In the early days of mixed martial arts, karate was regarded as a martial art that couldn’t be utilized inside the cage. Karate practitioners in the UFC were far and few between, with Lyoto Machida the sole fighter with a karate-based fighting style to win a UFC championship.
As of late, UFC combatants with backgrounds in karate such as Michelle Waterson, Gunnar Nelson, Kyoji Horiguchi and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson have enjoyed successful runs inside the octagon. Thompson is currently riding a 6-fight winning streak. With a victory in the main event of UFC Fight Night 89, he is virtually guaranteed a crack at the UFC welterweight title.
His opponent, former UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald, effectively blends technical striking, opportunistic wrestling, and high-level jiu-jitsu into one complete package. Conversely, Thompson employ’s a one-dimensional approach which revolves around his world-class striking ability.
A 5th-degree black belt in Tetsushin Ryu Kempo Karate with a combined amateur/professional record of 57-0 in kick-boxing, Stephen Thompson features a tremendous amount of striking experience that has aided in crafting him into one of the most electrifying strikers in MMA. His seemingly endless toolbox of striking techniques includes karate blitzing attacks, lightning-fast roundhouse kicks, hook kicks, wheel kicks, front leg sidekicks, and even axe kicks.
Many outside fighters throw a low volume of strikes with high power (Anthony Pettis and Anderson Silva represent prime examples) and are prone to losing close rounds in the eyes of the judges. This is due to the fact that their focus isn’t on scoring points, but on scoring a knockout. Thompson is unparalleled as an outside fighter because he is very aggressive in throwing a high-volume of strikes from the outside which keeps his opposition exactly where he needs them while aiding him in winning rounds on the judges scorecards.
Wonderboy is capable of accomplishing this by switching stances from orthodox to southpaw , utilizing his lead hand to assess the distance, and by throwing unorthodox kicks frequently. His use of unorthodox kicks overloads his opponent’s brain with data which leads to his opposition waiting to see what he’s going to throw next, not concentrating on their own game-plan.
He consistently land’s kicks at a high clip partly due to the fact that his kicking background is in karate. Compared to muay thai, karate kicking mechanics result in faster, less powerful kicks. Muay Thai fighters are often encouraged to throw very hefty kicks nearly every time they kick.
But to be capable of throwing sinewy kicks, muay thai fighters must make a step into their kicks. The additional time involved in taking a step into a kick can be the difference between a stealthy roundhouse kick that lands on the liver or a kick that is blocked on the forearm.
While Wonderboy can comfortably fight on the lead, he prefers to fight on the counter. He does an excellent job of baiting his opponents to attack first by holding his hands low while also keeping his chin a bit high. Thompson frequently utilizes a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-style pull-counter as a counter-strike against a bull-rushing opponent.
By simply glancing at the 2 gifs below, you can clearly recognize the similarities between Mayweather’s and Thompson’s pull-counter. Both are falsifying the distance between themselves and their opposition by holding their head over their lead leg, creating the illusion that their head is closer than it actually is. This leads to their opponent coming forward with a strike. They counter by pulling their head backwards away from danger while springing back with a straight right-hand.
The inability to hit Thompson cleanly commonly frustrates his opponents early on into the fight. To close the distance, Thompson’s opponents overextend on their punches and position themselves off-balance. An off-balance opponent isn’t able to counter, therefore, when Thompson notices his opponent overextending, he plants his feet and launches punches with conviction.
While Stephen Thompson has appeared nearly unstoppable in his last 6 fights, the blueprint on defeating him is well known: Keep the fight in close-range, cut the cage, engage him in the clinch, and work to get a take-down. This is easier said than done, but Matt Brown managed to execute this game plan very well against Wonderboy at UFC 145. Brown took advantage of Thompson’s tendency of backing up in a straight line by pressuring him relentlessly, forcing him into a grinding/grappling-heavy fight. Nah-Shon Burrell employed the same game-plan against Wonderboy and with good effect, successfully pushing him to the fence while neutralizing his karate for a large portion of the fight. Burrell wound up being out-clinched and out-grappled by Thompson, but his performance still highlighted the defects in Thompson’s game.
Stephen Thompson’s moniker “Wonderboy”, might have to be switched to “Wonderman”, because even though he still feature’s boyish looks, he is no spring chicken at 33 years old. Depending on the result of his barn-burner match up against Rory MacDonald , Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson will either cement himself as a future title challenger, or a fighter who may have maxed out his potential.
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