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Editorial: Stephen Thompson is a nice guy...and that might be his biggest problem

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Fresh off his dominant decision over Geoff Neal, the biggest obstacle to Stephan Thompson’s title hopes might be that he’s simply too nice for his own good.

Stephen Thompson whilst fighting Geoff Neal in December 2020 Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

On Saturday night, Stephen Thompson turned in a dominant five-round shutout of Geoff Neal. It was the former title challenger’s second consecutive win, which should be enough to move him out of the role of gatekeeper and into meaningful contests to sort out the welterweight title picture. It was fair the UFC moved him into the gatekeeper role after he had a stretch where he managed only one win over five contests, but it’s clear he deserves to be more than just a measuring stick against the up-and-coming talents of the division. The question now is whether he can get the UFC to give him the opposition he deserves.

That might be a more difficult proposition than it sounds. The problem with someone like Thompson is his attitude makes him his own worst enemy. It isn’t that his attitude itself is a problem. You’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer person than Thompson in the fight game. He doesn’t cuss. He doesn’t trash talk. He continues to teach children’s karate classes. Hell, he doesn’t even seem to have the bravado that most fighters not only seem to have, but require in order to find success. About the most unlikeable thing that can be said about him is his walkout song has grown stale.

To be clear, I’m not saying Thompson is the exception to the rule by any means. Most high-level MMA fighters are nice people. Thompson just turns it up to 11. Hell, most MMA fans like Thompson; they wish him well. However, wishing someone well and developing an active rooting interest for them are two separate things. Wishing someone well is being pleased to find out they won their last fight. Or that you might hope they win when you find out they are on the card you happen to come across. Rooting for – or even against them – means you know when they are fighting and you’re sure to see the contest in one form or another. That requires harboring strong feelings for an individual. Unless you’ve been personally touched by Thompson’s persona, it’s unlikely those feelings have been developed… and it’s a crying shame.

The issue is MMA fans – and fight fans in general – tend to reward fighters for being terrible people.

I get the phenomena. People tend to be drawn towards what they wish they could be. Conor McGregor says and does what he wants and the things he says and does tend to be out of the ordinary. That the consequences he tends to face for his actions only strengthens the mystique around him. Jorge Masvidal didn’t begin taking off until he delivered the “three piece with a soda” and yelling into the face of Ben Askren after KOing him. The he started wearing bath robes in public and that added to his already growing popularity. It even extends into the professional wrestling world. Stone Cold Steve Austin became the biggest star in the business because he said and/or did what he wanted, even sticking it to his boss time and again. Who the hell doesn’t want to do that?

It works in the other direction too. Easily the best example of that is Colby Covington. At one point, Covington was known as a soft-spoken wrestler how happened to be Jon Jones roommate for a time. He was a nonentity for the first few years of his UFC run. All of a sudden, he starts trash talking, echoing Chael Sonnen’s rhetoric from his feud with Anderson Silva. Then Covington is turning that rhetoric up to 11. Then he’s injecting politics into his rhetoric. Then the videos with the women obviously paid to be there. Covington became detested in most MMA circles. But… people cared. People would tune in to see him lose. And when Covington didn’t lose for a long period of time, it made people want to see him lose that much more. Even now that Covington fell to Kamaru Usman in a heated title fight last year, people still want to see him continue to get his ass kicked.

We can even extend this into other aspects of the world, including our own lives. How often have we heard of girls going after the bad boy? It’s that image that made James Dean a legendary Hollywood name despite just three film credits to his name. In the music world, the exploits Sid Vicious being an addict and completely unreliable are far more widespread than the technical brilliance of Geddy Lee, even though both bassists came to prominence around the same time. Unfortunately, being a nice guy – and in the case of Thompson, the ULTIMATE nice guy – doesn’t elicit strong feelings as everyone is expected to behave in polite society.

To be fair, it isn’t just Thompson’s personality that is holding him back. The former two-time title challenger hasn’t secured a finish in almost five years, since his breakout performance over former champion Johny Hendricks. Thompson’s ability to put away his opposition with a degree of flair – he had secured finishes of Robert Whittaker and Jake Ellenberger amongst others prior to that – was the best selling point he had. Now, even if he puts on a gritty performance against tough competition, he’s not doing the thing that launched him into prominence in the first place. It helps to have a highlight reel to go with your trash talk.

There is another factor working against him that is beyond his control. Covington and Masvidal, former teammates and friends, have developed a rivalry. To have the rivalry simmer out without the two clashing within the confines of a cage would be criminal. The UFC is working on pairing the two and it would be stupid of them to attempt to do otherwise. Thompson tried to interject by offering Masvidal an opportunity to get back that loss, but Masvidal has proven himself to be a savvy businessman. Covington offers the most attention and hype. There’s little doubt Masvidal isn’t aware of that. Kudos to Thompson for being willing to run back a fight with someone he’s already beat, as it’s a rarity for a fighter to willingly offer that these days. Unfortunately, that’s all he has to offer and it isn’t enough.

Perhaps if he were a bit more of a jerk, he could entice them to change their mind. McGregor committed a felony assault when he attacked the bus – even putting several fighters out of commission in the process – and he basically handpicks his opponents. The only one that he isn’t getting that he wants is Khabib… and that’s because he already got Khabib. I’m not saying McGregor gets what he wants because he’s a jerk. I’m saying money talks and McGregor gets what he wants because he makes the UFC money. It can’t be denied a major part of his appeal is that he is a jerk. So… I guess in a roundabout way, I am saying McGregor gets what he wants because he’s a jerk. Thompson doesn’t have it in him to resort to those tactics.

So where does Thompson go from here? Kamaru Usman is scheduled to defend his belt against Gilbert Burns in February. Leon Edwards is scheduled to face Khamzat Chimaev next month. With Covington and Masvidal circling one another, the only opponents that might improve Thompson’s standing are all busy in the next little while. If Thompson is willing to be patient, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have him face the loser of Masvidal-Covington or Usman-Burns, but that could put him on the sideline close to a year if a lengthy medical suspension follows.

As it is, it looks like Thompson will continue in his role as gatekeeper. Neil Magny and Micheal Chiesa are possibilities. Plus, Santiago Ponzinibbio is still floating around out there after two years away. Those are fine contests, fights I would watch with great earnest. However, I can’t help but believe Thompson might be getting a higher profile contest if he weren’t such a nice guy.