In this edition of Pundit Arena’s ‘Fighter Of The Week’, we’ll be taking a closer look at the man who is scheduled to appear in this weekend’s UFC 209 main event, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
There has always been a certain air of inevitability about Stephen Thompson’s title aspirations. On the back of a decorated career as a kickboxer, he made the switch to mixed martial arts after an unbeaten run that saw him claim victory on fifty-seven separate occasions.
Thompson’s striking ability was never once in question when he first stepped into the octagon but what has made his journey to the top truly noteworthy, however, are the improvements and the adjustments he has made before our very eyes over the course of his relatively green fifteen-fight career.
With him now set to face off against the UFC’s welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in the sequel to their highly-acclaimed stalemate at UFC 205 last year, it seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the rise of ‘Wonderboy’ and marvel at the significant growth he has made since his debut as a mixed martial artist just over seven years ago.
Stephen Thompson has been described by both the legendary Georges St-Pierre and the equally brilliant Firas Zahabi as the single greatest striker they have ever encountered and in his first six bouts as a mixed martial artist, he faced virtually nothing that stopped him from displaying his obvious skill with little-to-no challenge.
This all changed, however, when he delivered a highlight-reel KO of Dan Stittgen in his UFC debut.
Hype is a thing that can often drive a fighter’s career into prematurely deep waters and sure enough, when the UFC saw that they had this unpredictable and electric striker on their hands, they did what they have done on so many occasions in the past with so many of their athletes and threw Stephen Thompson into a contest he simply was not ready for.
On April 21st of 2012, just over 2 months removed from his explosive promotional debut, Stephen Thompson was booked to face the ‘Immortal’ Matt Brown at UFC 145, a man whose veteran experience and crafty ground-game proved too much for the then-blue belt in the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Wonderboy took a battering in that fight and despite having his moments on the feet, exited the octagon not only with his first taste of defeat as a mixed martial artist but also with his first ever loss as a combat sports athlete.
Thompson, in a highly insightful and intimate interview with Fight Network as part of their ‘Retrospective’ series, spoke on his reaction when he got the call to take the fight on a shortened-camp against the man who proved to be his worst possible stylistic matchup under the circumstances.
“Next thing I know, two days after that [the Stittgen fight] I got home from Vegas and they [the UFC] are like ‘be ready for April, you’re fighting Matt Brown’ and I’m like ‘heck yeah!… wait a second, I’m fighting Matt Brown? He’s a monster, I’m not ready for this.'”
“I was excited, you know, I just got the ‘Knockout of the Night’ of the bonus so I’m like sure let’s do this.”
Like many who make the switch from a pure striking discipline to the multi-layered world of MMA, Thompson soon realised that if he did indeed wish to replicate his kickboxing success in his new home, he would need to be certain that the shortcomings in his game that were exposed by Matt Brown would never again see the light of day.
Wonderboy took an extended leave from competition in order to hone his all-round MMA game, earning a BJJ purple belt under Carlos Machado over the course of next 13 months before returning to the UFC as a more confident and relaxed version of himself.
The Stephen Thompson who bounced back after his brutal loss to Matt Brown was a Stephen Thompson no longer worried about the threat of the takedown, a Stephen Thompson who was composed on the feet and slowly moving towards the peak of his potential as a multi-faceted martial artist.
His next five bouts culminated in five straight wins for the South Carolina-native, and with his stock at an all-time high and his name slowly creeping into the title-discussion, he was signed to face his toughest test to date, the UFC’s former welterweight champion, Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks.
With no disrespect to Robert Whittaker, Patrick Coté or any of the other opponents Thompson dispatched on his way to his meeting with Hendricks, this was most certainly the bout where people finally started giving Wonderboy the credit and reputation he was deserving of.
Thompson destroyed ‘Bigg Rigg’ on the night, slipping in-and-out with ease and peppering the former-champ with shots that were simply too quick for the more-rigid power-puncher to handle. A perfectly-timed spinning back kick to the body signalled the end for Hendricks and with that, Thompson moved a step closer to realising his championship dreams.
Rory MacDonald may still stand as the most skilled opponent Wonderboy has ever faced inside the octagon but when the pair met last June (in a bout that was easily one of my most anticipated of 2016), it was the slick and calculated striking of the kempo-karate expert that won the day.
Of course, Thompson went on to fight the 170lb champion Tyron Woodley to a memorable majority draw at UFC 205 but for a man whose entire MMA career has seen him adapt his style to better suit and thrive in a sport where the takedown is a threat, Wonderboy seemed oddly respectful and gunshy in that matchup.
Woodley’s power and explosiveness are unquestionable at this stage but still, after spending hours watching fight-tape that consistently highlighted Thompson’s growing confidence, I feel like the deciding factor in their rematch will be Wonderboy’s willingness to engage because, in the first contest, he showed shades of the uncertainty that plagued his early career.
Whether or not he will get his hand raised this Saturday is a tough question, but when you look at all of the great UFC champions of the present day and those of the past, there does seem to be an ‘it factor’ that emanates from the way they inflict their skills on their opponents and I truly believe that Thompson’s striking is among the greatest we’ve ever seen inside the octagon.
This is the biggest test and the biggest moment of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson’s career to this point and if he really does want to come away with the win and solidify his legacy, he needs to enter the t-Mobile Arena Saturday night with his mind completely clear of all doubts.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena