Because of injuries to heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and No. 1 contender Cain Velasquez, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was forced to place its main-event hopes in Johny Hendricks and Stephen Thompson on Super Bowl Eve.
The two welterweights will meet in the UFC Fight Night “Hendricks vs. Thompson” headliner on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. In the co-main event “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 winner and former International Fight League champion Roy Nelson takes on Jared Rosholt in a battle between heavyweights headed in opposite directions. The rest of the card provides a solid mix of veterans, former champions, prospects and divisional contenders, from Mike Pyle and Joseph Benavidez to Ray Borg and Rafael Cavalcante.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC Fight Night 82 matchup, with analysis and picks:
WelterweightsJohny Hendricks (17-3) vs Stephen Thompson (11-1)
THE MATCHUP: Hendricks’ career has been a strange one, and his development as a fighter has been just as unusual. One of the most decorated wrestlers to ever enter the sport of MMA, Hendricks defied expectations by turning into a stunning one-punch knockout artist. The KOs stopped when Hendricks reached the upper echelon, but his striking skill improved dramatically under the tutelage of kickboxing maestro and all-around good guy Steven Wright.
Now Hendricks is more likely to beat up opponents at range than he is to work them over on the ground. He pumps an authoritative jab from his southpaw stance and builds his attacks from there. Seeing his opponents parry, Hendricks will loop a right hook around and onto their chin. When they begin to deal with this, he adds powerful, precise kicks, attacking the inside and outside of both legs and punishing the body. In close, Hendricks is quite possibly the strongest man in the entire division, and he uses this power to control his opponent while landing short knees and uppercuts. I cannot have been the only fan shocked at how easily Hendricks spun around Georges St. Pierre in the clinch when the two met at UFC 167.
Thompson’s own development as a mixed martial artist has been no less strange and impressive. “Wonderboy” gets the most attention for the acrobatic kicks he employs -- and for good reason -- but most of his success in the UFC has been the result of his technical, efficient boxing. Thompson controls range very well, bouncing around on the fringe of his opponent’s reach but leaning forward to give the impression that his head is a target. When the foe lunges in to strike, Thompson pulls back, takes a small angle and lands straight, effortless counters.
This ability to manage distance is also paramount to Thompson’s success as a defensive wrestler. Most opponents struggle to get close enough to even initiate a takedown, thrown off by Thompson’s tricky upper-body movement and evasive footwork. When the takedown is initiated, Thompson shows excellent awareness, feeding the single-leg and walking himself toward the fence, where he does a good job of securing hooks, creating space and slipping back out into open space.
THE ODDS: Hendricks (-220), Thompson (+185)
THE PICK: Hendricks feels like an easy pick here, but the more I think about this matchup the more trouble I have figuring it out. Thompson is an underrated defensive wrestler. Even after they get through his long-range striking and excellent footwork, nobody has been able to drag him down with ease, and Hendricks has not exactly been a stupendous wrestler in the context of MMA. Still, Hendricks can probably win this one even without regular takedowns, thanks to his diverse Dutch-style striking. I see Hendricks working his way into range behind the jab, punishing Thompson with leg kicks for several rounds and ultimately mauling him on the ground. The pick is Hendricks by third-round TKO.
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