Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson are, without a doubt, two of the most cerebral fighters in the sport of MMA. The comparison between fighting and chess is an old one, and more than a little played out at this point, but MacDonald and Thompson's fight begs the comparison. When the two welterweights stepped into the Octagon on Saturday, June 18th, what transpired was a nerve-wracking battle for control of distance and initiative. If the slobberknocker between Sean O'Connell and Steve Bosse that took place just an hour before was a fight, then surely this was something more, or at least something very different.
The fight posed many questions. Is Rory MacDonald experiencing the aftereffects of his war of attrition with Robbie Lawler, or was he merely unprepared for the unique challenges of Thompson's style? Why did he struggle so mightily to manage the space of the cage over the course of five rounds? Is Stephen Thompson the man to beat Robbie Lawler and take the welterweight title?
Let's take a look at the fight itself. In doing so we may find answers to these questions, and more.
SETTING THE BOARD
A game of chess begins with an equal arrangement of pieces on both sides of the board. In some respects, so too did this fight. Unlike Thompson's previous opponents, MacDonald was more or less the same size as him, similarly muscled with an additional inch of reach to his advantage. Like Thompson, MacDonald was known for his distance striking, though he relied on the jab rather than Thompson's complement of kicks.
Like a player carefully deciding where to place his first piece, Thompson adopted a southpaw stance in the first moments of the fight, and stuck with it throughout, despite having garnered a reputation as a switch-hitter. To understand the reason for this tactic, let's take a look at how it alters the complexion of the fight.
Thompson elected to force MacDonald, never as comfortable a stance-switcher as himself, into an open stance battle, meaning that both men would be in opposite stances. We often say that open stance changes the distance between two fighters, but in reality it merely changes the way that distance feels, primarily because closing the distance becomes much more difficult.
The reason for that is evident looking at the comparison above. Though Thompson stands at a more or less equal distance from both opponents, the obstacles presented to Patrick Cote (on the left) are less obvious than those presented to Rory MacDonald. The most obvious of these is the lead foot. With Thompson in an identical orthodox stance, Patrick Cote finds his and Thompson's feet offset. As long as Thompson keeps his toes trained on Cote's center, he will still be threatened by the jab on the way in, but there is nothing immediately stopping him from stepping forward, past Thompson's toes, and closing the gap.
MacDonald, on the other hand, cannot simply step straight forward. Thompson's lead foot, the right foot this time, is in direct opposition to his own. Moving straight forward, he can only go so far before he runs into Thompson's foot. Other than the tricky tactic of literally standing on the other man's foot, there is little ground to be gained from this position.
Then there is the jab. Arguably MacDonald's greatest weapon, the jab becomes more difficult to land in an open stance encounter, though no less vital to success. Just as MacDonald's footwork was blocked by Thompson's positioning, so too was his left hand, obstructed by the right hand and shoulder of Thompson which floated right in front of it. To land the jab, MacDonald would need to angle, or handfight his way past Thompson's parries and blocks. And while he was calculating the best way of going about this task, Thompson was comfortably landing strikes better suited to the long distance.
1. MacDonald and Thompson stand in open stance.
2. MacDonald paws tentatively with his jab, unsure of how best to reach the target.
3. Aiming to keep him occupied, Thompson takes a quick step forward . . .
4. . . . and shoots out a throwaway jab, compelling MacDonald to parry with his own lead hand.
5. Thompson resets.
6. And takes another step forward, once again extending his lead hand as if to jab, but sliding his rear foot forward at the same time.
7. As MacDonald reaches out to parry the jab, Thompson lifts up his leg.
8. And thanks to the adjustment of his back foot, he easily sends a powerful side kick into MacDonald's ribs.
Thompson's stance enabled him to create opportunities that MacDonald simply couldn't enjoy. Not only did he block MacDonald's forward progress by electing to stand southpaw, but he further denied him targets via the angle of his body. MacDonald himself stands somewhat bladed, with an inturned lead foot, but he also keeps a good deal of weight on that foot while leaning forward and squaring his shoulders. As a result, his head is fairly close to his opponent--floating more or less above his own lead foot--and the center of his body is more exposed. Compare that to Thompson's full-on side stance, and note how few targets Thompson presents. Hips and shoulders turned, his center line is all but completely obscured by virtue of his stance.
MAKING A MOVE
The side stance is not without its weaknesses, of course, but in 14 MMA fights Thompson has learned to mitigate those while accentuating its advantages. Light on his toes, Thompson is quick to evade any kicks thrown at the exposed backside of his lead leg. He is also comfortable changing stance, allowing him to disguise some of the turning he must do in order to let loose with punches. And then there is the side kick, the most obvious strike afforded by the side stance, and yet the most bedeviling.
The side kick, thrown with authority, is a somewhat more versatile weapon than the jab, at least in terms of the angles from which it can be slung. A jab is more or less contained to the stance from which it is thrown. To strike an opponent with this straight punch, a fighter must first line the toes of his lead foot up with the center of his opponent's body. In other words, you must fully face your opponent before connecting with a jab.
The side kick is a little more flexible--although you also have to be a little more flexible to use it. Launched from a side stance, it is already free from the jab's basic requirement. Should the opponent find an angle, moreover, the side kick can be quickly adjusted and thrown to the rear. In this case it becomes more of a back kick or "mule kick," but the principle is the same. Thompson used this tactical flexibility to his advantage against MacDonald, stopping "The Red King" whenever he tried to find a path around that obstructive lead foot.
1. Thompson and MacDonald stand in a neutral, open-stance position just outside punching range.
2. Seeing MacDonald's long, high guard, Thompson thinks about a right middle kick, but bails as MacDonald takes a step back.
3. Now MacDonald notes that Thompson, in a very narrow stance, is somewhat out of position.
4. He moves in, taking a nice outside angle by moving to his left while still facing Thompson.
5. But Thompson has his side kick. He is perfectly positioned to throw it with his feet together, and easily picks MacDonald off even as he moves toward his back.
6. This creates more than enough distance between the two for Thompson to safely reset.
Unable or unwilling to jab from distance--both for lack of targets and fear of the counter--MacDonald's only option for consistent offense against Thompson was to move around him. One of the greatest drawbacks of a side stance is just how easy it is to outmaneuver. Consider the way Michael Bisping found his way around Luke Rockhold's lead foot before knocking him out at UFC 199.
By relying heavily on the side kick, Thompson negates a good portion of that disadvantage. It allows him to strike opponents and forcibly create distance even well after they have gained his back. And, as noted before, the side kick is substantially longer than a typical jab. In fact, the side kick is the longest strike a fighter can conceivably throw from a static position. Which meant that MacDonald, already unable to move straight forward thanks to Thompson's stance, struggled mightily to close the distance even after getting around it.
These tactics proved extremely frustrating to MacDonald. Normally a supremely sharp range striker, he found himself unable to land cleanly at range throughout the first half of the fight. According to FightMetric, MacDonald landed less than 20 strikes in each of the first four rounds, failing even to surpass a half-dozen in the first two. And, in part because MacDonald either couldn't or wouldn't pressure Thompson early, "Wonderboy" was easily able to outthrow and outland him in every frame, throwing more and more with each consecutive round.
The fifth round saw all of Thompson's careful strategizing come to a head. Ironically, MacDonald's fear of the counter seemed to keep him from throwing his jab, even if just to set up other strikes, and without that setup he became far easier to counter as the fight carried on. In the fifth round alone Thompson shot out 78 strikes and landed 34, one of which shattered MacDonald's nose and sealed his fate.
1. MacDonald prepares to close the gap with a desperate charge.
2. Adopting a cross-armed guard, he moves forward. Thompson leans back slightly to get a better look at his openings.
3. Thompson's first counter is a soft right hook that just scuffs MacDonald's ear.
4. His intention, however, is to find an angle off of this small distraction. He does so by stepping back into an orthodox stance at a right angle, a la TJ Dillashaw.
5. Now Thompson can throw with authority. While MacDonald turns to face him, he connects with a left uppercut . . .
6. . . . followed by a downward cross to the jaw.
7. No sooner has MacDonald reset than Thompson is on the move again, leaning back over his rear foot and hop-stepping in reverse.
8. MacDonald continues to come forward in a straight line, and Thompson sets his feet.
9. This time, he lands the perfect counter to the otherwise airtight cross-armed guard, a right uppercut that slips between MacDonald's arms and smashes into his chin.
Again, the differences between Thompson's and MacDonald's stances are at the heart of this exchange. MacDonald is a fairly stiff fighter. Some of this has to do with back injuries and potentially incurably stiff hips, but the fact is that Rory has never been able to use much head movement. This shortcoming is exacerbated, however, by the way that MacDonald stands. Head forward and front foot planted, MacDonald's chin is always closer to his opponent's fists than it needs to be. By leaning forward he has the option of leaning back a great deal to create space without moving his feet, but MacDonald, like his forebear Georges St-Pierre, has always relied more on footwork than on upper body movement.
Thompson, on the other hand, strikes with a beautiful, symphonic combination of the many methods available to him. Though you cannot see it clearly in the diagram above, Thompson constantly moves between his feet even as his feet move beneath him. He pulls slightly as MacDonald comes forward, inclining his head backward before settling his weight back onto the front foot to land a punch. At the same time, Thompson creates angles as these punches land, forcing MacDonald to rotate before he can effectively counter, and nailing him with thudding blows as he does so. And it is MacDonald's lack of upper body movement that nullifies his otherwise clever guard: though this defense was used brilliantly by such great boxers as Henry Armstrong and Archie Moore, they complemented it with a great deal of head movement and footwork. Without those two things, it is a static guard like any other. As a result, Thompson was able to do to MacDonald what Evander Holyfield did to Bert Cooper, shooting short, direct shots through the holes in the guard.
And on the subject of guards, it is worth noting that some of Thompson's success comes because he rarely keeps one. With both hands low, Thompson's punches are almost invisible, arcing in from angles outside his opponent's field of vision.
Now we look forward to a bout between Stephen Thompson and Robbie Lawler (should Lawler get past his scheduled defense against Tyron Woodley at UFC 201). Thompson is a striker who gives few opportunities to any opponent; Robbie Lawler is a man who squeezes an opportunity for everything it's worth. The contest between the two is extremely compelling, and many questions remain to be answered, but one thing is certain: Stephen Thompson is a master of the craft, and he thoroughly mastered Rory MacDonald.
For a look at how and why Rory MacDonald struggled to adapt to these techniques, and an interview with UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, be sure to check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.