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UFC Fight Night: Rory MacDonald vs Stephen Thompson Toe to Toe Preview - Complete Breakdown

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about a really good number one contender fight for UFN 89 in Canada, and everything you don't about horror movie beatdowns.

Artwork by Phil MacKenzie

Rory and 'Wonderboy' figure out this welterweight title mess this June 18, 2016 at the TD Place Arena in Ottawa, Canada.

Stats

Record: Rory MacDonald Stephen Thompson

Odds: Rory MacDonald -105 Stephen Thompson -115

History / Introduction to the Fighters

Phil: Rory Mac was the natural inheritor to GSP's crown, until people realized that he was absolutely nothing like GSP, with the possible caveat that he can sometimes be quite conservative. Now I think people have finally started accepting him for who he is after the gory classic with Lawler. Is it too late, though? The worry is that Rory Mac may have been just too badly mangled, both physically and mentally. More than that, I think we can recognize that he's really just never been the same athlete as GSP was. Never as fast, never as explosive and never as durable.

The level of talent at welterweight continues to rise, and it's going to get harder and harder for Rory to outmaneuver more gifted fighters, and he's presumably going to get more and more fucked up.

David: Rory loses on the most horror movie way possible. It's the kind of thing that could definitely catch up to him. But for the most part, he's led as quiet a career for a contender as one could imagine. His journey has been, dare I say, somnambulent.

Phil: Wonderboy had something of a calamitous fall to earth once he came to the UFC, but it was one which I never really bought into all that much. This was at a time when the tendency to over-sell new prospects was really high (Edson Barboza lost to Jamie Varner he sucks!!1) and I've always really liked Matt Brown. Wonderboy always looked pretty good to me- in particular the loss showed that he was gutsy as hell, an important factor for even the most athletic fighter.

The derailment worked out pretty well regardless, allowing him to slide under the radar and take a slow, developmentally stable path to the top of the division, testing out his style against a variety of different opponents. I guess the big surprise is less in the raw talent (which was always apparent) but more in the sheer level of work that he's clearly put in. Few people can apply themselves to two separate combat sports careers with comparable levels of determination.

David: The other thing to quickly note about that loss to Brown is that he had Brown hurt. It's easy to imagine a parallel universe where he manages to finishes Brown. Well maybe not, but still. He was certainly never Raymond Daniels or anything, but I always reserved a certain amount of skepticism for Thompson. It's definitely an ageist thing. The general rule for prospects is that you you can't do this in your 30's. Nothing about Thompson adheres to the general rule.

What's at Stake?

Phil: Big things. Rory has announced his intentions to test free agency after the fight, which means his bargaining power will be very directly dependent upon how well he does. If Wonderboy blows him out of the water, that's not good for his next contract. If he makes himself the de facto next challenger? That's a different story.

The winner should be getting next at the belt as well, but that's dependent on whether there's anyone else who manages to get hold of whatever heinous blackmail material Tyron Woodley used to wrangle his title shot out of the Zuffa brass.

David: The future of their careers, basically. A loss especially hurts Rory because it means a slow climb back up if he fails. I'm leaving aside the free agency discussion just because. The other stake is how the division answers Thompson if he blitzes Rory the way he did Hendricks. Maybe Hendricks was below his usual 75% or whatever, but I think this fight demands every trick, tool, and tactic from Wonderboy to win. If he can do that, I've got my holy water and cross right here.

Where do they want it?

Phil: Far away. Rory wants it a bit closer than Thompson does, at the extension of his jab range. The jab is the key to his whole game, as it is for almost everyone at Tristar. This sets up the cross or the snap kick to the body. He also likes to hide the head kick behind the cross, as he did to almost finish Lawler. If opponents try to come in past the jab, Rory has a gorgeous reactive double leg and is a wonderful chain wrestler. He's also going to need to hide his leg kicks behind the jab as Hendricks, uh... didn't. But he needs to break down that karate stance.

In general if we're talking about "where they want it" then Rory does need some kind of phased approach- he'll likely get chewed up in a pure striking match. If it hits the deck for any particular period of time, however, he's a destroyer from top position.

David: Rory's "slow starts" are kind of necessary to his game. It's about more than just strategy: his low key first round demeanor forces opponents to initiate. I think his jab is good, but it's not active enough to be fight altering. It's all the dressing, croutons, and bacon surrounding his jab that blend his conservative style into something potent. His cross is still as good as it gets. Enabled by his reach, he's a fluid marksman. His grappling doesn't get much play, but he did more than just suplex Nate Diaz to a Swishahouse remix. In the scramble, he more than held his own. Defensively responsible, but still aggressive, there's virtually no weakness in his grappling game.

Phil: Wonderboy wants to fight at the end of his kicking game, just that smidge further out than Rory does, and he wants to fill that space with offense. He's a switch hitter, but like everyone but Saffiediene, he has his specific preferences- he's primarily a right leg fighter. In lefty, he tends to use the front-leg sidekick, and a sneaky lead head kick, with the left straight as his fallback punch. This is in all honesty not the world's greatest set of tools, but it's essentially there to bait the opponent into circling the wrong way or to get them confused about the distance defined by an open or closed stance matchup.

In righty he has a lot more craft, with a much deeper array of hop-step counters and combination punching, backed up by more reliable round kicks from (again) the right leg. Thus, Rory needs to keep an eye on what stance Thompson is in- he can step right against orthodox to avoid the round kicks, and left against the side kicks from lefty. This is particularly notable because side kicks aren't really... very good? They don't do a whole lot of damage, and if the opponent steps to the outside you've basically given them the worst possible angle it's possible to take in combat sports and you're likely going to get knocked out. Someone will doubtless say that it's all about staying unpredictable and "how you use the strike" and so on, but it's just a silly idea in the vast majority of situations. It's a kick which can be countered with something as simple and comparatively riskless as a step sideways, for the outsized reward of an instant finish (see: Sage Northcutt's amateur loss for an example of this). I think Thompson is best served with the boxing, the round kicks and the snap kicks in this fight, which are all very very good.

David: I'm glad you broke it down so in depth so I can just piggyback off of actual technical analysis and pretend I have half a clue, but I'd also like to point out that Thompson has incredible posture on the counter, and backing up. Because of his reach he doesn't have to lunge or use footwork to close the distance, but small insteps and pivots combined with his wingspan allow him to connect like clockwork. Go back and watch that BIG RIGHT HAND (!) he lands before flurrying for the win. It's a right hand landed while going backwards, essentially. Thompson will always draw comparisons to Machida but despite their similar base, they're far different proximity fighters.

Insight from Past Fights

Phil: Jones-Gustafsson. Gustafsson-Cormier. MacDonald-Lawler. Hendricks-Thompson. McGregor-Mendes. McGregor-Aldo. So many of these fights were picked by people expecting the more "well-rounded" fighter to be able to win using his grappling... and it just never happened. Sometimes the wrestler won, but the amount of effective top control in those fights was absolutely minimal. Elite-level MMA is increasingly just about being the better kickboxer, and being able to back it up with good first or second-layer TDD.

David: There's a much more dynamic interaction between their striking, however. Rory is good at scouting his man, and setting up some ultra violence where it's available. Thompson can't afford to wade in with his usual movements if he's finding himself on the end of Rory's jab. Rory has moments where he's that technical brawler type, and of all the fights that come to mind, its not MMA, but boxing: Barrera vs. Hamed. I could see a similar conflict where one fighter is violently neutralized.

X-Factors?

Phil: Well, I guess there's the lingering damage from the Lawler fight and stuff. But more than that, look at this victory flip from Wonderboy. Can anyone imagine Rory ever doing anything like that? He's a pretty strong but otherwise physically unremarkable fighter who has a brilliant mind for the sport, who has to compete with people who can do silly flips, or have been granted appendage-breaking polygonal skulls on top of all their other absurd physical gifts, like Lawler.

David: Raw athleticism still has plenty of pugilism capital obviously. Rory definitely has a Kenny Florian vibe: excellent technician, elite skillset, and highly versatile, but in the end, those fast twitch muscle fibers equipped with four ounce baby gloves that do nothing but cover the knuckle are the difference.

Prognostication

Phil: I don't want Wonderboy to win. Rory is easily my favourite fighter in the UFC. However, he's just not the kind of athlete that Wonderboy is. He's not as fast, and most importantly he's not remotely as durable. This is an incredibly diverse, tough and skilled fighter that MacDonald will have to put a strategic masterclass on to beat. Why hope for something like that? Stephen Thompson by TKO, round 2.

David: If I didn't know Rory was gonna get blitzed in the first round because that's just how his first rounds roll, I'd be inclined to see his outs in an attrition match. But losing the first round, and still wearing the Picasso mask Lawler chiseled with his fists makes this outcome feel a bit inevitable. Stephen Thompson by TKO, round 3.