The next No. 1 contender in the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight division may soon be revealed, as Rory MacDonald meets Stephen Thompson in the UFC Fight Night 89 headliner on Saturday at TD Place Arena in Ottawa, Ontario. Meanwhile, Donald Cerrone faces the rejuvenated Patrick Cote in the co-main event at 170 pounds. The rest of the card features a variety of knockout artists, grappling specialists, journeymen and prospects, with a heavy Canadian flavor.
Let us take a look at each UFC Fight Night “MacDonald vs. Thompson” matchup, with analysis and picks:
WelterweightRory MacDonald (18-3) vs. Stephen Thompson (12-1)
THE MATCHUP: Remember how easy it was to pick Johny Hendricks over Thompson back in February? Sure, I gave Thompson a chance, but I figured Hendricks’ ever-improving kickboxing, durability and, most importantly, his wrestling would see him to victory. Ever since Thompson proved me and most of the rest of the fight-picking world wrong by knocking out Hendricks in the first round, it has become a lot harder to judge just where his ceiling lies.
MacDonald, meanwhile, has not set foot in the Octagon since his brutal war of attrition with the unbreakable Robbie Lawler nearly a year ago. Of course, under slightly different circumstances MacDonald might very well be the champion right now, but how he will perform remains a mystery. His face has been put back together, but some fighters’ minds never recover after a fight like that. Of course, MacDonald calls events like the Lawler fight “good times,” so who knows? This is a great fight on many different levels. The mental states of the respective competitors aside, MacDonald should be able to test Thompson in his preferred range more effectively than anyone else, while Thompson will be the purest and most technical out-fighter MacDonald will have ever faced.
Thompson excels at maintaining distance. He fights extremely long, often operating out of a side stance. This can leave him vulnerable to leg kicks, but Thompson is quick to pick up his lead leg and fire off a side kick or hook kick to halt his opponent’s forward advance. Sometimes Thompson will allow the range to close a bit more in order to land counterpunches. He excels at this, pulling his head out of range and responding with ramrod straight blows. Thompson moves beautifully between all of these attacks, using the hesitation created by his attacks to find angles from which he can choose either to follow up or retreat safely.
MacDonald is a different class of fighter from those Thompson has picked apart, however. The same height as “Wonderboy” with an extra inch of wingspan, MacDonald also fights very long, relying on an educated left hand rather than a bevy of kicks. MacDonald will set his distance with the jab, hand fight to get around his opponent’s guard and methodically sort out the best ways to follow up. He is a dangerous kicker himself, with an excellent high kick and a sneaky front kick which he throws both to the body and the chin, should the opponent forget his posture. MacDonald is also an excellent combination striker in the pocket, throwing both hands at all angles and mixing in elbows when the opportunity arises. Like his predecessor Georges St. Pierre, MacDonald does a superb job of taking small steps to close or create distance while he punches.
One of MacDonald’s greatest advantages is his ground game. The closest thing MMA has to an all-terrain fighter, MacDonald complements a strong wrestling game with excellent jiu-jitsu. MacDonald is not only a deft scrambler from bottom position but a smooth guard passer with dangerous ground striking. He remains the only opponent in Demian Maia’s welterweight run to have found himself underneath the jiu-jitsu ace on the ground and still come back to win -- other than the criminally underrated Jake Shields. Part of that is due to sheer mental toughness, but MacDonald also deserves credit for defending and adjusting well enough to not only survive but wear out Maia and make him more susceptible to his strengths as the fight wore on.
Thompson’s grappling is relegated to the defensive. Though he has good instincts, angling away from takedown attempts and cranking down on overhooks to defeat level changes, it remains to be seen how he will perform with a control-oriented grappler on top of him.
THE ODDS: Thompson (-120), MacDonald (+100)
THE PICK: This is not an easy fight to pick. Historically, MacDonald has been susceptible to kicks, but he has always countered them exceptionally well. He has also proven to be a superb five-round fighter, able to piece together the right combination of skills with which to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses over the course of a protracted fight -- a trait no doubt helped by the cornerwork of Firas Zahabi. Still, he will need to ply his ground game to beat Thompson. Though MacDonald can compete at range and close the distance more intelligently than past “Wonderboy” opponents, he cannot afford to spend five rounds on the end of Thompson’s punches and kicks. As long as he keeps a cool head and remains focused on Thompson’s weaknesses, however, that able striking should serve him well. The pick is MacDonald by fourth-round TKO.
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