Karate specialist and knockout artist, Stephen Thompson, is set to battle with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Rory MacDonald, this Saturday (June 18, 2016) inside TD Place Arena in Ottawa, Canada.
Several fans lost faith in Thompson following his loss to Matt Brown, who was then just a struggling Welterweight with an iffy win percentage. However, Thompson kept his nose to the grindstone and has showed steady improvement since that bout, allowing him to keep the fight standing and dominate his last six opponents.
In Thompson’s last bout, he put on a career-defining performance by brutalizing and finishing Johny Hendricks in the very first round. Now, he’ll look to follow that up with another monumental victory and earn a title shot.
Let's take a closer look at his skill set:
Thompson is one of the most credentialed strikers in UFC. He’s a fifth-degree black belt in Kempo Karate, black belt in American Kickboxing and has 20 professional kickboxing victories to his name. Considering his background, it should be no surprise that Thompson is such a creative and effective kickboxer.
The first thing to note about Thompson's striking style is his stance. While he primarily works from Southpaw, Thompson will occasionally move 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.
Luckily, Thompson’s distance control — the center piece of his entire attack — has kept him safe from low kicks for the most part.
Thompson’s karate-style stance -- as well as excellent dexterity -- opens up many of Thompson's kicks, lead leg or otherwise (GIF). From the outside, Thompson does an excellent job of spearing his opponent with side kicks, hooks kicks, and other kicks stemming from his lead leg. He'll also throw more standard round kicks with solid power (GIF).
For example, Thompson made great use of his long kicks from range 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 knock his opponent out (GIF).
On a similar note, Thompson loves to attack with the lead leg question mark, which seems like a low or body kick before flicking up and over the shoulder at the last possible moment. Unlike some of the other aforementioned kicks, this requires some setup. Usually, Thompson will punctuate a punching combination with this kick, often after getting his opponents' hands out of position with a cross (GIF).
While Thompson will go on the offensive with punches, those moments are few and far between. Most of the time, Thompson will either look to catch his opponent off-guard with a quick flurry of straight shots or simply be trying to line up a kick.
In his last bout, Thompson’s offensive flurries worked to great effect. Hendricks is hardly the most fleet-footed fighter, and Thompson was able to catch him flat multiple times by suddenly springing into a series of punches and kicks.
Most of Thompson’s punches come as counters, as he is excellent at outmaneuvering his opponents with lateral movement and pivots. 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.
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 springs into the punch with power. In his bouts with Robert Whittaker and Chris Clements, "Wonderboy" used this setup to secure the knockout finish (GIF).
Additionally, Thompson makes use of his excellent distance control and movement to frustrate opponents and force them to reach for him. Once that happens, Thompson will look to sting his opponent with lead hooks or suddenly halt his movement with a hard cross (GIF).
Thompson’s wrestling improvements have really been something to watch. He’ll never be an elite wrestler — Thompson is 33 years old and already has a long kickboxing career behind him — but he’s grown into a very fundamentally sound and defensively strong grappler.
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 opponent off their feet.
Additionally, Thompson has showed a bit more to his wrestling game. He's looked for the single leg takedown a few times with mixed results and has even scored with a knee pick. On the whole, his fluidity in grappling exchanges is far superior now when compared to his loss to Brown.
Defensively, Thompson is far improved as well. In his last two bouts, Thompson faced the first real wrestling challenges since his loss to Brown. Opposite Ellenberger, he showed strong hips by reversing a fairly deep inside trip from the wrestler, landing in top position and hammering away at "The Juggernaut" with heavy punches.
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. Eventually, he was able to escape his foe’s grasp, and Hendricks was never able to latch on again.
Though he's purple belt, Thompson has yet to display much jiu-jitsu. He hasn't attempted a single submission inside the Octagon, nor has he really spent much time advancing position on the mat.
Defensively, the only fight that Thompson's grappling ability can be judged was his loss to Brown. While his guard was passed frequently, Thompson did defend several submissions, including a calf slicer. Since it's been nearly four years since that bout, it should assumed that Thompson's submission grappling has improved alongside his wrestling, but it’s tough to say for sure.
It’s an area MacDonald is certain to try to test.
Thompson’s improvements have already allowed him to achieve some great things, but this will be perhaps the ultimate test of his all-around game. While Thompson is one of the sharpest specialists in the sport, MacDonald is also perhaps the best example of the much-talked-about but rarely seen "new breed" who’s excellence is derived from his ability to transition and be great at everything. If Thompson can succeed here, it seems that a gold strap is likely in his future.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur 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.