Tyron Woodley retained his UFC welterweight title with a desultory majority decision over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in their rematch at UFC 209 on Saturday night.
Alistair Overeem also stopped Mark Hunt in the third round of an entertaining heavyweight bout at T-Mobile Arena, and Rashad Evans debuted at middleweight with a split-decision upset loss to 39-year-old Australian judoka Daniel Kelly.
Until the final 30 seconds of their five-round bout, Woodley (17-3-1) and Thompson (13-2-1) failed to recapture the excitement of their memorable majority draw last November.
Woodley put on a cautious, tactical fight until he caught Thompson with a right hand late, landing several big shots on the ground. Thompson made it to the bell, but two judges scored the bout 48-47 for Woodley, with a third seeing it 47-47.
“I thought I was going to finish him,” Woodley said. “But in the end, I got the victory.”
Woodley and Thompson both fought with abandon and got themselves into dangerous positions in their first bout in New York but survived for only the third draw in a title fight in UFC history.
The rematch opened with two action-free rounds as both fighters sized up their opponent amid boos from the Vegas crowd. Woodley landed a takedown in the third, and Thompson did damage with kicks in the fourth, but neither contender produced anything resembling the urgency expected by the fans, who took to chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” in the fifth.
Woodley eventually obliged, and it might have swung the entire fight in his favor. Woodley landed 66 total strikes to Thompson’s 42, and the champ had the fight’s only takedown.
The UFC 209 card lost one of the year’s most anticipated bouts one day earlier when Khabib Nurmagomedov was hospitalized while struggling to make weight. The unbeaten Russian was scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title.
The UFC hoped the card could make up for the loss of those two all-action fighters, but the main event wasn’t great.
Woodley won his belt last July by stopping long-reigning champion Robbie Lawler in the culmination of a lengthy career in Strikeforce and the UFC. His first title defense was a Madison Square Garden showcase against Thompson, who earned his title shot with seven straight wins.
After the draw, the rematch was booked swiftly, although Woodley initially expressed hope of getting a more lucrative bout against one of the promotion’s bigger names, leading to a public spat with UFC President Dana White.
Earlier on the pay-per-view portion of the UFC 209 card, veteran Dutch kickboxer Overeem (42-15) flattened Hunt to bounce back solidly from his knockout loss to Stipe Miocic in his heavyweight title shot last September.
After two bloody rounds that looked largely even, Overeem staggered Hunt with a left elbow in a clinch. Overeem then landed two right knees, leaving Hunt (12-11-1) planted face-down on the canvas.
“We might be old, but we’re not done yet,” the 36-year-old Overeem said.
In an Instagram post after the fight, Hunt said he broke his leg during the bout. He had an alarmingly bloody gash on his right shin from the first round onward.
Hunt made a disclosed purse of $750,000 to return to the UFC cage even though he filed a lawsuit against the promotion in January, accusing it of fraud, racketeering and other crimes.
Hunt acknowledges he is pursuing legal action after failed doping tests by three of his recent opponents – including Brock Lesnar, who failed tests before and after his bruising victory over Hunt at UFC 200 last July. The 42-year-old Hunt claimed he was “forced” to continue fighting for the UFC by his contract, although he apparently meant the UFC was still the best place for him to earn a living.
Evans (24-6-1), the former UFC light heavyweight champion, moved down in weight after losing four of his last six fights. Although he looked sharp, Evans narrowly lost an entertaining duel with the relentless Kelly (13-1), who has competed in judo for Australia at four Olympics.
Kelly is an improbable 6-1 since joining the UFC as a 37-year-old jiu-jitsu black belt with just seven MMA bouts. He has been the betting underdog six times in his seven-fight UFC career.
Sweden’s David Teymur upset Lando Vannata in an entertaining lightweight bout in the co-main event that replaced Nurmagomedov’s fight with Ferguson.
The undercard was highlighted by a spectacular comeback victory for Darren Elkins. The veteran featherweight was pulverized and bloodied for 13 consecutive minutes by Mirsad Bektic, but Elkins improbably landed a stunning sequence of punches and kicks to finish the fight.