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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 130’s Stephen Thompson

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Former two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight title contender, Stephen Thompson, will throw down with up-and-coming knockout artist, Darren Till, this Sunday (May 27, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 130 inside Echo Arena in Liverpool, England.

Thompson’s current situation is a great example of how little control fighters have of even their own careers. The karateka rose suffered one setback in 2012 before showing tremendous growth and rising through the ranks, earning a title shot opposite Tyron Woodley back in 2016. The first bout was back-and-forth, and Thompson showed great heart to survive an awful fourth round to a draw. The second fight went far better for Thompson — he was hurt just once, and it was much less severe — but the decision was somehow scored against him when a draw seemed Woodley’s best hope to retain. Because of that loss and the fight’s boring nature, Thompson is arguably the best Welterweight in the world yet remains far removed from a title shot.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

A fifth-degree black belt in Kempo Karate, black belt in American Kickboxing and owner of 20 professional kickboxing victories (admittedly over iffy competition) to his name, Thompson is one of the sport’s finest strikers. Inside the cage, Thompson has scored seven victories via knockout.

Thompson’s stance reflects his karate background. While he primarily works from Southpaw, Thompson will commonly switch 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 centerpiece of his entire attack — has kept him safe from low kicks for the most part. That said, Woodley did find success with them, as his approach of simply waiting for “Wonderboy” to engage forced the Karateka into striking distance. Woodley never truly committed to destroying his foe’s lead leg, but he often knocked his opponent off-balance when he did throw them.

Thompson’s karate-style stance -- as well as excellent dexterity -- opens up many of Thompson’s kicks, lead leg or otherwise (GIF). Often, he first established a spearing side kick to the mid-section or face. Once his opponent is dropping his hands in an attempt to parry or catch, Thompson will switch things up with a hook or question mark kick.

Thompson’s ability to punctuate combinations with the question mark kick is a thing of beauty. Generally, he’ll begin his combo from the Orthodox — usually a one-two combination or just a cross — but will allow the cross to carry him into the Southpaw stance. From there, he throws a lead leg question mark kick, a rare technique that slides right over his opponent’s shoulder to find the chin (GIF).

A great example of Thompson’s pure kicking ability came 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 knockout his opponent (GIF).

Most of the time Thompson punches, he’s capitalizing on how an opponent’s forward pressure to gain an angle and fire a counter. More recently, however, he’s been more willing to initiate exchanges. Opposite Woodley, for example, “T-Wood’s” refusal to leave the fence forced Thompson to stab at him with punches. Outside of the few big, fight-changing shots that Woodley did land, Thompson was the sharper man in that range. Staying long, Thompson stung his opponent with combinations of jabs and crosses, looking for hooks if Woodley was circling into them. Since Woodley allowed himself to be trapped along the fence, Thompson often found success with crosses to the body as well.

Thompson initiated an amazing sequence opposite Jorge Masvidal that dropped “Gamebred,” quickly taking an outside angle before springing into a right hand (GIF). It was picture-perfect and worthy of further analysis.

Many of Thompson’s punches come as counters, as he is excellent at outmaneuvering his opponents with lateral movement and pivots (GIF). 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).

One of his most interesting following ups to the dart is returning to a lead leg kick. After darting with a cross from Orthodox, Thompson will land in the Southpaw stance, where he likes to throw the aforementioned kicks. Opposite Woodley, for example, Thompson landed the dart and then jammed a side kick into Woodley’s neck when the champion attempted to pursue him.

Often, 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).

Wrestling

From the start of his UFC career to modern day, Thompson is one of the most improved wrestlers in the sport. Following his loss to Matt Brown, Thompson has shown steady improvement in this part of his game, becoming a very difficult man to wrestle to the mat.

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. These takedowns are an extension of his kickboxing, relying on the same angles and ability to read his opponent, even if the takedown itself is not a natural part of his game.

In addition, Thompson has showed a bit more to his wrestling game. Opposite Nah-Shon Burrell, the karate fighter worked for the single leg takedown a few times with mixed results, and he has even scored with a knee pick.

Since Thompson circles and pivots while he moves, he rarely gives his opponent an easy shot. Often, they’re forced to wrestle from bad starting positions, which allows Thompson to get his hips back and out of danger before his foes can accomplish much. Plus, his sideways stance makes double leg takedowns difficult even when facing him head on, and lanky, well-balanced strikers like Thompson are generally poor targets for a single-leg shot.

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. Once back to the clinch, Thompson worked patiently to turn his opponent and escape, leaving Hendricks to once again face the unenviable task of closing range.

In 10 rounds, Woodley — a very dedicated wrestler and physical powerhouse — took down Thompson just twice. Once was because of a mistake from Thompson, a poorly setup low kick. The second was a mixture of excellent wrestling from Woodley, as the champion continued to drive into the shot after it was first stuffed, and a very small bit of impatience from Thompson, who tried to spin off the fence too early and allowed Woodley to duck back down to his hips and complete a double-leg takedown.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A purple belt, Thompson has yet to display much offensive jiu-jitsu. He has not attempted a single submission inside the Octagon, nor has he really spent much time advancing position on the mat.

Defensively, Thompson’s grappling is focused on control more than anything else. In the first round of his first bout with Woodley, Thompson retained guard and did not allow his opponent to land anything particularly significant for a pretty extended period of time. However, when Thompson opened his guard and tried to kick Woodley off him near the end of the round, he opened himself up and absorbed a fair amount of damage.

On the bright side, Thompson did show some composure in resisting a guillotine choke after being rocked in the fourth round. Woodley may not have been squeezing the choke properly — which is the reason the half-conscious Thompson was able to resist rather than sleep — but Woodley is still a ridiculously powerful man hanging on the striker’s neck. Despite the terrible position, Thompson fought hands and waited, allowing Woodley to burn himself out.

Conclusion

At 35 years of age, it’s unclear how long Thompson will continue to compete at such a high-level, but time is not his friend. The bright side is that “Wonderboy” is already back in the win column, and this is a high-profile match up. If the karateka wins here, he’ll be in the immediate title mix as soon as Woodley loses the belt.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional 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.