One of the sport’s finest strikers, Stephen Thompson, will duel with fellow traditional martial artist, Anthony Pettis, this Saturday (March 23, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 148 from inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
There are not many men who could argue they came closer to UFC gold than Stephen Thompson. In two bouts with Tyron Woodley, “Wonderboy” took the champion to a draw and then lost a split-decision — one where a fair amount of media members scored the fight for the Karateka. A win over the suddenly surging Jorge Masvidal got him back in the mix, only for those iffy judges to appease the English crowd by awarding Darren Till a highly controversial decision victory. “Wonderboy” has had a fair amount of bad luck on the scorecards, but it’s also important to note that there’s more than luck in play. Across each of those fights except for the dominant win over “Gamebred,” Thompson was not particularly active. At times, he was passive. Even if he was ahead at times, it was by the tiniest margin.
We’ll see if that approach changes on Saturday night. Until then, let’s take a closer look at his skill set.
Fans of professional kickboxing are quick to point up that Thompson’s much talked about kickboxing record is largely built off names no one has ever heard of, and there is merit to that argument. At the same time, the 5th degree black belt in Kenpo Karate is no joke on the feet.
When on point, Thompson dissects foes and has them swinging at air.
Thompson’s stance reflects his karate background. While he primarily works from Southpaw, Thompson will commonly switch into Orthodox. Either way, Thompson keeps his stance very wide and stands nearly sideways, meaning that his foot is not pointing toward his opponent.
There are pros and cons to both aspects of this stance. With that wide stance, Thompson can move quickly and shift his weight back-and-forth easily, which helps him circle away and counter punch. However, it can leave him open to low kicks, as his weight is rarely correct to check the strike. Similarly, Thompson’s lead leg pointing in exposes the back of his leg and allows it to be kicked out of position.
Thompson’s karate-style stance — as well as excellent dexterity — opens up many of Thompson’s kicks, lead leg or otherwise (GIF). Often, he first established a spearing side kick to the mid-section or face. Once his opponent is dropping his hands in an attempt to parry or catch, Thompson will switch things up with a hook or question mark kick.
Thompson’s ability to punctuate combinations with the question mark kick is a thing of beauty. Generally, he’ll begin his combo from the Orthodox — usually a one-two combination or just a cross — but will allow the cross to carry him into the Southpaw stance. From there, he throws a lead leg question mark kick, a rare technique that slides right over his opponent’s shoulder to find the chin (GIF).
A great example of Thompson’s pure kicking ability came opposite Jake Ellenberger. Seeing as Ellenberger has no real distance attack, Thompson was free to open up with long distance strikes early. At first, he scored with a hard hook kick. Later in the bout, as Ellenberger was more hesitant to stand within Thompson’s kicking range, Thompson used a step and a spin to close that increased distance and land a pair of wheel kicks to knockout his opponent (GIF).
One of Thompson’s favorite attacks of that style — which can be used as his opponent comes forward or as a lead — is the darting cross or drive by, a common tactic of men like Eddie Alvarez and Dominick Cruz. Basically, as Thompson steps into the cross, he allows the motion of the punch to carry him past his opponent into safety. If he chooses, he can plant his feet once more in the opposite stance after landing the dart and strike from an advantageous angle.
The difference between Thompson’s use of the punch and most other fighters’ is significant. Rather than look to merely touch his opponent and then follow up or slide away, Thompson will occasionally spring into the punch with power. In his bouts with Robert Whittaker and Chris Clements, “Wonderboy” used this set up to secure the knockout finish (GIF).
In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze how Thompson uses his darting cross to take an angle on an advancing opponent.
Many of Thompson’s punches come as counters, as he is excellent at outmaneuvering his opponents with lateral movement and pivots (GIF). Thompson is one of the few fighters who truly excels at getting a strong angle on his opponents, forcing them to turn into him and eat punches.
Thompson rarely leads with punches unless able to take an angle. For an offensive example of the dart, Thompson initiated an amazing sequence opposite Jorge Masvidal that dropped “Gamebred,” quickly taking an outside angle before springing into a right hand (GIF). In this example, Thompson used a simultaneously switched his feet to the Southpaw stance as he threw a darting left cross. The switch cross is common enough, but Thompson was able to get so deep into the angle that he exploded into a right hand that Masvidal never really saw coming.
From the start of his UFC career to modern day, Thompson is one of the most improved wrestlers in the sport. Following his loss to Matt Brown, Thompson has shown steady improvement in this part of his game, becoming a very difficult man to wrestle to the mat.
When looking for his own takedown, Thompson relies on strong, MMA-style running double legs that have become common for lanky strikers. He shoots for them as reactive takedowns, setting them up as though he were looking to counter punch, but instead changing levels and driving his opponents off their feet. These takedowns are an extension of his kickboxing, relying on the same angles and ability to read his opponent, even if the takedown itself is not a natural part of his game.
In addition, Thompson has showed a bit more to his wrestling game. Opposite Nah-Shon Burrell, the karate fighter worked for the single-leg takedown a few times with mixed results, and he has even scored with a knee pick.
Since Thompson circles and pivots while he moves, he rarely gives his opponent an easy shot. Often, they’re forced to wrestle from bad starting positions, which allows Thompson to get his hips back and out of danger before his foes can accomplish much. Plus, his sideways stance makes double leg takedowns difficult even when facing him head on, and lanky, well-balanced strikers like Thompson are generally poor targets for a single-leg shot.
In Thompson’s bout with Hendricks, he only had to fend off one real takedown attempt. Hendricks closed the distance early and managed to nearly finish a double, but Thompson did a very nice job of posting on the mat, leaning on the fence, and keeping himself from being flattened. Once back to the clinch, Thompson worked patiently to turn his opponent and escape, leaving Hendricks to once again face the unenviable task of closing range.
In 10 rounds, Woodley — a very dedicated wrestler and physical powerhouse — took down Thompson just twice. Once was because of a mistake from Thompson, a poorly setup low kick. The second was a mixture of excellent wrestling from Woodley, as the champion continued to drive into the shot after it was first stuffed, and a very small bit of impatience from Thompson, who tried to spin off the fence too early and allowed Woodley to duck back down to his hips and complete a double-leg takedown.
A purple belt, Thompson has yet to display much offensive jiu-jitsu. He has not attempted a single submission inside the Octagon, nor has he really spent much time advancing position on the mat.
Defensively, Thompson’s grappling is focused on control more than anything else. In the first round of his first bout with Woodley, Thompson retained guard and did not allow his opponent to land anything particularly significant for a pretty extended period of time. However, when Thompson opened his guard and tried to kick Woodley off him near the end of the round, he opened himself up and absorbed a fair amount of damage.
After all that bad luck described in the first couple paragraphs, things are looking up for Thompson. First and foremost, there’s a new champion at 170 pounds. There was never, ever going to be a trilogy bout with “T-Wood,” but Kamaru Usman is a new face if difficult fight. In addition, Masvidal just destroyed Till last week, which is an amazing outcome for “Wonderboy.” Not only is Till — who, again, probably did not earn his win over Thompson — out of the picture, but Thompson’s most recent win just shot up in relevancy! In short, if Thompson has one last title run in him, the field just opened up.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.