The Film Room: Stephen Thompson

By Kevin Wilson May 24, 2018
Stephen Thompson takes on Darren Till this weekend in the main event of UFC Fight Night 130. “Wonderboy” is fresh off a win over Jorge Masvidal after two tough fights with welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and is looking to get back into the title picture. A win over rising star Till could do just that.

A True Karateka

Thompson began training in kickboxing and karate at the age of three under his father, former professional kickboxer Ray Thompson. By 15 he was competing in karate tournaments around the world but it wasn’t until 12 years later that he found mixed martial arts. In 2010 Thompson began his professional MMA career and just six years later was competing for an Ultimate Fighting Championship title. Thompson had quite the meteoric rise to stardom and quickly became known as one of the best strikers in MMA. Although known for his elite striking, Thompson is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Carlos Machado and has some of the best takedown defense in the game, thanks in part to his time training with former UFC middleweight king Chris Weidman.

Wonderboy is now a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but his karate background is central to his success in MMA. In his first UFC fight against Dan Stittgen, Thompson won by KO with this 1-2 stance switch to a lead leg kick. The beauty of this combination is that the 1-2 (jab to rear straight) hides the stance switch and allows the kick to come in at a blind angle. This is the same combo Thompson used to win the World Combat League championship and is a staple in Kempo Karate.

What makes Wonderboy’s striking so interesting is how he seamlessly mixes in techniques from other disciplines. To the average person this spinning hook kick looks like a karate technique, and although it’s often used in karate it’s actually from taekwondo. Against Jake Ellenberger, Thompson’s corner was calling for the spinning hook kick all fight. The first one had Ellenberger hurt, and the second was the nail in the coffin.

Generally, karate fighters aren’t the best at taking dominant angles but Wonderboy is a great exception. The usual tactics of a karateka are to blitz forward with a straight attack, then quickly get out of range to avoid the opponent’s return. This is sound strategy under point karate rules, but in most combat sports constantly attacking at straight angles constantly is not very effective. Thompson clearly realized this early on and worked on using his karate blitz to take angles before coming in with strikes. Against Jorge Masvidal, Wonderboy picked him apart with these side steps (or V-steps) before throwing the 1-2. Notice how Thompson places his lead foot outside of Masvidal’s to generate a better angle for his rear straight.

Another staple in any style of karate is the stance switch and learning how to hide the switch. There are lots of ways to accomplish this, but Thompson’s favorites are to throw some filler strikes while switching or simply striking immediately after the switch. If a fighter throws some jabs while switching, chances are the opponent will be focused on his hands and the switch may go unnoticed. In striking immediately after the switch as in the example above, the fighter hopes the opponent is used to strikes coming in at one angle from one stance, and that a spin kick like this will come in at an unexpected angle that wasn’t available from the other stance.

Thompson is known for his kicks, but his boxing has improved by leaps and bounds since joining the UFC. From his classic karate side-on stance with hands low, Thompson’s punches come in at odd angles. Most strikes either come straight at the opponent, as in the case of jabs and straights, or from the side, as in the case of hooks and roundhouse kicks. With his hands low, Thompson’s punches are coming up instead of straight and can be tricky to see coming as very few strikes come at this angle. Fans and media have criticized Thompson for not having fought the toughest of competition, but many forget he has a KO win over current UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.

The biggest problem with the karate stance is defense. With this hands low, side-on style, a fighter must rely on upper body movement and footwork to avoid strikes instead of blocking or parrying like a boxer would. Generally, moving away from strikes is the better defense as even blocked strikes can cause damage, but becomes risky if there is no room for you to move. Thompson is incredibly hard to back into the cage, but when he does find himself against the cage his lack of classic defensive tactics has seen him get caught in the past. Although his chin has held up thus far, it’s only a matter of time before one of these results in a clean KO.


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