Christopher Hanewinckel – USA TODAY Sports
Current form has played a huge deal in the forgotten ability of South Carolina striking nonpareil, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. The traditional Karate ace has dropped two wins in two, on paper, worrying. When we investigate the nature of those defeats later, there’s a whole lot more than meets the eye. On Saturday, the 34-year-old returns to the venue of his premier professional title tilt, against a style he is more than familiar with. It’s a high stakes welterweight matchup as Thompson meets a surging Vicente Luque who has managed six wins in his previous six Octagon outings.
Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson has featured under the Ultimate Fighting Championship banner fourteen times, making a huge impact during his first title run. Meeting then champion Tyron Woodley in 2016, Thompson entered the affair with just a single promotional loss.
The Simpsonville native blazed a trail through some notable names at 170-pounds to earn the title challenge, namely, former Bellator welterweight best Rory MacDonald, former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, former UFC middleweight kingpin Robert Whittaker, and one-time title hungry strikers Jake Ellenberger and Patrick Cote. Thompson brought something very different to the welterweight division of that time – a precise counter striker, with a varied, punishing kicking offense, and maybe most impressive, unparrelleled distance management.
Before Woodley’s title loss to Kamaru Usman earlier this year, ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson comfortably provided the sternest challenge to his throne. Struggling with Thompson’s lateral movement and timing, Woodley needed a fight altering knockdown to bring the judge’s decision to a majority draw that November. The following quarter, Woodley and ‘Wonderboy’ met once more, with Woodley once more exiting the Octagon, strapped with championship gold.
Before we delve into Thompson’s most recent win, which just so happens to come against event headliner, Jorge Masvidal, lets examine his two recent losses. Travelling to Liverpool to meet UFC 244 co-headliner Darren Till, in the Scouser’s backyard, Thompson left the U.K. empty handed. In a cagey showing, both striking talents reserved their early assaults, with Thompson slightly more active inside seven or so minutes. Till, who will make his 185-pound debut this weekend, displayed his ferocious power, late on to nab an extremely close unanimous decision, and insert himself into a title clash with the previously mentioned Woodley.
Thompson last featured inside the Octagon at last March’s UFC Fight Night Nashville, in a striking fanatic’s delight against former WEC and UFC lightweight best, Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis. The five-round clash was billed as a meeting of two of the best kicking talents the promotion had to offer – with hugely contrasting backgrounds. In the opening round, the sheer distance management know how and movement advantage Thompson had over Pettis was self evident. Attempting to chop the lead leg throughout, Pettis was countered and out-struck for almost ten minutes. With just five seconds remaining in the second frame, Pettis sprung with a ‘superman’ punch, completely flattening Thompson. It was the first time we’ve ever seen ‘Wonderboy’ finished. Despite the lead Thompson had built up throughout the bout, he had been stopped.
A lot has been made of Jorge Masvidal, circa 2017. ‘Gamebred’ clashed with Thompson at UFC 217 in New York, and was simply out-pointed in an almost point-fighting display. Masvidal, as so similarly to Pettis, was forced to focus his offense on the springing lead leg of the stance-switching Thompson. By the time the third round had reached it’s conclusion, ‘Wonderboy’ had established a clear lead in terms of overall successful strikes, something I fear Vicente Luque may face this weekend.
Masvidal has arguably the crispest hands the promotion has on their roster in the present day, but for all his boxing prowess, angle cutting and setups, he failed to mitigate the lateral locomotion of ‘Wonderboy’. Whilst somewhat frowned upon by fans, Thompson has one of the most effective styles to deal with a punishing boxer. Distance control, constant movement and feints and the ability to fight off his back foot at range, an arsenal of abilities UFC 244 adversary Luque is tasked with overcoming.