Long after the stadium had emptied and the fans had gone home, Stephen Thompson tread gingerly on the stadium turf. His feet were sore, presumably from all the kicking he had done. Former UFC champion, cornerman, and new brother-in-law, Chris Weidman, held up the camera. The group was all smiles as UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling regaled everyone with the story of tearing his pants cheering for Thompson.
Thompson: “Alright guys, well… As soon as I went out there in the first round, I felt that he was really gonna shoot for the legs, so I had to change my gameplan a little bit, play a chess match on the outside… [to Weidman] dude I could hear you the entire time! … I could hear you say circle, I could hear Dad say some stuff that I did not throw (laughs)”
The alliance between Thompson and the Serra-Longo gym tells the story of his career. Always a very gifted and unique kickboxer, a man GSP called the best striker he had ever seen, “Wonderboy” famously took a ferocious beating in his second UFC fight. In that battle, he outstruck the great Matt Brown but was taken to task on the ground each round. The hype train derailed, he took a year off and went back to the drawing board. His career since then has been a slow build to the top. He was brought in to serve as a sparring partner for Weidman’s first Anderson Silva fight, as he has done for many top fighters, including GSP and Anderson Silva himself. He fit in really well at Serra-Longo, and it is largely the work he did there on his wrestling is what has gotten him to the top of the division.
This weekend, we saw the Cleveland Cavaliers break a 52-year drought to win the title in Game 7 by the narrowest of margins, one of basketball’s all-time great moments. One of the reasons it was so incredible is that we had all but written Cleveland off when they were down 3-1 in the series. The comparison is a little obtuse, but Stephen Thompson suffered the same fate in fan’s eyes after the Matt Brown loss. Only two years into his pro career, the vast majority of fans dismissed his chances of reaching the upper echelons of a division when he could be taken down, worn out and outgrappled by a gritty but (at the time) low-level Matt Brown. He was just a gimmicky karate stylist, an action fighter that might be fun, but whose lack of serious grappling would keep him from beating the top guys. In retrospect, it was the same kind of prospect loss that nearly every fighter faces at some point in their fledgling careers. Matt Brown proceeded to go on a seven-fight win streak and reach the top ten of the division before narrowly losing to Robbie Lawler. Thompson took the time needed to develop his skills, away from the pressure of a hype train.
His record now is the most impressive at welterweight, post-GSP. He has not only quantity- his seven-fight win streak currently the longest in the weight class- but quality as well. He has outclassed two top five men, in Rory Macdonald and Johnny Hendricks, that no one, including champion Robbie Lawler and Georges St. Pierre himself, had dominated. His distance management is superb. His toolbox of strikes is both deep and unique. More importantly, his takedown defense has become outstanding. His movement and sharp counters make even entering the pocket dangerous, much less initiating grappling exchanges. Always gifted with a heavy base standing, Gustaffson-like, he has sharpened his grappling reflexes, which had been abysmal against Brown. Our first clue of his newfound prowess came when he reversed a Jake Ellenberger takedown and proceeded to dominate the wrestler from the ride and the clinch, doing damage and throwing Ellenberger back to the mat.
His subsequent one-round destruction of Hendricks ranks among the most comprehensive striking clinics in MMA history, as he picked apart and finished the former champion without a scratch. It was also a huge surprise because Hendricks had been extremely durable and competitive with the best strikers in the division, with a strong argument that he had not deserved to lose a fight since Rick Story in 2010. Yet, Wonderboy was nigh untouchable, finding Johnny’s rhythm and playing havoc with it. The one time Bigg Rigg got him to the fence, Stephen fought off the takedown and disengaged flawlessly. Many, including myself, were calling for a title shot after that performance.
The UFC opted to have him fight Rory Macdonald instead, in possibly the only welterweight matchup Rory, ahead of free agency, wouldn’t be the favorite to win. Rory had been four minutes away from winning the title before Lawler shattered his face in the fifth round of one of the greatest fights the UFC has ever seen, sending Rory tumbling to the canvas. Unlike Thompson, a specialist, Rory is a chameleon. He is so well-rounded he is able to adapt his gameplan to his opponent almost limitlessly. A phenomenal martial artist, Rory is the closest thing to a fighting android in MMA- cold, calculating, and efficient, seemingly reprogrammed with a completely different gameplan each fight.
Against Thompson, though, Rory found himself stuck on the outside, unable to get the fight into his preferred range. His vaunted jab was nearly nonexistent, as he attempted to counter Wonderboy’s flurries of straight punches with hooks. Thompson was cautious after Rory rolled into an ankle lock, but that was the closest the Canadian got to making the fight a grappling contest. Thompson made full use of his ability to switch hit, spending large portions of the first few rounds in a southpaw stance, hitting MacDonald with carefully selected sidekicks and round kicks to the calf, circling out whenever MacDonald maneuvered him close to the fence. The stance limited both fighters- Thompson has a much more complete arsenal in his orthodox stance- but with it, Thompson was able to stay far enough away to neutralize Rory’s best tools and win rounds.
When Rory did force his way into the pocket, it was Thompson that initiated the clinch, driving Rory to the fence with an under hook and excellent head pressure. He had come a long way from the Matt Brown fight. Rory, an excellent clinch wrestler and takedown artist, was unable to get anything going in the clinch with Thompson. In the fifth round, Rory finally succeeded in trading shots with Thompson, but the American’s chin held up, and he hurt MacDonald late, forcing the Red King to cover up and dig deep to battle to a decision.
“Wonderboy” can make the claim to being the very best striker in mixed martial arts. What really sets him apart is the degree to which he has internalized the fine intangibles of distance, timing, and reactive defense through his 57-fight kickboxing career. In a sport where prospects get little time to fine-tune their striking, Stephen got the equivalent of a boxer’s amateur experience. He reads opponents intuitively, like Dominick Cruz, which lets him play his hands-down defense without getting hit cleanly. His strikes flow from offense to defense with unmatched fluidity, letting him exchange in layers with his opponents. He likes to be all the way on the outside, but maintains a high work rate, landing quick punches before pulling his head out of the way of the counter, and then either coming back on a different angle or circling away.
Now, thanks to work with Chris Weidman and company, his grappling has caught up to his striking. His takedown defense has been perfect since Matt Brown. His clinch is excellent and his limp-leg is excellent, but even more critical is that command of long distance. Perhaps working with the best cage cutter at middleweight is the reason, but no one has succeeded at walking him down yet. Wins over three of the strongest wrestlers at welterweight have answered that question emphatically. The only thing remaining is to actually fight for the belt, which will be incredibly fun.
Robbie Lawler, he of the titanium skull and soul-taking fists, has made his championship career a study in brinksmanship, winning it in a razor-thin decision and keeping it in two more five-round wars against MacDonald and Condit. He is never in a boring fight. Currently, he is slated to face Tyrone Woodley in Atlanta in July, at UFC 201. Assuming Woodley doesn’t starch him early, he should win comfortably, setting up a potential showdown with the karate blackbelt from South Carolina.
While Thompson has undoubtedly been more convincing over the same opponents Lawler went to war with, Lawler can never be counted out of a standup fight. His power, durability and calm under fire mean he could very well take Wonderboy’s best shots and come back with a fight-ending hook, and he has the athleticism to physically hang with Thompson. But given the success Condit and MacDonald had from the outside with Lawler, stylistically, this is a fight that favors Wonderboy.
Thompson suggested that the fight takes place in Madison Square Garden, but the setting is academic. At this point, it’s just a matter of time. In excess of all our expectations, the best welterweight in the world is coming for his strap.