Frankie Edgar knocked out Chad Mendes in the first round. Conor McGregor ended the title reign of history's greatest featherweight in just 13 seconds. Ben Rothwell submitted grappling maestro Josh Barnett. It's been an odd couple of months in the world of MMA, and thus the stage was set for something weird to happen in the main event of UFC Fight Night 82.
And it did.
It took Stephen Thompson less than four minutes to dispatch Johny Hendricks. Not only did he negate the two-time folkstyle wrestling champion's takedown efforts, but he managed to crack one of MMA's most celebrated chins. "Wonderboy" knocked out a man that "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler himself twice failed to finish. And in the process he showed off one of the best out-fighting games in all of MMA.
Let us take a closer look at Thompson's performance, and the subtleties that allowed him to break the unbreakable.
LAYERS OF COMBAT
There are a lot of out-fighters in MMA, but many merely fight that way by necessity. This is simply because out-fighting seems easiest given the wide variety of challenges strikers face in this sport: fighting in the pocket is hard; wrestling is hard; tight, concise footwork in the face of heavy pressure is hard. When striking specialists in MMA are pitted against more aggressive, more reckless, and more grappling-centric opponents, they are incentivized to stay at long range as often as possible in order to avoid these problem areas.
For a economical and defensively savvy striker, long range is a wonderful place to be. The opponent must close the distance to strike or grapple, and in doing so he opens himself up to counters and pot shots. While he labors to enter the pocket, he is fully visible, from head to toe. Hiding one's movements at this distance is very difficult, and thus the skilled out-fighter can judge his opponent's intentions and adjust well before he is actually threatened, fighting to control the initiative by controlling the distance.
But at some point, the opponent will close the distance. Provided both fighters are at something approaching an equal level of skill and/or determination, that gap is never permanent. When survivalist out-fighters, the ones who simply lack the skill to do anything but strike from range, are faced with this reality, they crumble. Even men as skilled as Anthony Pettis and Alexander Gustafsson are far more comfortable at long range than they are in close, and they will try for as long as possible to maintain the distance, futilely pretending that it will not be taken away from them.
It is always a mistake. When the distance is closed, these out-fighters are forced to react. They lose the initiative that is the basis of their style. They must brawl to survive, or open themselves to takedowns, or gamble on a sloppy exit that exposes them to punishment.
Stephen Thompson is not a survivalist. He is not an out-fighter by necessity, but by design. He is an intelligent (and intelligently trained) striker who fully understands the two fundamental truths of long distance fighting. One, nothing lasts forever; and two, it's always better to be first.
So when Thompson manages the distance it looks like this.
1. Thompson matches Johny Hendricks' southpaw stance, and waits.
2. Hendricks feints, and Thompson thinks about a side kick.
3. When nothing happens, Thompson advances by sliding his rear foot forward.
4. This allows him to close the gap and drive his right leg through Hendricks' torso.
5. Hendricks shakes it off and walks toward Thompson.
6. But Thompson steps in, once again sliding his back foot forward . . .
7. . . . and bringing up his leg before Hendricks can get comfortable. Hendricks lowers his hands to block.
8. But this time it's a snappy round kick to the face, not a side kick to the body.
"Wonderboy" has a perfect understanding of the two elements that make an effective out-fighter. The first, of course, is distance. He wants Hendricks at long range for all of the reasons already mentioned. The second is initiative. Thompson is not content to wait indefinitely. He will certainly give his opponent the chance to make mistakes, but he recognizes that the longer he allows an opponent to plan and calculate at long range, the more comfortable he becomes there. In order to force the opponent into mistakes, Thompson chooses to take the initiative as frequently as possible.
In this case, Thompson elects to close the distance as soon as it becomes clear that Hendricks isn't sure how to do so himself. Rather than getting comfortable and allowing Hendricks time to think, Thompson advances and claims the center of the Octagon, forcing Hendricks to react to him rather than the other way around. And to double down on this advantage, Thompson follows up with a switch-up kick to the head.
Not only does Thompson change targets, but he times his second attack in the split-second before Hendricks can get comfortable. Johny has a habit of visibly resetting between exchanges, especially when he has been struck by his opponent. He tends to shrug, raise his brows, take a breath, and stroll back toward his opponent. But Thompson made sure to fire his second kick (and many of his other follow-up attacks in this fight) in the midst of Hendricks' confidence-boosting strut. By refusing "Bigg Rigg" the opportunity to reset, Thompson shut him out of the fight as well as shutting him out of the pocket.
Of course, Thompson is an excellent counter puncher. He didn't always attack first, and often allowed Hendricks to walk onto his punches. When he did counter, however, "Wonderboy" looked not only to hurt Hendricks, but to control the cage as well.
1. Hendricks eyes the gulf between himself and Thompson.
2. He leads with a jab . . .
3. . . . and follows with a straight left. Thompson hop-steps back, sliding just out of the way.
4. He responds with a cross of his own, catching Hendricks on the jaw.
5. Hendricks takes another step forward . . .
6. . . . and Thompson scares him off with a jab.
7. Then a right hand.
8. Shifting his way forward, Thompson convinces Hendricks to concede center cage.
Again, initiative and distance. Even when Thompson doesn't take the lead, he has distance in mind. As he backs up to draw Hendricks in, he is fully aware of his diminishing real estate. Once his back comes within a certain distance of the fence, Thompson takes the first opportunity to explode forward, reclaiming all of the space he has lost while putting an exclamation point on his counter, putting further doubt in the mind of his opponent.
Thompson's win was a tactical and strategic masterclass. Just about everything he did was perfectly calculated to control the fight and tilt the odds in his favor. I don't always get to view UFC events live, and I saw this one the following morning. Watching my recording of the bout, I saw that there were only ten minutes remaining when the fight began, suggesting a first-round KO. Despite Hendricks' granite chin and devastating power, it became clear to me just two minutes into the fight that it would be Thompson, not Hendricks, scoring the finish. That's how utterly "Wonderboy" took hold of the fight.
Of course, Thompson was technically as well as tactically impressive. He has quickly established himself as one of the cleanest boxers in MMA, and the hop-step counter right with which he set up the end of the fight was a beauty, the ideal technique to capitalize on the ideal circumstances.
1. Hendricks is running out of ideas.
2. He leads with a left high kick, which Thompson blocks.
3. Hendricks lands in an orthodox stance . . .
4. . . . and lunges in with a left hook.
5. Thompson hop-steps in reverse, angling off to his right as he retreats.
6. As his front foot meets the ground Thompson drops a short right hand on Hendricks' exposed jaw.
7. Hendricks is still moving forward, so Thompson hop-steps again.
8. And uses this new angle to land yet another right hand to the jaw.
9. This one sends Hendricks reeling into the fence.
With the same footwork that fellow Karateka Conor McGregor used to KO Jose Aldo (Wonderboy's is actually a bit cleaner), Thompson shattered one of the most resilient chins in all of MMA. Thompson's front foot leads the skipping movement, and he sends his right hand out just as it returns to the floor, effortlessly adding his bodyweight to the impact of the punch. Hendricks' reckless forward momentum, drawn out by Thompson's frustrating tactics, intensifies the effect of the punch, creating a collision that rattles Johny's brain and leaves him susceptible to a follow-up. And unlike his more timid counterparts, Thompson is more than happy to step right back into the pocket when it becomes clear that Hendricks is hurt. Though he could have taken advantage of the opportunity to slip away, Thompson artfully followed his first punch with another, and then another and another and so on until the fight was his.
Stephen Thompson knocking out Johny Hendricks. It's a result that almost none of us would have predicted beforehand, but in retrospect we can only acknowledge how expertly Thompson picked his man apart, setting him up methodically for the finish. There are some fights that feel like flukes, often ending in finishes that leave you with as many questions as they answered. And then there are some performances that just feel complete, fights that feel orchestrated rather than random.
I sure didn't see this one coming, but I'm not wondering about "Wonderboy" anymore.
For more on Hendricks vs Thompson, don't miss this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.