This Saturday night (Feb. 22, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweights Robert Whittaker and Stephen Thompson will face off on the pay-per-view (PPV) main card of UFC 170 from inside Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Whittaker, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): "Smashes" winner, suffered his first UFC loss in his last bout, dropping a decision to veteran Court McGee at UFC Fight Night 27. The loss derailed his momentum a bit, but it should prove to be an invaluable mixed martial arts (MMA) lesson in the long run. He'll face a challenge of an entirely different variety when he meets the flashy "Wonderboy" in Las Vegas.
After barreling into UFC with a ton of hype after his highlight reel knockout of Dan Stittgen at UFC 143, Thompson was brought down to Earth by the gritty Matt Brown. He rebounded nicely with two wins over Nah-Shon Burrell and Chris Clements in 2013.
"Wonderboy" is looking to prove that his hype is justified.
That quest continues this Saturday night at UFC 170. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Whittaker vs. Thompson:
Record: 11-3 overall, 2-1 UFC
Key Wins: Colton Smith (UFC 160), Brad Scott (TUF: "Smashes" Finale)
Key Losses: Court McGee (UFC Fight Night 27), Jesse Juarez (CFC 21)
Keys to Victory: The well-rounded Whittaker has his work cut out for him with Thompson. Despite being a karate black belt with five striking stoppages to his name, there's no need to stand and trade with a striker as decorated as "Wonderboy."
For that reason, Whittaker should look to get this fight to the ground as early as possible. Thompson has never been submitted, but he doesn't exactly have a ton of relevant MMA experience against top-level grapplers. Whittaker has five submissions and he should be on a serious hunt for his sixth at UFC 170.
Even if he can't lock up a finishing hold, Whittaker will go a long way in negating Thompson's flashy striking by taking him to the mat. Brown unveiled the blueprint to defeat Thompson; Whittaker simply needs to expand upon that.
If he's unable to drag this fight to the canvas, it could be a long (or short) night for Whittaker. While he's far from a slouch in the striking department, he can't contend with Thompson's abilities there. Letting pride take over and engaging Thompson too much is a certain recipe for disaster, so Whittaker needs an intelligently-executed gameplan.
Not surprisingly, that plan includes a wrestling-heavy strategy.
Record: 8-1 overall, 3-1 UFC
Key Wins: Chris Clements (UFC 165), Nah-Shon Burrell (UFC 160), Dan Stittgen (UFC 143)
Key Losses: Matt Brown (UFC 145)
Keys to Victory: Training in martial arts since age three, "Wonderboy" has a long list of International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) titles that cement his status as one of the most decorated strikers in MMA.
That success has translated well into the Octagon, but Thompson hit a roadblock when he faced off with an elite combatant in Brown. It's obvious that his wrestling and grappling games trail his striking by a wide margin.
Whittaker will have no doubt picked up on that.
Thompson needs to show up to UFC 170 with a new wrinkle to his game. His takedown and submission defense will have to be on a new level if and when this fights changes levels.
Thankfully for him, the fight starts on the feet.
Thompson is going to look to use his world-class speed and precision to end Whittaker's night in a flurry. It's his best chance to leave a lasting impression on the UFC brass. Thompson needs to keep the finishes rolling in to cash in on his highly marketable background, and adding a TUF winner to his list of victims would be an excellent way to keep garnering new fans.
It won't be easy because Whittaker has never been knocked out.
Thompson needs to keep his emotions in check and not look past Whittaker. If he can keep a level head while using his pinpoint kicks and punches to keep out of his opponent's wrestling range, a victory will be at hand.
Bottom Line from Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that we're going to see which one of these fighters is truly ready to ascend to the next level of UFC competition.
Fighting in a tough division at welterweight, both Whittaker and Thompson have suffered setbacks to fighters who had much more experience than them. They're both proven finishers, but we saw that ability get neutralized in their respective losses to McGee and Brown.
In terms of this bout, Thompson is probably the one who stands the bigger chance of having that happen again. Whittaker has proven to be proficient if not amazing on the ground, while Thompson has had little need to fight there. "Wonderboy" is still very green in his development as a submission fighter, holding only a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
So while Whittaker's base skill may be based on striking, he should know better than to risk getting knocked out with one shot. Thompson is phenomenal on the feet, while Whittaker is more a complete fighter. This isn't the prototypical match-up of striker vs. grappler, but Thompson's pure striking is a cut above almost everyone else's in UFC.
Whittaker will likely look to take that away from the opening bell, and he won't stop until the fight is finished one way or another. If Thompson shows up with improved grappling skills, we could be witnessing the start of something special.
All that mixed together makes this a potentially exciting bout between two promising prospects. With the welterweight class currently full of top-flight contenders, both fighters need a convincing win. UFC 170's main card is the perfect place to pick that up.
With a ton of potential between them, Robert Whittaker and Stephen Thompson have a golden opportunity to showcase their skills at UFC 170. Who is your pick to come out on top in this evenly matched bout?