There's a special place in my heart for the "step-up" fight, when a compelling prospect who's never really been forced into deep water is presented with the chance to show his wares against someone who will likely drag him there. That's exactly how it felt last night (Sat., April 21, 2012) at UFC 145 in Atlanta, Georgia, coming into the Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson vs. Matt Brown fight.
The results were a sobering reminder of how much work a prospect has to do to develop a complete game.
Out-wrestled and sucked into a grueling fight where both men gassed badly after the first round, Thompson showed some pluck en route to losing a clear-cut decision, as Brown simply wanted it more and had way too much experience, despite at times looking like he was ready to collapse from exhaustion and Thompson's arm punches.
There's a wonderful honesty to fighters like Matt Brown, who bring the ruckus every time, committing 100-percent to each fight despite often giving away athleticism, key pedigrees in various areas, going in on short notice, whatever. He is a decidedly known quantity, and is going to fight until the referee pulls someone off, every freaking time. During his run on season 7 of The Ultimate Fighter, his intensity and no-frills approach earned him the nickname "Matt Mothaf*ckin' Brown" from his teammates.
Last night that intensity was on full display.
Brown is the perfect exam for any prospect looking to prove he belongs in the unforgiving realm of world-class competition, and his proctoring of these has been consistently brutal. He destroyed James Wilks through sheer aggression, showing that Wilks' slick jiu-jitsu would simply melt in the face of an all-out onslaught.
Brown has also logged impressive showings in bludgeoning Pete Sell and Chris Cope. If you're not at a certain level to deal with what he's bringing, he's going to run right through you. Higher levels of competition have been rough for Brown, especially after his three-fight streak of submission defeats in 2010. But after that rough patch he simply kept working on his game, taking a gritty decision win over fellow scrapper John Howard to get back in the win column.
That's why the showdown with Thompson made this one of the more compelling fights on the card, at least for this writer. Thompson's credentials were otherwordly, and, frankly, worthy of a double-take for various reasons. With a record of 63-0 in kickboxing, he'd received considerable praise from fellow training partners such as welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre, and his UFC debut, a head-kick KO over Dan Stittgen, was the kind of first-look breakout performance every guy dreams of.
But entering Brown's world leveled those expectations out significantly. After a punishing first round where Brown took him down and simply forced him to work to survive, Thompson's cardio and subsequently technique disintegrated. He showed some encouraging doses of pluck and heart in surviving, even landing punches in the bout that seemed to stun the tiring Brown. But the trouble with Matt Brown is that he always looks like he's in a war, so there's really nothing to notice. The guy could probably start a fight in an empty room.
With Thompson, the experience is one he'll build on. His wrestling and takedown defense need a lot of work, and the much-billed striking we heard about was largely absent once he was sucked into the full spectrum of an MMA battle. That's the honesty of guys like Matt Brown and why they will always have a place in the UFC. Because at some point, the guy with the hype has to prove he belongs, and fighters like Brown will be licking their chops at the chance to prove they don't. The results are an entertaining referendum on both, which was precisely what Brown vs. Thompson was.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst and at Jason@jasonprobst.com