Tyron Woodley did Stephen Thompson no favors by becoming champion during the South Carolina karateka’s initial rise to prominence in the UFC. Woodley’s intensely negative style, combined with fearsome speed and power provided precisely the right antidote to slam the door on ‘Wonderboy’’s UFC title hopes. After all, to paraphrase my esteemed cohort Connor Ruebusch, Thompson really only gives two options in the cage. Opponents either have to try and walk through him, or they have to simply not fight him.
Matt Brown found hard earned success with the former, but for Darren Till and Tyron Woodley, the latter became their razor thin path to victory. For everyone else, (excepting Anthony Pettis) caught somewhere between the two options, Thompson has always come out ahead.
For the large part Thompson’s success in the UFC can be tracked back to one thing: footwork. While his kickboxing record may be far less meaningful than his 58-0 accounting would make it seem, his ring-craft has translated wonderfully to MMA—where his management of distance and timing have put him far ahead of a a talent pool that, too often, overlooks both. Even a fighter as talented as Jorge Masvidal found himself utterly flummoxed trying to close into the middle distance on Thompson to land punches.
That command of open space for Thompson has allowed him to subvert one of the most difficult defensive choices in MMA, only rarely to his own detriment. The high guard is classic basic striking fundamentals stuff, but in a sport where takedowns are available and gloves are small, using it is a fraught proposition. The fighter that relies on covering up when strikes are incoming is often that much more likely to get overwhelmed by offense. Thompson almost never does it, and a 78% takedown defense and one career KO loss has been the benefit. Wonderboy’s hands low style may present an inviting target for headhunting punchers, but actually finding that mark has been an incredibly challenging task.
And for Geoff Neal that has the look of a challenge he’s never faced before. Thompson’s record is dotted with similar matchups. The aforementioned Jorge Masvidal, the previously streaking Vicente Luque, fans can even go all the way back to 2013 and Thompson’s knockout win over future middleweight kind Robert Whittaker. All these men are solid, fundamentally sound boxers who tried, repeatedly, to challenge the former master of the World Combat League fight pit in sustained striking exchanges.
The closest opponent that Neal might have to compare would be... Belal Muhammed? And even then that’s only because ‘Remember the Name’ consistently keeps his feet under him. There aren’t any other real parallels to be drawn. By and large, Neal has never faced someone in the cage that wasn’t either interested in bringing the fight to him, or entirely unable to avoid having Neal bring them the fight instead. If we’re being perfectly honest about the quality of MMA in general, ‘can you keep up with my footwork?’ it’s just not a question many fighters are prepared to ask.
Still, (and perhaps unfortunately for Neal’s southpaw stylings) if there is a trick to beating Thompson, it seems to come from an exceptionally well timed right hand. In both fights against Woodley, Thompson was caught lunging in by the counter right. And against Pettis, a brief bounce off the cage gave ‘Showtime’ that momentary advantage to throw off Thompson’s gauge of speed and timing to land an absolute bomb off the orthodox side. The only punch to ever put Thompson out cold.
Those facts may be largely down to a numbers game. After all, Darren Till and Johny Hendricks are the only southpaws that Thompson has faced to date. So it’s not much surprise that of the five times he’s been dropped in the UFC, four have come off rights—three of those off the counter. Maybe that will make Neal a more unique challenge than he otherwise appears. Someone who can deliver the same kind of speed and precision that Till had to offer, but with much more pace and volume to go with it.
Or, perhaps, the fact that Neal works at nearly three times the rate of the Team Kaobon talent will make him that much more likely to walk into the counter shots that Till largely avoided. Fascinatingly, Thompson has never been beaten by an opponent who lands significant strikes at a higher rate than he does. Matt Brown is the only one who comes close, with 3.8 per-minute (compared to Thompson’s 3.9). Woodley and Till are firmly down in the twos, with Pettis hitting right around three even.
The more active an opponent is, the more chances they seem to give Thompson. And Thompson has never faced an opponent as active as Geoff Neal.
That may be the fundamental piece that puts Neal’s back against the proverbial wall on Saturday night. Thompson’s style is built to confound the basic meta of current high level MMA. One that values pace and output over all else. It’s a problem unlike anything Neal has had to solve to date.
If he can crack the code on Saturday night, the victory should prove a real turning point in his career. An announcement that he truly is a special kind of talent in the welterweight division. If, on the other hand, he can’t. Then we’ll have reaffirmed something that’s already been made terribly clear: there are few problems as difficult to solve in MMA as Stephen Thompson.