Almost since its inception, Welterweight has proven the division of wrestle-boxers.
For reasons unknown, it seems almost inevitable that the champion of the division punches and tackles. Whenever there is a random B.J. Penn-type who upsets the established Matt Hughes status quo, it does not take all that long for the next promising All-American to rise. Georges St-Pierre is the main exception, but before anyone gets too excited, his primary tools were ... the jab and double leg.
Regardless of who holds the crown, the 170-pound division is always swarming with wrestlers and their dang overhands chasing gold. Current kingpin Kamaru Usman is a bit more varied on the feet than the classic stereotype — he throws kicks sometimes — but his first two title fights largely saw him assume the role of “MOST DOMINANT WRESTLE-BOXER” by taking out Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington in grueling, straight-forward fights.
Usman passes this test with flying colors time and time again.
Stephen Thompson breaks the mold entirely. I don’t know that he’s shot for a takedown since roughly 2013, back when he had to prove he knew how to wrestle a little after getting ground out by Matt Brown. More important, “Wonderboy” does not step straight forward to meet his foe. He’s always darting around the outside, showing stance and direction changes. He’s just as likely to back off from an opponent entirely on any given would-be exchange, and if Thompson does really plant his feet as his foe steps forward, it’s probably to meet him with a side kick.
The Karateka presents a completely different challenge than anyone else at 170 pounds. At this point, the only fighter on the roster whose elusiveness can be considered comparable is Israel Adesanya, and even “Stylebender” at least strikes with more common strategies (though, to be clear, Adesanya is also the better overall kickboxer).
Don’t take my word for it, though, just compare the records of Thompson’s recent victims vs. the Karateka compared to the rest of the division. Vicente Luque has won eight of his last nine bouts, violently finishing each of those victories. Geoff Neal entered last night’s main event having won five straight, again largely in pummeling fashion.
Thompson showed them an entirely different look. They swung at air, while Thompson stuck straight punches right into the center mush that makes up the face. He’s now won eight straight rounds, knocking around two of Welterweight’s nastiest prospects with a savage politeness.
That’s the type of different challenge that needs to be thrown at Usman! Gilbert Burns may have a decorated jiu-jitsu background, but ultimately, his in-cage game boils down to physicality, power, and takedowns. For Usman, it’s the usual test, and while MMA is of course absurdly unpredictable, it’s a test Usman is well-prepared to pass.
None of this is to say that Burns does not deserve his shot (he does) or that “Wonderboy” should replace him. Instead, it’s a call to allow Thompson back on the fast track to another title fight, because perhaps his Karate is indeed the antidote to Usman’s pressure. Though, it might not be. Really, it’s impossible to say, seeing as Usman has no past foe who could even remotely serve as a “Wonderboy” analogue.
No such Welterweight exists.
For complete UFC Vegas 17: “Thompson vs. Neal” results and play-by-play, click HERE!
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