The Film Room: Stephen Thompson

By Kevin Wilson Mar 19, 2019
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Stephen Thompson will return to the Octagon for the first time in 10 months when he takes on former Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder Anthony Pettis in the UFC Fight Night 148 headliner on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. “Wonderboy” has compiled a 1-2-1 record across his last four appearances and finds himself in desperate need of a victory if he hopes to stay relevant in a stacked welterweight division.

Ahead of his clash with Pettis, 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 many to be the best striker in the UFC. Nobody knew who Thompson was 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 and 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.



Thompson’s striking remains kick-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 karate throws off most opponents.



“Wonderboy” also frequently uses side kicks to the body to stop aggressive opponents and to reset the action at his range. 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 is the reason he has been sidelined for almost a year.



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. 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 are not the best 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.



As many of you know by now, Thompson can be patient on the feet and often works on the counter 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.



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 has held up thus far, it is only a matter of time before one of these occurrences results in a clean knockout. Advertisement

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