The Film Room: Stephen Thompson

By Kevin Wilson Oct 29, 2019
The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 244 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson on Saturday will return to the Octagon to take on surging contender Vicente Luque at UFC 244 in New York. “Wonderboy” finds himself on the rebound following the first knockout loss of his career, but the 36-year-old South Carolina native could use a victory over Luque as a springboard back to relevance.

Thompson supplies the material for this installment of The Film Room.

“Wonderboy” has become the gold standard for karate in MMA, and until his recent slump, he was considered by some to be the best striker in the UFC. His classic karate style, along with his understanding of the basics of boxing and grappling, made him one of the most well-rounded and feared fighters in the division for many years. Nobody knew much about Thompson when he made his promotional debut in 2012, but his first-round knockout of Daniel Stittgen put him on the map and reminded everybody how effective karate can be in MMA when used correctly. Thompson threw the 1-2 to hide his stance switch, then swung the kick over Stittgen’s lead shoulder. This was the same combination he used to win the World Combat League championship, and it is a staple of Kenpo karate.

Like most karate fighters, Thompson’s style is kicking-centric, and his long legs allow him to land kicks at a range most could not. Although most of his spinning kicks are thrown with no setup, the timing and accuracy he has acquired over a lifetime of training throws off most opponents. As he has reached the elite of the division, these kicks are becoming less and less effective. His timing was enough early on, but now, his opponents are expecting some sort of spin kick and can easily see it coming when he throws it with no setup. It would be beneficial for “Wonderboy” to move away from these kicks or at least set them up with his hands.

Thompson also frequently uses side kicks and loves to mix them to the head and body. He uses the side kick to stop aggressive opponents and reset the range of the fight, but he does not use them to set up other strikes like he should. The side kick is the perfect way to create a dominate angle, close the distance and set up other strikes, but “Wonderboy” only uses it as a defensive tactic. He could increase his effectiveness by throwing them to the thighs, knees and shins, like Jon Jones. However, Thompson has stated that he opposes oblique kicks since they are known to cause injury. In fact, one such kick from Darren Till was the reason he was out for almost a year before he fought Anthony Pettis.

Thompson may be known for his kicks, but his boxing has improved immensely since he joined the UFC roster. From his classic side-on karate stance, with his hands low and torso upright, his punches come in at odd angles and can be incredibly hard to time. Along with his constant stance switches, this makes his leading attacks unique and difficult to simulate in training, especially in today’s fighting climate, where karate-based fighters are harder to come by. From a boxing standpoint, many would say his technique is awful, but this is not boxing and fighters like Thompson have proven that karatekas can have success with their hands without adopting a boxing style.

Generally, karate fighters do not excel at taking dominant angles, but “Wonderboy” is an exception. The usual tactics of a karateka involve blitzing forward with a straight attack and then quickly getting out of range to avoid the opponent’s return fire. This is sound strategy under point karate rules, but in most combat sports, constantly attacking in a straight line is not particularly effective. Thompson clearly realized this early on and worked on using his karate blitz to take angles before coming in with strikes. “Wonderboy” picked apart Jorge Masvidal with side steps, or V-steps, before throwing the 1-2. He placed his lead foot outside of Masvidal’s to generate a better angle for his rear straight. Luque is a brilliant striker, but he almost always attacks on a straight line, so look for Thompson to try to catch him off-guard with a quick angle change before throwing his hands.

As we all know by now after watching his fights with Tyron Woodley, Thompson can be too patient on the feet against top competition. He has been criticized recently for being too passive, but he has shown decent countering skills when his opponents strike first. This style can result in boring fights against fellow counterstrikers, but this passiveness allowed him to reach the highest levels of MMA after getting a late start in the sport. Karate focuses on precision rather than volume, and only two fighters have managed to outpoint “Wonderboy” on the feet. However, Thompson was much more active on the feet in his last fight with Pettis and landed the same amount of strikes in two rounds as he did in his last three five-round decision losses.

The biggest problem with the karate stance is defense. With a hands-low, side-on style, a fighter must rely on upper-body movement and footwork to avoid strikes instead of blocking or parrying as a boxer would. Generally, moving away from strikes is the better defense, as even blocked strikes can cause damage, but it 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 fence, his lack of classic defensive tactics has seen him get caught in the past. Although his chin held up for many years, it was only a matter of time before it betrayed him.

Nobody expected Pettis to be the first man to finish “Wonderboy,” let alone in his first welterweight fight in the UFC. However, a perfectly timed Superman punch over the top of Thompson’s low lead hand sent his head bouncing off the canvas. “Wonderboy” smartly took a long time off to recover, so hopefully this does not dissuade him from being more aggressive in the future. Before the knockout, he was putting on one of the best performances of his career. Advertisement


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