Stephen Thompson vs. Robert Whittaker Welterweight
When we last left our heroes...I'm not gonna sell you on this fight because it's a terrible matchup. And no Uncle Dana, calling it a terrible matchup is not the same thing as calling it a terrible fight. It may end up being fight of the year material, but that doesn't mean it's an acceptable bout to throw on the main card.
Nonetheless, it's a UFC fight. So let's talk about it.
Whittaker is a product of TUF, and as such, I know even less about him than your average midwestern King of the Cage gatekeeper. Instead, like many fighters on TUF, their presence fades into narratives like this...this...and this. To be fair, these are all good if you're a sucker for a cheap laugh like me (especially the last one).
Robert fought on The Smashes season; so called for reasons that still wouldn't make sense if Stephen Hawking himself came up with the name. He would go on to take down Brad Scott in the finale to be the Welterweight show winner. He's now a respectable 2-1 with an additional win over Colton Smith, and a loss to Court McGee.
Whittaker is not the reason people will watch this fight. That honor belongs to Thompson, who has only stumbled once in his career when he fought Matt Brown at UFC 145.
Thompson's appeal is obvious: in an age where wrestle-boxers took over the world for a time (and an era that has essentially ended when you look at the top fighters nowadays), here's a man who fights exactly the way game developers make them.
At 3-1 thus far, he'll be looking to tally up his win column for a much more meaningful fight. I'd like to see a fight with Martin Kampmann which Joe Silva likely wouldn't have a problem with if booking this fight is any indication. Two losses in a row is a far cry from one, but still...it'd be a hell of a fight I think. The real question for now is, can Whittaker give people a reason to care? I'd argue that this battle is much more uphill than casual fans might think.
What both men can do: Three words - Haisoku Mawashi Geri. This is, of course, a reference to Thompson's money shot. He loves the instep roundhouse kick. It's the move that put him on the map when he debuted against Dan Stittgen.
For as much as there is to lament about the sport, the game itself has undergone a radical necessary change over the years. Fighters are learning how to separate themselves from the pack with specific techniques as opposed to specific styles. No more Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin, Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver, or Tito Ortiz...now it's Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Jon Jones, and so forth.
And I mean zero disrespect to the aforementioned fighters. These guys were the transitional species necessary for the evolution of MMA (an analogy I'm sure Hughes would especially cherish). Thompson represents that, whether he turns into a elite WW or not.
His use of specific Kempo techniques has earned him fan currency in the UFC, but it's not just one or two strikes that make Thompson unique; it's the way those techniques are set up. His head movement that allowed him to slip Stittgen's jab, and the use of various punches were components of said roundhouse.
Whittaker is pretty meat and potatoes. His fight against Court was a good example of what he has to offer. He's tough, and durable. While the decision was anything but questionable, McGee had to work for it. Robert has a strong right hand, as he proved on TUF but he also understands when to throw it. It's always refreshing when a fighter knows he needs that last round and acts accordingly rather than coasts, believing the fight was won 10 minutes ago.
He's also fairly aggressive in top control and likes to use that raw power to rain punches and elbows with his opponent's head pressed against the floor.
What both men can't do: Thompson isn't terrible on the ground, but he continues to learn on the fly on this sport. His sin against Matt Brown came from his inability to maintain his grip; a fact that was expertly broken down by our own T. P. Grant.
With Whittaker's passion for violence from top control, this part of the fight will be critical to Thompson's success. However, unlike Brown, Whittaker is not as capable. Although not by much. For as much as Brown is hailed I can't help but speak like a stat nerd; Brown is still the same fighter who was brutalized by fighters like Seth Baczynski, Brian Foster, and Chris Lytle (all submission losses no less). Is his current win streak anomalous in some way?
That's a little beside the point, but it's important because I have to think given past evidence that Whittaker could conceivably replicate Brown's gameplan.
I lean towards Thompson not because of some special attachment to his style, but because I think his game off his back isn't as bad as it looked (and was) against 'The Immortal'. He moves extremely well, and Whittaker's defense is like a game of Duck Hunt. Thompson will get his chances.
X-Factor: Will he get enough in the eyes of the judges if he doesn't score the KO but gets taken down a lot? That's the question.
In-Fight Soundtrack: I'm fairly terrible with references. Linking to Joe Esposito more or less confirms it.
Prediction: Stephen Thompson by TKO, round 2.