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As soon as it was announced that Tyron Woodley would get the next shot at Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Robbie Lawler, a collective groan swept over mixed martial arts fans. Very few people, outside of Woodley’s own family and friends, thought the Missouri fighter deserved a fight with Lawler.
If this scene sounds familiar, that’s because it is, and it’s also the reason why picking Woodley to be the one holding the championship after UFC 201 on Saturday in Atlanta isn’t as farfetched as some may think.
If you take a look at recent history in MMA, you’ll find a disturbing trend of champions losing to opponents they were expected to maul. If you go back to May 2014, you might remember a guy by the name of T.J. Dillashaw, who was given absolutely no chance -- like less than zero -- to upend UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao at UFC 173. At the time, Dillashaw’s most notable victory had come against Mike Easton. Although there was a valid argument that suggested Dillashaw should have earned a decision against Raphael Assuncao, the fact remained that he didn’t look like a very deserving opponent. Then the fight happened, and Dillashaw dominated one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world en route to a fifth-round knockout.
Fast forward to March 2015, and everyone thought Anthony Pettis was the most dangerous lightweight in the UFC. After he secured the 155-pound title with a submission victory over Benson Henderson and successfully defended it with a brilliant performance against Gilbert Melendez, there weren’t many who thought Rafael dos Anjos was deserving of a title shot. However, he proved them wrong when he dominated Pettis to snare the title with a unanimous decision.
In June 2015, Fabricio Werdum was slated to face Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight title. Although Werdum wasn’t as big of an underdog as Dillashaw, few thought he would take out the man many thought was the best heavyweight on the planet. At UFC 188 in Mexico City, Werdum dominated Velasquez and scored a third-round submission.
I don’t think we need to reiterate how virtually no one saw Holly Holm as a deserving opponent for Ronda Rousey; most expected Holm’s night at UFC 193 to be uploaded on Instagram. I also don’t need to recap the dominant performance turned in by Holm to finish Rousey and send her to parts unknown, where she remains to this day.
Conor McGregor was supposed to wipe out Nate Diaz at UFC 196, but Diaz ate everything the Irishman had to offer and choked him out in the second round; Stipe Miocic was a footnote to the story Werdum was penning as the greatest heavyweight of all-time. Werdum then literally ran into a Miocic punch that put him to sleep in the opening stanza of their UFC 198 main event; Michael Bisping? Oh, he had no business in the same Octagon as Luke Rockhold, until he knocked him out in the first round at UFC 199; and Eddie Alvarez was supposed to be a steppingstone for dos Anjos, until the former Bellator MMA champion knocked the Brazilian senseless in the first round of their UFC Fight Night clash on July 7.
Do you see the trend here?
The repetitive use of the words “dominate,” “deserving,” “knockout” and “submission” was done to emphasize the point. For the past two years, there have been fighters who were supposed to be little more than cannon fodder for champions but ended up winning. Moreover, with the exception of dos Anjos’ performance against Pettis, every single underdog won the fight by knockout or submission.
If you believe in trends, then you believe there’s legitimate concern as to whether Lawler will be the next victim of the underdog train. Few have faith in Woodley to pull off the upset, but stranger things have happened inside that cage; and if Woodley is going to win, it won’t be the way people would expect it. He won’t wrestle Lawler and grind out a five-round decision. It will be a devastating finish in a manner that nobody sees coming.
That’s just recent history talking. Whether or not you roll with the punches is up to you.
Andreas Hale is the editorial content director of 2DopeBoyz.com, co-host of the boxing, MMA and pro wrestling podcast “The Corner” and a regular columnist for Sherdog.com. You can follow on Twitter for his random yet educated thoughts on combat sports, music, film and popular culture.