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UFC 244 Judo Chop: Stephen Thompson is good, actually

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch tries to revise our collective understanding of the UFC career of ‘Wonderboy’ Stephen Thompson, who is actually one of the best strikers in MMA.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

This Saturday, Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal will compete for the eminently meaningful ‘BMF’ belt in the main event of UFC 244. Everyone is talking about it, especially Jorge Masvidal. But no one seems to be talking about one of the more fascinating fights slated for the same card.

Stephen Thompson vs Vicente Luque is one of the more tantalizing style match-ups available in the welterweight division. With a 10-2 record in the UFC (all but one of those wins a finish), Vicente Luque is the coming man at 170 pounds. The guy he’s facing, on the other hand, is surely well into the back half of his MMA career. Stephen Thompson has beaten two UFC champions (one former and one future), twice contended for the welterweight title itself, and – with a few very notable exceptions – compiled a UFC career no less entertaining than Luque’s.

So why does everyone hate ‘Wonderboy’?

UFC Fight Night Thompson v Till: Open Workouts
The universally despised Stephen Thompson.
Photo by Alex Livesey - Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Okay, that’s a profound exaggeration. In truth, Thompson is well liked by the vast majority of fight fans, and certainly the people who know him personally seem to have very high opinions of him. No one but the most stalwart haters are running around disparaging Thompson’s character. But it does feel as if a great many people have forgotten just how good he is as a fighter.

Does this have something to do with the antics of online miscreants like BE’s own Lucas Bourdon, and the gang of vaping, scooter-riding MMA analysts with whom he interacts on social media? In a word, yes. Absolutely yes.

But today we defy these naysayers. Today we fight back, and remind ourselves of the greatness of Stephen Thompson, master mixed martial artist. And the only way to properly appreciate the things he does so well is to first explore the things he doesn’t.

Folks, let’s talk about the Woodley fights.


The Definition of Insanity

Much of the genuine criticism around Wonderboy really has more to do with the way he’s been promoted than anything else. I know, for example, that some readers’ teeth will start grinding the moment I mention the meaningless alphabet soup that is Wonderboy’s collection of kickboxing titles.

And far be it from me to argue in defense of the vaunted U.S.A.K.B.F. North American Middleweight Amateur championship (surely no more or less meaningful than Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s tour of the prestigious European women’s kickboxing circuit, or Stephen Bonnar’s infamous Golden Gloves). UFC commentators absolutely love to drone on and on about such accomplishments, but if we’re being honest, none of them means a damn.

A better reason to critique Thompson, on the other hand, would be his actual MMA fights. Two of them, in particular.

UFC 205: Woodley v Thompson Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In November of 2016, Thompson challenged Tyron Woodley for the UFC welterweight title. The bout was slow-paced, but undeniably tense. While very little happened in the first three rounds, the stakes were high. And when Woodley scored a devastating knockdown in round four, the tension exploded. Thompson survived the crushing impact of Woodley’s famous right hand, maintained his composure as the champion followed him to the ground, and tried to squeeze his head off—and ended the round on top, throwing punches. It was impressive, and the fight ended in an unusually satisfying majority draw.

Then they rematched.

There’s a hacky saying about insanity, that it is defined by someone doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Judging by this metric, Stephen Thompson and Tyron Woodley are both certifiably nuts.

At UFC 209, the two men fought for the second time—and it was almost exactly identical to their first meeting. Both men threw about the same number of strikes, and landed at about the same clip. This time, the knockdown came in the final seconds of round five rather than round four. And this time, the majority decision went Woodley’s way.

A lot like the UFC 209 main event.

It was a little like watching Paranormal Activity 2. The first one was good because you didn’t know what was going to happen next. In the end, very little did, but the experience was satisfactory nonetheless. Upon viewing the sequel, however, the pattern underlying both movies was revealed—and the all-important tension dissolved. In retrospect, they both kind of sucked in equal measure.

True action fighters are quite rare. A few times a generation, fans are gifted with a Chris Lytle, a Carlos Condit, or a Justin Gaethje; a fighter who brings the thrills win-or-lose, no matter who stands in the opposite corner. Do everything you can to neutralize such a fighter, and they will still deliver bloodshed and war every single time.

The vast majority of fighters, though, are limited by the style matchups in which they find themselves. Tony Ferguson is a bonafide entertainer, but give him a Danny Castillo content to hold him down and the result isn’t much to look at. Jon Jones has been in plenty of amazing fights. But, scare him off with counters and compete with him at kicking range (cough Thiago Santos is the real light heavyweight champion cough), and the famously inventive striker quickly runs out of ideas.

This is what happened to Stephen Thompson with Tyron Woodley. And while my goal is to revise our appreciation for Wonderboy’s MMA career, I am not keen to attempt the impossible. The Woodley fights were bad. Thompson is a masterful counter puncher with a dazzling array of strikes at his disposal. But, given an opponent who simply refuses to make the mistake of moving first? He will content himself with a staring contest. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could even argue that the fault of those two fights rests more in Thompson’s lap than Woodley’s—because it was Thompson’s job to take the belt from the champion.

But a capacity for boring fights does not make one a boring fighter. With the forward-moving, power-slinging Vicente Luque as his next foe, we would do well to keep in mind just how exciting Stephen Thompson can be.


Dismantling a Big Rig(g)

Johny Hendricks is (or was) a terrifying puncher. On his route to the title – from 2011 to 2013 – he scored three of the most sickening KOs ever witnessed, and engaged in three awfully underrated wars. Underrated, or perhaps simply overshadowed by the two all-time classic title fights Hendricks shared with Robbie Lawler in 2014. After losing the title in the second of these, Hendricks next took a cautious victory over Matt Brown (another typically exciting fighter neutralized by the wrong style matchup) and – eyes still fixed on the throne – stepped up to face the streaking Stephen Thompson.

Here was an opponent who knew that his only path to victory lay in a straight line directly ahead of him. Wonderboy saw that train coming down the tracks, calmly stepped aside, and derailed it. Or wait—it’s supposed to be a truck, isn’t it? Well, whatever. Don’t let my mixed metaphors keep you from appreciating this display of mixed martial arts.

Click image to enlarge. Click here for GIF

1. Thompson settles in at his preferred distance, just inside kicking range.

2. Hendricks leads with a kick, which Thompson uses both arms to block.

3. Hendricks falls into an orthodox stance, following his own kick into the pocket.

4. Thompson’s distancing is faultless. Moving his rear foot back half a stride, he watches Hendricks’ left hook sail past his shoulder.

5. As Johny continues to fall in, Thompson executes a hop-step counter, moving off to his right—even as his right hand connects with the side of Hendricks’ jaw.

6. Hendricks flails to find purchase, but another hop-step takes Thompson farther along the same angle.

7. Hendricks has no choice but to try to face his foe. Thompson wants to catch him mid-pivot: he sits down on another right hand.

8. Big Rigg gets blindsided, the beginning of the end for him.

This is what Stephen Thompson’s style is designed to do. Angles and range—these are the cornerstones of the strategy underpinning his game.

In order to create such catastrophic collisions, Thompson does everything in his power to make his opponent chase him. It starts with the relative safety of his (rather long) kicking range. Thompson possesses a dizzying variety of kicks, from snap kicks to high kicks, from side kicks to wheel kicks. The speed and dexterity of his legs – and the surprising power contained within them – is not always enough to finish an opponent, but they make for a very convincing argument in favor of closing the distance. Like the great Lyoto Machida before him, Thompson rarely meets an opponent able to compete with him at such long range—and he uses his constant output of painful, pestering kicks to emphasize that fact.

Once the opponent is convinced to chase, Thompson’s footwork comes into play. Many MMA fighters heavily favor one direction of movement. Generally, the righties like to circle left, and the southpaws feel comfortable moving to the right. Thompson has no such preference. In fact, it is his ability to change direction, quickly and repeatedly, that makes him so very difficult to track down. The timing that makes Thompson such a devastating counter puncher also makes him a damned elusive target. He waits for his pursuing opponent to commit themselves before changing direction, watching them stumble into suddenly empty space.


And Still… Elite

As noted earlier, Stephen Thompson is definitely on the downslope. At 36 years old, there is precious little wiggle room left in his MMA career. And despite an otherwise strong performance, the man was just knocked out by a seriously past-his-prime lightweight in his last fight. Still, Thompson’s best days are not too far behind him, and his is still a style that works remarkably well for MMA.

And that’s the thing about Thompson’s Karate style. He might find only limited success under International Kickboxing rules, where the distance is closer, and the footwork and defense are stronger, overall. This is not to say that a fighter like Thompson could not adapt to more of a Muay Thai setting – former rival Raymond Daniels has enjoyed considerable success in Glory, after all – but the fact is that his game is uniquely well suited to mixed martial arts. The wide open space of the eight-sided cage, the long range at which most MMA fights are contested, and the half-formed defense of most of the competitors all means that point-style Karate will always have a place in the Octagon. (Personally, I find this to be a fairly strong argument in favor of Karate’s applicability in self-defense situations, too. Even Thompson’s harshest critics would have to admit that scampering away and only fighting back when the other guy really wants to catch you is a pretty solid base for the street.)

You know whose star isn’t currently falling? Jorge Masvidal. Having scored two eminently GIF-able knockouts in his last two outings, Gamebred seems finally to be fulfilling the promise evident throughout his long and storied career. Thus he makes for one particularly deserving half of UFC 244’s main event. I’m happy for the guy. But before Ben Askren and Darren Till – just two years ago, in fact – Masvidal got his own shot at Wonderboy. It shouldn’t need saying, but given that fight fans have short memories, I’ll make it very clear: Stephen Thompson absoutely, indisputably took Jorge Masvidal to school.

Click image to enlarge. Click here for GIF

1. Thompson sets up in his usual slice of range. Masvidal steps forward to engage him.

2. Jorge does what many more of Thompson’s opponents should kicking the legs but Wonderboy slides back to safety.

3. As Masvidal recovers his balance, Thompson begins to circle him.

4. Once again, Thompson edges into range. Masvidal is ready to defend.

5. Thompson attacks—or pretends to. Masvidal bats away the jab that comes at him, lifting his leg to check the kick he expects to follow, but Thompson has other ideas.

6. The jab disguises Thompson’s footwork, allowing him to step off to the right before plunging forward with a straight right hand.

7. The shot arcs over Masvidal’s shoulder, blindsiding him, and knocking him down.

Knocking out Johny Hendricks was impressive, but this performance may have been Thompson’s masterpiece. Masvidal’s was not the reckless approach of Hendricks or Cote . His pressure was methodical and calculated. Rarely did he throw himself off balance, or walk directly into Thompson’s counters. And yet, he had to come forward, and that was enough for Wonderboy to whoop him.

Once again, Thompson’s impeccable timing is the highlight of this sequence. While Masvidal was committed to moving forward, he was mindful of the threats posed by Wonderboy’s striking. Fans can see him trying hard to defend Thompson’s attack: he picks off the initial jab without difficulty, and seems aware that it is only a throwaway—the first layer of a deeper attack. Forced to guess at what comes next, he decides to check—and even throws out a jab of his own to frustrate Thompson’s movements. But even when the opponent isn’t careening wildly after him, Wonderboy finds a way to attack and defend simultaneously. The moment Masvidal lifts his leg to defend, he is stuck in place, committed to facing one direction. Had he hunkered down, instead – or withdrawn – Thompson would still have the chance to step off to one side or the other. And if Thompson can do that within punching range, a knockdown is usually what you get.

UFC 178 - Cote v Thompson Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Opponents can chase him recklessly, and he’ll dead them. They can pursue him carefully, and he’ll use their defense against them. The only way for a fighter to shut Wonderboy out, is to shut themselves out. And most of the time, only he has the nerve for such a fight.

So that’s it, then. To get a boring fight out of Stephen Thompson, you must be willing to be terribly boring, yourself. Those who have – Tyron Woodley and Darren Till – ended up getting the better of Thompson (sort of). And I am not here to refute any critiques pertaining to those fights. The truth is, Thompson is not enough of a risk-taker to force such opponents into a faster pace, and so it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve any of his losses.

Yet this is not a Stephen Thompson problem. This is just how fighting works. Styles make fights. And Stephen Thompson’s style is designed to draw foes into a chase, laying tripwires along the way. A man like Justin Gaethje might be willing to charge down a wild boar face-first, but I’m loathe to criticize Stephen Thompson for giving his own quarry a little more respect. If the fact that his style has limitations is enough to write him off, then we have to seriously reconsider our rating of such fighters as Lyoto Machida, Jose Aldo, and Anderson Silva, as well.

Stephen Thompson isn’t perfect, and at this point he may not even beat Vicente Luque—a strong performance interrupted by another tragic KO would not be surprising in the least. But he is very, very good. We need more fighters like him, because MMA is made for fighters like him.

Wonderboy forever.

~

For more analysis of UFC 244, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, your place for the finer points of face-punching.

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