The lights are even brighter on budding Welterweight superstar and karate black belt Stephen Thompson when he meets former 170-pound champion Johny Hendricks in UFC Fight Night 82's main event tonight (Sat., Feb. 6, 2016) inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Originally set to play second fiddle to a Heavyweight title rematch between titleholder Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez on a UFC 196 pay-per-view (PPV) card, the duo of Welterweight standouts now takes headlining honors as injuries took both participants out of their scheduled "Sin City" clash.
Both Hendricks and Thompson will now have 25 minutes to stake their claim for a shot at gold. However, it's "Wonderboy" who has a whole lot of momentum to gain from sending "Bigg Rigg" packing out in the desert.
The prolific kickboxing specialist has quietly established himself as a potent force in the Welterweight ranks with a 11-1 overall record (6-1 UFC). Thompson boasts wins over the likes of veteran finishers Jake Ellenberger and ex-title challenger Patrick Cote.
But, before we can start to assess his chances against Hendricks, let's take a quick look at the events that transpired in the lead-up to this pivotal bout.
Thompson, 32, began his mixed martial arts (MMA) career six years ago in his home state of South Carolina in the Fight Party promotion. His first professional tilt was held in Feb. 2010 against Jeremy Joles, who he defeated via second-round technical knockout.
Joles didn't stand much of a chance, though he did achieve full mount later in the first round. It was all Thompson, though, from the get-go. The southpaw routinely utilized a sidekick to the face, switched stances and he threw excellent knees in the clinch.
Thompson was taken down when he was off balance in the clinch, but nearly found the finish just moments before in round one. It was a blitz by Thompson that nearly spelled the end for Joles. I was very surprised the bout wasn't stopped.
It was a very good showing nonetheless. And Thompson parlayed his success in this fight right into a second straight technical knockout victory, this time over Daniel Finz in May 2010.
Thompson went on to fight once more in 2010, earning a rear-naked choke win over Marques Worrell four months later. Two more decisive victories over William Kuhn and Patrick Mandio would signal a call up from UFC in 2012.
Thompson brought an undefeated (5-0) record into the fold, but that tells very little of his time in combat sports. The South Carolinian collected a bevy of championship belts competing in professional kickboxing for a decade. The World Combat League is where Thompson honed his striking skills before turning to MMA. It would also be where Thompson would tally some serious skull-crushing knockouts.
Just check out his handiwork against James Decore below.
An important detail to note about Thompson's striking is that he's very adept at throwing from either stance. He's also equally dangerous from orthodox or southpaw, though his right leg is clearly the more deadly one.
Thompson would also face future GLORY kickboxing star Raymond Daniels, but the tussle ended anti-climatically with the former suffering a fight-ending injury. He would leave the sport of kickboxing with a stupendous 56-0 record.
Dan Stittgen was the first man up to welcome Thompson to UFC in Feb. 2012. And he did not fare well. It was only a matter of time before Thompson found an opening, which eventually came late in the opening round when the latter blasted Stittgen with a right high kick.
Thompson added another highlight-reel knockout to his resume and he also collected a performance bonus check in his first Octagon jaunt. Next up was "The Immortal" Matt Brown two months later.
Brown, at the time, was just kicking off his run toward the top of the 170-pound division as he had just ousted Chris Cope with strikes a couple of months prior. Thompson would connect on several crisp boxing combinations, but for every strike he threw, Brown would retaliate with a few of his own.
Brown also exposed Thompson's takedown defense and guard with nice trips and vicious elbows over the course of the final two rounds, bloodying up the upstart prospect. Watch some of the highlights below:
Thompson suffered the first defeat of his pro career, but a knee injury forced him to spend some time on the sidelines. A fighter's first professional loss could shake up their psyche and it was clear Thompson needed work on his defense, both in the stand-up and ground game, a little bit more.
Brown exposed Thompson, who remained flatfooted during some of their exchanges, which allowed him to counter.
Thompson eventually returned to action 13 months after the Brown fight to face Nah-Shon Burrell at UFC 160, who he would send packing via unanimous decision in an excellent showing. It was the combinations of Thompson, as well as his mobility, that helped him get the nod here.
When he's mixing his boxing in with his kicks and knees, it's hard to stop him. I'd also be remiss if I failed to mention his clinch work and wrestling, which was also on display against "The Rock-n-Rolla."
Thompson then captured two knockout wins over Chris Clements and New Zealand gunslinger Robert Whittaker between 2013-14. Whittaker's quickness was evident to start in their Feb. 2014 meeting, but Thompson made the proper adjustments and was careful to not get backed into the cage as he did against Brown.
Thompson's counter game was on-point and it was very much apart of his next win over "The Predator." Cote would prove to be his most stiff test to date on paper, but that's not an accurate description of what took place in the Octagon at UFC 178.
The entire fight was controlled by Thompson, who utilized his length and kicking game to keep the smaller Cote at bay. Thompson also scored a knockdown later in the tilt for good measure.
His win over "Juggernaut" was his true coming out party as the former marine dropped like a fly once heel connected to temple. Thompson's wrestling was also a big factor in this fight as he nullified an Ellenberger takedown, reversing it into a position where he rained down ground and pound.
Thompson's aforementioned five-fight win streak is certainly worthy of praise, but Hendricks represents the best of the best at Welterweight. The former All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State University might have unceremoniously taken himself out of a title eliminator with rival Tyron Woodley prior to UFC 192, but he's expected to be quite in shape for this pow-wow.
Hendricks is working with weight-management specialist Louis Giordano on his cut down to the 171-pound mark. He's also eager to halt Thompson right in his tracks and enter himself into title shot discussions.
What will be key in this fight is grappling and pace. Can Thompson defend Hendricks' takedowns? If he can, or in the least not take much damage and get back to his feet, Thompson's gas tank will be vital.
Another interesting factor we will get a look at is Hendricks' cardio when dieting right. Can he come with pressure for 15 minutes? He looked to be alright versus Brown at UFC 185 when he landed nine takedowns.
Hendricks has gone away from his striking in his last three outings, which he will need in order to find his takedowns. Thompson is longer and his best route to victory is keeping Hendricks on the end of his strikes.
Hendricks has a lot at stake here. If he turns in a bad performance against Thompson, he will not only lose ground in the race for a title shot, but he may also lose his chance to compete in the 170-pound class.
Now, unless he misses weight, I'm sure he'll still compete at Welterweight unless he realizes he's depleting his body too much. Either way, I fully expect Hendricks to try and wrestle Thompson. He's going to do his best to make the fight ugly.
However, I would've gone with Hendricks had this fight only been set for three rounds, but now that Thompson will have up to five rounds to collect a victory, I believe the tide turns.
Result: Thompson via split decision
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