With UFC Ottawa just a day away, one of the most intriguing matchups in MMA history looms large on the horizon. Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson are exceedingly well-matched, and their pairing promises not only a multi-faceted battle of superbly technical fighters, but a clashing of two remarkable personalities. In a sport increasingly defined by rote athleticism, MacDonald and Thompson pursue Martial Artistry.
The auras surrounding Rory and Stephen upon their UFC debuts were very different. For Rory MacDonald, just 20 years old when he first entered the Octagon in January of 2010, expectations were high. Even after losing his second fight in the promotion MacDonald kept expectations high, moving to Montreal’s Tristar Gym. He became the protege of Firas Zahabi, and a de-facto understudy of Georges St-Pierre, then in the midst of the greatest title reign the MMA world has ever witnessed. Rory was touted as the next big thing, the first of a generation of young fighters who had grown up practicing MMA in its entirety, rather than specializing in a single discipline.
Stephen Thompson, on the other hand, entered the scene touting an undefeated record in the niche sport of Full Contact Kickboxing. He had his own ties to Tristar: Thompson had already served as a training partner to St-Pierre on numerous occasions. Zahabi called him “the best karate guy--the best striker I’ve ever seen . . . in any sport.” Unlike MacDonald, “Wonderboy’s” prospects were doubted. Where MacDonald had struggled valiantly with the well-respected Carlos Condit in his second UFC bout, Thompson’s sophomore effort saw him lose a bloody battle to Matt Brown, who had yet to earn his reputation as one of the best welterweights on the planet. Where MacDonald was celebrated for his well-roundedness, Thompson was doubted because of his specialization in Kempo Karate, his kickboxing resume called into question.
Now, six years later, Thompson has firmly established himself as a shield-bearer in the upper echelons of MMA. MacDonald has further cemented his role as the coming man, having already brushed fingertips with the title that was seen as his birthright before his 27th birthday.
With both men on the cusp of greatness, it behooves us to look at their journeys, and the mindsets that set them apart from the rest of the pack.
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Stephen Thompson’s UFC debut was almost laughably easy. Though hardy and skilled on the ground, Dan Stittgen was utterly mystified by Thompson’s flashy striking. It took Thompson a little over four minutes to wrap his foot around the back of Stittgen’s skull and send him clattering to the canvas.
But the casual comfort of that first big fight would be retroactively earned in Thompson’s sophomore effort.
In Matt Brown, Stephen Thompson found himself facing the kind of competitor that is all too rare in the graceful sport of Full Contact Kickboxing. Brown bragged before the bout that his Muay Thai would beat Thompson’s Karate, but it was something more complicated than mere kickboxing that earned him the win.
As in all of Thompson’s MMA matchups, Brown was not the better striker, but he was well-versed in the things that make MMA unique. Not only did he wrestle Thompson to the ground, but he nailed his head to the plys with full-postured, jackhammer blows. Even when Thompson managed to defend Brown’s takedowns, he was battered by knees and elbows while he struggled to extricate himself from the gritty veteran’s grasp, his legs kicked out from under him even as he slipped free of Brown’s wiry arms. As the fight wore on, Thompson wore down, his striking muted by the threat of the takedown, his stamina sapped by a striking style better suited to the kickboxing ring than the Octagon.
Rory MacDonald had his run-in with Carlos Condit, an older and more experienced fighter who surged in the third round to capitalize on MacDonald’s leaking gas tank. After that first defeat, however, MacDonald recuperated remarkably well, regaining his momentum with a series of dominant wins over elite competition. His second gut-check came in the form of Robbie Lawler. Twice MacDonald was called to fight “Ruthless” Robbie, and both times Lawler emerged the victor, in part due to his willingness to turn a contest of technical skill into a brutal fight to the finish. In these instances, it was not MacDonald’s lack of depth that failed him, but his inability to cope with the reckless aggression of a man utterly unconcerned with his own health and safety.
It is hard to overstate the importance of challenges like these. The lessons learned in combat sports are more painful than those in other forms of competition, and leave deeper scars. Anyone can lose a game and recover in time; fighters literally beat one another senseless. They strive to humiliate their fellow athletes, and push themselves to the limits in order to drive the adversary over theirs.
The humility and dedication required to not only survive such a shocking defeat but return from it stronger, sharper, and more focused are the marks of a true martial artist. They are the marks of a man who views every hill as a speed bump, and every mountain a lesson in mountaineering. How fighters recover from losses like these, that crush the courage as surely as they bruise the skin, is one of the surest ways of measuring their true potentials.
Rory MacDonald’s loss to Carlos Condit was a painful necessity. The path he followed afterward proves as much. Without that defeat, MacDonald might never have joined Tristar. Without the new gym, he might never have calmed the reckless fire that defined his amateur career, the hunger for quick finishes that saw him submitting to exhaustion even as he shelled up to ward of Condit’s fists.
The loss to Lawler was a painful necessity too. Without dropping that narrow split decision, MacDonald might have quenched the old fire altogether. He might have coasted on safe, comfortable decisions over washed-up old-timers like BJ Penn and Jake Ellenberger, and wasted his potential. He might never have developed the cold, cruel aggression that has become his hallmark, that put dangerous specialists like Demian Maia and Tarec Saffiedine on the retreat.
Then there came the second loss to Robbie Lawler, which might have been a victory but for four minutes that Rory never saw. Twice MacDonald nearly finished Lawler, and both times he had to watch the champion stumble back to his corner with a smile on his face. Meanwhile his own face transformed under the brunt of Lawler’s fists, the boyish visage swelling and cracking, the cool eyes sinking into the deepening pits of their swelling sockets. And in the fifth round, Lawler did just as he had before. His lip rent, his cheek rising like fresh dough, Lawler took the same comeback attitude that had earned him the nod in their first encounter, and added an extra ounce of fury for each new cut and bruise. One minute into the final frame, a cracking left sent MacDonald to the canvas cradling a shattered nose, and that was that.
This one would have shaken the foundations of a lesser fighter. Time may prove that it put a few cracks in Rory MacDonald’s cellar too, to match the new ones in his attic. And yet, though this latest loss far exceeded the brutality of MacDonald’s first, there is a sense that the fistic clinician will return sharper than ever, having added even more subtlety to an already nuanced game.
There are many fighters who, in a show of bravado, might describe an experience like the Lawler rematch as a “good time.” And from those fighters it would be a clingwrap facade, easily seen through. But for Rory MacDonald . . .
“The greatest moment of my life,” MacDonald droned on the MMA Hour just a month after the fight. “It showed me who I was . . . Obviously I’m disappointed that I didn’t win . . . but at the end of the day it was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m grateful for it.”
For Stephen Thompson, it all goes back to Matt Brown. The man who was sent skittering across the canvas like a newborn fawn and yet came back, over and over, to sling desperate punches and dive fearlessly on Thompson’s rubbery hips, dragging him brow-deep into a choppy sea of elbows and fists. The so-called “Immortal,” who seemed to have earned his nickname that day in April of 2012.
Wrestling alone was not Thompson’s problem, nor was submission grappling; when he committed to either of these phases, after being taken down or caught in the clinch, he did very well considering his limited experience. No, in the end MMA itself was Thompson’s Achilles’ heel. Not the phases themselves, but the twisted, tangled way in which they fitted together. It was the kind of problem that only dogged determination could solve: more hours in the gym, more time with elite training partners and coaches, and more fights with bonafide hard men like Matthew Burton Brown.
Thompson learned his first lesson in the importance of persistence when he was a boy of about 10. “As I got to that age,” he recounted in an interview with MMA Fighting’s Mike Chiapetta, “[Karate] wasn’t fun anymore. But one day, the lightbulb clicked in my head, and I got it.”
It shouldn’t be as shocking as it is to hear a lifelong martial artist and combat athlete speak of his craft this way, as if of a chore. Enjoyment of one’s art is essential, it’s true. To pursue something with the kind of obsessive determination required to succeed demands passion, love for the craft.
But if the point of training is to fix flaws, some of them deeply ingrained in one’s psyche, then it can never be wholly enjoyable. At times, it must needs be torturous. The late Muhammad Ali famously said, “I hated every minute of training. But I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Recall the outpouring of love and admiration at the time of Ali’s passing, and ask yourself whether he was right.
In the end, Stephen Thompson reached the top of the Kempo mountain. He was a six-time IKF amateur champion; a PKC national amateur champion; a USAKBF amateur world champion; a WPKA amateur world champion; an IAKSA professional world champion; a WAKO professional world champion. He was undefeated in 57 professional fights. There were challenges along the way far beyond his preteen doubts. Tests that tempted the quitter buried deep within Thompson’s breast, as when he shredded every major ligament in his knee during a bout with Raymond Daniels. But Thompson persevered. The day after wrecking his knee, he recalls being “at the gym, sitting with my leg propped up and hitting a bag . . . I wasn't going to let it get me down. I kept going. And I've had three surgeries since, one actually right after my fight with Jake Ellenberger. But my knee feels great. It's a mental thing. After suffering one of these injuries, you can do more than you think. If you're strong mentally, you can do anything.” With this attitude, Thompson achieved something utterly immutable. There is a well-deserved pride to be taken in that fact.
As of right now, he seems to have done the same thing in mixed martial arts. Since the Brown fight, Thompson has retooled his approach. He worked a few takedowns in his fight with fellow striker Chris Clements, just to get acquainted with the other side of the equation. He countered Robert Whittaker in the pocket, proving a penchant for knockout power in his hands as well as his kicks. He spin-kicked Jake Ellenberger into oblivion, to remind us that the kicks aren’t going anywhere. And then he put it all together against Johny Hendricks, out-wrestling, out-striking, and out-knocking the former welterweight champion in a star-making performance that dropped the collective jaw of the MMA world.
When Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson meet, they will do so as two of the most talented fighters on the planet. Perhaps more importantly, they will do so as two men on companion journeys.
I have written about overconfidence before. And I have written about the cyclical way in which it traps young and inexperienced fighters, convincing them that they alone are immune to the pitfalls of arrogance despite all the compelling evidence to the contrary. Nearly all fighters fall prey to this pattern. They may learn from defeat, but the teachings are washed away just as soon as the liquor of victory returns.
In avoiding this cycle, Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson have proven themselves to be truly unique. Whether or not they ever wear the welterweight title, these two men demonstrate championship qualities. The kind of mindsets that not only bring men to greatness, but keep them from falling back to earth the way mere men must.
All fighters must face themselves in one way or another. In a way, each bout is the same as the last, each new opponent a familiar mirror-image wearing a different mask. They battle their own insecurities and egos, struggling to keep in check the unpredictable alchemy of the human mind while experiencing sport’s highest highs and lowest lows. For the men who master themselves, the true martial artists, a loss in the cage or ring is no real defeat, a victory is nothing more than a gateway to a new challenge.
For men like Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson, the results are less important than you might think. What really matters is the journey.
For a more in-depth look at the technical side of MacDonald vs Thompson, look no further than the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.