UFC Orlando Beforemath: Is Anybody Really ‘Retired?’

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to a real stadium this weekend with UFC Orlando set to hit our television screens this Saturday. The main event features a past-versus-present match up in Stephen Thompson and Kevin Holland. Thompson is a master karate/kickboxing specialist that has been around for years. Holland is—somewhat—the new kid on the block and is coming off of one of those Tyson Fury retirements. So with the card looming, you know the drill. It’s time for UFC Orlando Beforemath!


UFC Orlando: Tale of the Tape

Thompson has been around the block. Now 39 years of age, it may be time for him to change the nickname from “Wonderboy” to “Wonderman” or maybe “Wondergrandpa.” Point is, he is long in the tooth, and while his 11-6 UFC record isn’t the most stellar, Thompson is still one of the most puzzling fighters in the welterweight division.

He’s had bouts with Robert Whittaker, Johny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald, Tyron Woodley—you name it. But in recent years Thompson hasn’t fared so well. After his win over Jorge Masvidal, he dropped two straight to Darren Till and Anthony Pettis. He then rebounded with quality wins over Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal before dropping fights to Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad. Those last two were the most disheartening as “Wonderboy” was grappled to oblivion, showing his age.

Thompson was once one of the strongest candidates to win a title in the welterweight division, but since his win over Masvidal, he has rarely fought more than once a year. When he rebounded against Masvidal, he was 34. In the past five years, we’ve seen him fight only six times.

On the other hand, Kevin Holland has had the exact opposite problem. There’s not a fight he hasn’t said yes to. In less than a year’s time during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holland fought a mind-numbing five times and was begging for more. In fact, he fought once a month from August 20th to October 20th, took the month off, and returned again a month later with that incredible knockout of Ronaldo Souza during a scramble.

That’s when the woes set in for Holland. He ran up against wrestlers, the same kryptonite as Thompson. He was soundly beaten by both Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori, and his fight against Kyle Daukaus ended in the first round due to an accidental head-butt. He came back with two straight wins by finish against Alex Oliveira and Tim Means and looked to be on the comeback trail. Then he fought Khamzat Chimaev. We all know how that went.

Holland went into “retirement” after the Chimaev fight but said he would come back for something truly special. Back down at welterweight, I guess we can assume the respect Holland has for Thompson as a special type of fighter. We are about to see what kind of fighter Holland really is with this fight. Buckle up, this one is going to be fun.

Kevin Holland: Staying Straight and Narrow

Holland has a discipline problem. He’s shown that he lacks the capability to counter-wrestle bigger men and that has forced him down to welterweight from middleweight. Even then, the last minute fight with Chimaev showed that he’s possibly improved but we don’t really know; Chimaev makes most of his opposition look like chumps. But a little birdie tells me that in this fight, he won’t have to worry about the grappling talents of Thompson.

The issue with fighting Thompson is that you almost have to lead the dance, but to do that will have Holland walking a fine line. A little too much action and Stephen Thompson will add to his highlight reel at “UFC Orlando.” A little too much inactivity and the judges will be the ones to decide your fate and if the past has shown you anything with Thompson’s boring fights, it’s that the judges are just as perplexed as we are.

Thompson has some pretty noticeable tales now that he’s 17 fights deep into his UFC career. There’s a lot of tape on him. One of the things we know about him is that he doesn’t deal with the low kick very well. Darren Till landed 15 of 27 low kicks on “Wonderboy” when they fought in 2018. Masvidal landed 28 of 50. Anthony Pettis? He landed a mind-numbing 20 of 22 low kicks. With his side-on karate stance, checking the kick is much harder than a traditional stance. This leaves Thompson susceptible to the low kick. It is imperative for Holland to target the legs and target them early. Not only will it be painful, but it will also reduce the mobility of the always-moving Thompson, who darts in and out of the pocket at will otherwise. The idea is simple: Thompson moves with his legs so kick them and make moving them that much harder.

With the path to victory being through the grappling of Thompson, I look for Holland to use the takedown as a viable threat as well. We saw in his fight with Tim Means that Holland can use the threat of the takedown quite well. By targeting the legs, Holland will not only slow down and cause damage to Thompson, but he will make the takedown that much easier to get as well. Thompson knows this having been in the game so long. Holland can use that to his advantage.

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

We saw Holland use the level change against Means to set up the finish. In the diagram above, you can see Holland set up Means and use the level change to get a read on Means. (1) Means had a high guard and Holland wanted to lower the guard to land some good strikes. To do so, (2) Holland slaps the lead knee of Means and Means reacts predictably by lowering his hands. Holland, being young and agile, (3) throws the hook to try to land. It does land, but not as cleanly as Holland would like. But he did make the read that Means will lower his hands. In the finish, (4) Holland dips down low and instead of slapping the knee, he throws the jab to the body, a very similar look to a fighter in the heat of things. He then (5) comes up top with the cross and puts Means down.

The problem here is “Wonderboy” actually fights with his hands down anyway. Instead of going straight to the cross, Holland has to actually make him fear the takedown. If he simply uses the combination in the diagram above, Holland will eat a kick or he will be swinging at air. A couple shots against the fence should do the trick. In doing so, Holland can get Thompson thinking takedown and wanting to cheat to sprawl his hips instead of leaning away. It’s at this moment that Holland can fire the shot up top to hurt Thompson. Think of it similarly to how Anthony Pettis knocked Thompson out, but instead of getting beat up to set up the Superman punch off the cage, Holland can save some brain cells and do so with the threat of the takedown.

Holland’s paths to victory are much more varied than Thompson’s, but the same has been true for every one of Thompson’s opponents. It’s up to Holland to utilize all of his skills and get the fight to where it needs to be for him to get a win.

Stephen Thompson: Turn Back The Clock

The inactivity of Thompson is frustrating. He was one of the hardest puzzles to figure out leading up to his title run and beat some of the scariest men in the division. We’ve seen Father Time take his toll on Thompson in his last two fights when both Burns and Muhammad, two young bucks of the division, grappled him to a grind-y victory. It should be a crime on Thompson’s part that his grappling is at the level that it is. Chris Weidman is his brother in law. You’d think that with all the time they spend together he’d pick up a thing or two. But with all that said, Thompson will likely not have to rely on his grappling this fight. Holland is a strike first, grapple later fighter. We will likely get to see “Wonderboy” fight a fighter that’s in his realm.

Holland hasn’t had the greatest results as a fighter but he’s also taken some fights he shouldn’t have. His move to welterweight gives him a height advantage and a four-inch edge in reach. Thompson will want to stay long and use his kicking game to keep Kevin Holland at bay.

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

Thompson is a switch hitter. He will fight his karate style out of both orthodox and southpaw stance. This will be something new for Holland to have to deal with. Nobody he’s fought has been able to switch quite like Thompson. With the switching of stances, the dynamics of where the power shots come from will lay a foundation for Thompson to fluster Holland and draw some shots for Thompson to counter. Thompson will have to go first but he will be able to capitalize on an overzealous Holland and land some clean shots to swing the fight in his favor.

As mentioned earlier, Thompson will have to kick at Holland as well. Thompson generally does a good job at keeping the kicks up so long as he’s not being kicked. He will have to fire first to keep Holland from kicking his legs from under him and every time Holland does throw a low kick, punish him. Thompson will have to get one back, Thai, style or counter with a cross up the middle. When talking about the long kicks of Thompson, we look at things like the roundhouse, question mark kick, and the front side kick. He uses these kicks to land heavier shots while moving his head off the center line in the event of a counter. The front side kick will be a very important kick for Thompson. It is one of the longer kicks in his arsenal and can close that 4 inch reach advantage that Holland possesses.

I want to take a moment and examine proper side kick technique for a moment. Thompson has great form when it comes to almost anything he does in the realm of striking. But there nobody throws a better side kick than a sanda fighter. With that thought I’d like to bring up a fighter with a sanda background, and who else better to talk about than Xiaonan Yan, an actual sanda practitioner from China, the motherland of the art? In UFC Vegas 61 Beforemath, we took a look at Yan’s side kick and how she used it in a textbook sanda fashion.

Blaine Henry illustration

In the diagram above, we see Yan throwing a textbook side kick, one that Thompson uses often. With the side kick, closing the distance properly is important. Get too close and you can get bundled over should your opponent catch the kick. Too far and you’re kicking at air and give your adversary the chance to close the distance themselves when you’re on one leg. With the side kick, (1) a fighter has to step up with their rear leg from their side on stance to their lead foot. This puts you in range without being in range (this is a very confusing statement let me elaborate a bit further). Stepping in with the front foot first will put Yan or Thompson closer to their opponent and put them too far into the pocket. Sliding the rear leg extends the kick while (2) keeping you the same distance from your opponent with your hips. It’s important not to hang out here as having your feet so close together is prime for a double leg takedown. Both “Wonderboy” and Yan do great jobs not hanging out with their feet so close together and is a way they deal with the takedown on their longer shots.

Next, we look at the hips. Here we see (3 & 4) that Yan will turn her hips over to chamber up the kick which plays into what the intention of the sanda-style side kick is.

In a sanda side kick, the object is to smash your opponent with your foot, not snap into the kick. It’s a hybrid between a snapping kick that we see in karate and a push kick from muay thai. With the kick being a power kick, the chambering of the hips comes in to load up that power to give you that extra oomph. A fighter should (5) keep their leg perpendicular to the target and when they throw the strike (6), achieve full extension and push through with the thigh and hip instead of snapping at the knee.

It’s this type of technique Thompson will look to use to keep the faster, longer Holland at range. Pair this up with body work to slow down Holland’s pace and you have yourself a masterpiece in the making.

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