of naysayers around Aldo's title shot even then, but the UFC didn't care -- and I'm not sure why they'd care now. Aldo is the biggest name in the bantamweight division, and he's popular in Brazil, which is valuable to the UFC. Is Sterling more deserving than Aldo to face Yan? Yes, he is. Sandhagen? To a lesser extent than Sterling, but yes. Marlon Moraes? You bet. But none of those three are blatantly, undeniably, head and shoulders above the others -- and in times like that, you expect the UFC to side with name value. And to be fair, some truly did feel Aldo beat Moraes in his last fight. So, to sum it up: Yan vs. Moraes would have been my personal choice, but I'm not terribly upset over where we landed.
Raimondi: I'm not exactly surprised. Aldo was the targeted opponent for Cejudo before the coronavirus messed with travel and forced Aldo out. Dominick Cruz stepped in and Cejudo defeated him before Cejudo retired in his postfight speech. Whether that retirement holds remains to be seen. But it's clear the UFC is calling Cejudo's bluff and moving on with the bantamweight division without him. Remember, Aldo was the opponent Cejudo wanted all along. Now, Yan is getting him for the belt Cejudo just relinquished.
Aldo is on a two-fight losing streak, so it's a bit of an unorthodox title shot. But he's a legend, one of the best to ever do it. And many people thought he beat Moraes in December. Sterling is probably more deserving, but the UFC is an entertainment product and Aldo is more well-known, especially in his native Brazil. It's clear that the UFC is trying to build Yan's name off Aldo, which is honestly a savvy move when it comes to booking. Yan absolutely deserves this chance with his six-fight UFC winning streak.
Wagenheim: Way to prove me wrong, UFC. Not long ago, I felt confident in proclaiming Cejudo vs. Aldo to be the worst possible bantamweight championship fight. Aldo is 0-1 as a 135-pounder and on a two-fight losing streak overall. And yet one could maybe understand Cejudo's desire to add another legendary name to his shiny resume. Yan vs. Aldo, though? I'm growing numb to the UFC's bogus title fight bookings, but hey, it's not about how I feel. How does this make you feel, Aljamain Sterling (winner of four in a row)? How about you, Cory Sandhagen (seven straight wins)? Your feelings, Marlon Moraes (defeated Aldo just last December)? Might as well manufacture those new championship belts out of fool's gold.