Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight title challenger, Stephen Thompson, will throw down opposite rising knockout artist, Geoff Neal, this Saturday (Dec. 19, 2020) at UFC Vegas 17 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Wonderboy” is so damn good. At 37 years of age, he remains ranked in the Top 5, and though it appears unlikely he’ll ever receive a third title shot, that’s more due to divisional politics than a knock on his abilities. Even if his recent record isn’t the absolute greatest, context matters: most of the losses were decisions that could have went his way on another night, and the sole exception (the Anthony Pettis knockout) was an incredible come-from-behind lightning strike.
None of that is an attempt to write away Thompson’s defeats: this is mixed martial arts (MMA), where weird, strange, and/or stolen losses are just as viable as clean finishes. It’s merely an attempt to appreciate “Wonderboy,” who again, is really damn good.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Thompson has one of the most traditional martial arts-influenced stances in the entire sport. He stands almost completely side on, which really changes everything. “Wonderboy” presents his foe different targets than usual, and his opponent must navigate those waters while Thompson leaps into quick punches or spinning kicks. While he primarily works from Southpaw, Thompson will commonly switch into Orthodox.
There are pros and cons to standing so wide and side-on. 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.
Of course, Thompson is well-aware of this fault, and he routinely punishes opponents for trying to kick him. In his most recent bout, for example, Vicente Luque came equipped with the smart strategy of trying to kick Thompson’s legs from beneath him while also trying to counter Thompson’s straight with his left hook and overhand.
Despite the seemingly sound strategy, Thompson’s side kick disrupted everything. He routinely interrupted Luque’s slower round kicks with a foot to the chest, even knocking him to the floor. Once Thompson had a read on his foe’s timing, he’d also step through the low kick to catch his foe on one leg (GIF).
Thompson’s karate-style stance — as well as excellent dexterity — opens up many of Thompson’s kicks, lead leg or otherwise. Often, he first establishes that spearing side kick. 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).
One of Thompson’s favorite attacks — 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 will occasionally spring into the punch with power. In his bouts with Robert Whittaker and Chris Clements, “Wonderboy” used this set up to secure the knockout finish (GIF).
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.
Thompson rarely leads with punches unless able to take an angle. For an offensive example of the dart, Thompson initiated an amazing sequence opposite Jorge Masvidal that dropped “Gamebred,” quickly taking an outside angle before springing into a right hand (GIF). In this example, Thompson used a simultaneously switched his feet to the Southpaw stance as he threw a darting left cross. The switch cross is common enough, but Thompson was able to get so deep into the angle that he exploded into a right hand that Masvidal never really saw coming.
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 opponents 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.
Admittedly, Thompson hasn’t taken anyone down since 2015, but he doesn’t try often.
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, Tyron Woodley 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.
A brown belt under Carlos Machado, Thompson has yet to display much offensive jiu-jitsu. In fact, per UFC Stats, he has yet to attempt a submission in his entire Octagon career.
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.
Thompson is an expert striker who’s really seen it all, but he’s faced with another confident up-and-comer who will try to shut off his lights. It’s a dangerous fight, one that is unlikely to raise “Wonderboy’s” profile much yet still offers significant risk. These are the only fights Thompson gets offered, so he’ll just have to win a few of them in a row if he’s to ever make one final title run.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 17 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 17: “Thompson vs. Neal” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown 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.