Living up to expectations can’t be easy.
Coming into their bout at UFC 170 on Saturday night in Las Vegas, Stephen Thompson looked to be the favorite over Robert Whittaker, mainly based on his accomplishments in the kickboxing world. Whittaker won the welterweight tournament on The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes and was looking to make his name, like so many others before him.
Both men had something the other wanted, and they no doubt expected more from themselves than we did.
Thompson was a proven striker with a 20-0 kickboxing record. With only one loss in MMA, from a technical standpoint, it looked like this fight could be his chance to prove he could impose his skills against a heavy hitter while proving he could handle the pressure of being on the main card.
For Whittaker, he had an equal opportunity to prove that his power and aggression were equalizers that should not be ignored.
After the fight ended, we learned that desire, when coupled with power and pressure, could enable technique with devastating results.
Whittaker opened with the jab, but Thompson, looking every bit as good as the hype, utilized a fierce body attack in the beginning, landing kicks to the legs and body before going upstairs and landing with hard punches to the head. Whittaker did his best to stay inside and eliminate the potent kicks of Thompson, but in doing so he stepped into punching range as he rushed to close the gap.
As game as Whittaker was, he simply couldn’t handle the effective aggression of Thompson, who finished the fight via first-round TKO via ground-and-pound after hurting him with a hard right hand as he came inside. While Thompson was expected to win, Whittaker possessed a hard left hand and the ability to land it well.
Against Thompson, he never really got the chance.
Of course, we still don’t know how well Thompson is going to handle stiffer competition given he was only in action for less than five minutes, but that is coming soon. In many ways, this was a breakout performance by Thompson, so what comes next is anyone's guess.
What we do know is that he is a fighter who can utilize a varied striking attack with brutal results, which is going to give his next opponent a lot to think about. While many were surprised that he landed on the main card, he made the most of the opportunity and now gets a new level of exposure.
If his takedown defense is up to the task, he could make a lot of noise in a division that is full of strong grapplers who possess some serious power in their punches, especially as he gets closer to the Top 10.