Former Strikeforce lightweight champion, Josh Thomson, looks to earn a title shot (again) by defeating former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight straphanger, Benson Henderson, this Saturday night (Jan. 25, 2014) at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Thomson is one of the most experienced veterans in the UFC, who has a long, decorated mixed martial arts (MMA) career in organizations like Strikeforce and PRIDE FC. Thomson could not have started his second UFC stint better, as he knocked out Nate Diaz last April and nearly had a title fight against Anthony Pettis.
Unfortunately for "The Punk," Pettis suffered a knee injury, something Thomson himself is very familiar with, and was forced to pull out of the bout. Now, Thomson is forced to once again work for that title shot in a crowded lightweight division. But this time, Henderson stands in his path.
Does Thomson have what it takes to beat down the "Smooth" one?
Let's find out.
An extremely well-rounded fighter, Thomson's striking arsenal is similarly diverse. He's an experienced kickboxer who strikes with serious speed, and who is capable of leading and counter-punching.
Thomson has very good footwork. In his last two bouts, Thomson relied on constant movement and stance switching to avoid boxing with his opponent. As he worked his kicks from the outside, Thomson would explode with a lightning quick three punch combination when his opponent got frustrated. While Melendez was able to cut off the cage and land punches of his own fairly often, this style confounded Nate Diaz for a majority of the fight, culminating in a head kick knockout.
One thing that Thomson does very well is mix up his kicks. He changes his target between the head, body, and legs often, and rarely throws behind the same setup. His kicks are difficult to counter, as he almost always hides them behind feints or strikes. Plus, he's extremely fast if he throws them without a setup. In particular, Thomson's switch high kick is very effective and perhaps his favorite way to end a combination.
Thomson makes very effective use of the teep and front kicks. In his first bout against Melendez, he repeatedly used teeps to the body to repel "El Nino's" aggression, as well as take a bit out of his gas tank. More recently, he shut down KJ Noon's boxing game by keeping him far away with both kicks, including a jumping front kick. An interesting thing about Thomson's teep/front kick game is that he often throws two or three of them in a row.
An effective boxer, Thomson is very good at working jabs, 1-2s, and hooks from the outside. His punches don't pack a ton of power, but he puts combinations together well and is defensively sound. In addition, Thomson often throws two or more punches in a row from the same hand, an underutilized skill in MMA.
"The Punk" is an excellent clinch striker and excels in transitions. Whenever he or his opponent fails on a double leg takedown, Thomson manages to land at least one hard knee to the body. In his last bout with Diaz, Thomson repeatedly used elbows to prevent the Stockton-based fighter's attempts to clinch with him. As Diaz tried to grab an underhook, Thomson would bash his face with an elbow then scoot out of the way. Halfway through the second round, Diaz was cut up and bloody from Thomson's constant elbow attacks.
A collegiate wrestler who has spent years with the wrestler-filled American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), Thomson has developed a sturdy and diverse takedown game. Although knee injuries have made his takedown abilities inconsistent, when Thomson is healthy, he's a serious grappling threat.
Thomson's best takedown is likely the outside trip from the clinch. He likes to attempt it while near the fence, regardless of whether or not he's the one with his back to cage. Even if the trip fails, Thomson will use it to create space and land strikes.
In his final two Strikeforce appearances, Thomson showed his transitional ability by landing repeated trip takedowns from the striking range. After feinting with strikes or slipping a punch, Thomson secures a single-collar tie with his left hand and then steps behind his opponent with his right leg. Then he twists his upper body and kicks out his opponent's leg, successfully throwing his opponent to the mat.
While Thomson has acceptable single and double leg takedowns, they aren't great. However, his ability to transition between the two and a hard-nosed determination have allowed him to be very successful with his shots, particularly against the fence. A great example of this is his bout with Noons, where he repeatedly tried all sorts of takedowns in order to drag the boxer to the mat, never allowing "King" any breathing room.
Thomson's defensive wrestling is very good, although powerful grinders who do not rest, such as Tatsuya Kawajiri and Pat Healy, gave him trouble. When his opponent tries to take him down, he's met with a strong sprawl, wide base against the cage, and competent clinch grappler. That said, when Thomson's knees are injured, a frequent occurrence, the sturdiness of his takedown defense drops significantly.
Thomson is very good at returning to his feet from the bottom. While he occasionally uses his guard to escape, via butterfly or kicking the hips, Thomson normally causes a scramble or wall-walks back to his feet. Thomson is willing to turn his back in order to stand up, a risky but often effective technique. Overall, it's difficult to take Thomson down, and even harder to keep him there.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
After he finished Healy with a rear naked choke, Thomson was awarded his black belt in Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu by Dave Camarillo, AKA's grappling coach at the time. Eight of his 20 victories come via submission, and despite a few close calls, Thomson has yet to be tapped in a professional bout.
As I mentioned above, Thomson is extremely well-rounded. Many wrestlers neglect the guard game, but Thomson is not one of them, as he has an active bottom attack. He utilizes a high guard to hunt for armbars, triangles, and omaplatas, moves he repeatedly used to threaten Pat Healy.
He also demonstrated that he can use his guard to sweep against Noons. After slipping on a head kick, Thomson invited Noons to enter his guard. The boxer obliged him, but Thomson was able to get deep into half guard with an underhook. He quickly capitalized on this position to escape out the back door, directly into a double leg takedown attempt.
The arm triangle choke might be Thomson's most utilized submission. In addition to finishing Harris Sarmiento way back in 2006 with the choke, Thomson has nearly finished it multiple times in more recent fights. He locked it in against Noons in the third round of their fight, but was too tired to properly apply the squeeze. More impressively, he trapped jiu-jitsu black belt Gesias Cavalcante in the move and looked to be closing in on a finish, but time ran out.
Thomson has a very dangerous back mount and solid control from that position. In his third bout with Melendez, Thomson managed to control Melendez with a seat belt grip from turtle, a position Melendez usually escapes from. After securing the grip, he got his hooks in and grabbed a body triangle, a technique Thomson really likes to use. From the back, Thomson focuses almost entirely on securing a choke, rather than attacking with ground and pound.
Best chance for success
This is a difficult match up for both men, as the two are equally well-rounded and have very few flaws. This will likely be a very close battle, and whoever enters with the better game plan will take the match.
For Thomson, it's imperative that he avoids the clinch of Henderson. Despite his own prowess from that position, he doesn't possess Henderson's physicality and would likely come out worse for ware in clinch exchanges. If his opponent looks to clinch, Thomson needs to land an elbow and escape.
If Thomson has an advantage, it may be his boxing. Henderson is primarily a heavy kicker rather than smooth boxer, so Thomson's focus should be on checking and counter Henderson's kicks, especially the ones that go low.
When Thomson gets in boxing range, he needs to explode into extensive combinations. The "Smooth" one can be suckered into a brawl, where Thomson is likely at an advantage with his more advanced defense.
Finally, Thomson needs to mix his takedown attempts and striking.
The trips he used against Melendez would be a perfect tool to attack Henderson with, as it would keep him out of the clinch and away from "Bendo's" guillotine coach. Takedowns will likely be critical in deciding the victor of this match, so Thomson also needs to be careful around Henderson's attempts, even if he would likely be able to return to his feet quickly.
There you have it.
Does Thomson have what it takes to upset Henderson, or will Henderson take one step closer to his title?