Stephen Thompson has cut a swathe through the UFC's welterweight division on his way to a title shot against champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 205 on November 12.
Thompson has beaten seven straight opponents since the lone loss of his career, a decision at the hands of Matt Brown in 2012. Four of those wins have come by devastating knockout. None of those seven opponents have come close to solving the puzzle that Wonderboy's complex game presents.
Thompson has spent his entire life competing in karate and kickboxing. His unique style, which includes movement, angles and lightning-fast blitzes and counters, combines the best of similar fighters such as Lyoto Machida. Machida has instincts necessary to win rounds against elite opponents and the takedown defense to keep the fight in his wheelhouse.
Bleacher Report caught up with Thompson to get some insight into his approach and how he makes it work against the best fighters in one of MMA's deepest divisions.
Bleacher Report: So your base is in karate, a really deep background, but how much of the training you do now is still centered on that approach and how much have you had to branch out since coming into MMA?
Stephen Thompson: I first started my MMA training when I went up to Tristar [in Montreal] with Georges St-Pierre, and at the time I was kickboxing a whole lot. But I found that I had to do some modifications with my stance to deal with the wrestling. Whenever I would blitz in, whenever I would move in, all Georges would have to do was change his level and I'd run right into a double leg.
I had to go to a little bit of a wider stance, and instead of blitzing straight in, I'd blitz to the side, kind of change the angle up a little bit. But other than that, pretty much everything is still the same. I'm focusing a whole lot on my wrestling, a bit offensively but mostly defensively.
B/R: That's one of the really striking things about your game in the last few years, how much better your takedown defense has gotten. How much of that has to do with those kinds of adjustments to your stance and how much with just drilling and drilling and drilling?
Thompson: It's a little bit of both. The first thing I had to change was my stance, obviously, and my angles. After that, I had to have the wrestling, knowing the right thing to do when they get in on a single or a double, being able to react fast and making it muscle memory. So that drilling over and over and over again has definitely helped me out.
My wrestling coach Thomas Lee has done wonders with me since day one. We learned a lot, obviously, after that Matt Brown fight with the weight cut and takedown defense, but it's just been doing it over and over again, religiously, every day. It's having someone in on a leg all the time.
It's also having someone as technical as Chris Weidman, whom I train with, Karl Reed, my buddy Matt Miller, who's a Canadian wrestler—every day having a specialist in on your legs. So that's helped tremendously.
B/R: The other thing that occurs to me as far as your takedown defense is how much of your game is built on distance management that it's not easy at this point to get a clean shot at your hips. You're very rarely there for that takedown in the first place.
Thompson: Exactly. Distance management plays a whole lot in my game, and we're starting to see more and more of that in mixed martial arts with guys like Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson. Anderson Silva was doing it for years, Machida. The game is changing, it's evolving, it's getting better and it's getting down to these little details that determine whether you're going to win this matchup or not.
Distance management plays a whole lot, just not being there when those guys are trying to shoot in on a leg. Well, that's the goal anyway. At this level, everyone you face is very good. But it's done wonders with those wrestlers who just wade in and walk forward.
B/R: Speaking of that, your approach really is built on distance management, enforcing that long range with your kicks and your footwork, which allows you to either blitz forward with a combination or to bait your opponent into rushing in, and gives you the space to land some gorgeous counterpunches.
How do you tell what the right range is? How do you vary it from opponent to opponent? Is it something you've thought about beforehand, or do you only make those adjustments when you get in the cage and see what your opponent is trying to do?
Thompson: It's definitely a feel thing. You have to experience it, do a lot of sparring. It's just being in the game for a long time to be able to develop that feel. Not knowing what your opponent is going to do, you can prepare yourself all you want, but until you step out there and get a real feel for what your opponent's like, you may have to make some changes.
With my last fight with Rory MacDonald, I had the game plan to try and go out there and finish him in the first round like I did to Johny Hendricks, but as soon as I stepped out there, I had to adapt because I knew he was waiting for me to close that gap so he could shoot the takedown.
So it's about feel. You can have the game plan going in, but if I step out there and it doesn't feel right, I won't do it.
That's why a lot of the time in my fights, my dad, who's my coach, doesn't say a whole lot. He's just like, "Hey, how do you feel about this? You're doing good, you're landing this kick or punch, keep it up." That's basically it because it's a feel thing.
He may see some things outside the cage that I don't see inside, as you saw when I fought Jake Ellenberger. He told me to spin, and I landed the spinning hook kick. But most of the time, he just lets me do my thing because it's a feel thing.
B/R: That's really interesting. I wanted to talk about the spinning strikes because I think, having watched a lot of your fights over the years, people seem to get caught up in that. What's really striking to me, though, is how well you do the little things, like pivots, your sense of where you are in the cage and meat-and-potatoes straight punches.
Do you see those kinds of basics as creating a foundation for you to do the more eye-popping, flashy stuff?
Thompson: Oh, definitely, and that's something we work at our school, Upstate Karate. The beginners start off doing the basics, keeping their hands up, working the jab-cross, basic kicks. But once you've done that and have a little bit more experience, maybe even a fight or two under your belt, you can start to make your own style.
There are a lot of people at our gym that you'd expect to fight just like me. And they may have some similar stuff, but it's not quite like me. You have to have the foundation, the basics, but once you get up to a higher level, it's more about what feels right, what works for you, what doesn't work for you.
You know, I teach my guys to keep their hands up, but if you've ever seen me fight, where are my hands at? They're down. That's just something that helps me and works for me, but what works for me may not work for you or for another student.
You have to have the basics first, but after a few years, you can get away with stuff like that because it is a feel and you're developing your own style there.
B/R: You talked a lot about experience and feel. When you're preparing for a fight, what does that process look like? How much tape study do you do? How much light, movement-type work do you do? How much hard sparring leading into things?
Thompson: Well, we go back and watch all the film on our opponents. We're looking for how many changes they've made from their first fight up to their most recent fight.
There are a lot of guys out there where, if you've seen them fight once, you've seen them fight a hundred times. They could be very good at that one thing, but they don't make a lot of changes. When I fought Johny Hendricks, he threw the big left hand and tries to get you to the cage and take you down there.
There wasn't a whole lot there when you went into the cage, like, "Dang, did he just throw that?" There weren't going to be wild spinning hook kicks or things like that, it was very basic.
So we went back and worked on a lot of movement. I had a partner of mine throwing that big left hand over and over and over again. I would stand there and just try to find the angles, things that I could do like little half steps to the left or the right, or maybe back a little bit to make him swing and miss or meeting in the middle before he could get that punch off.
There's a lot of seeing what's coming at you over and over again and being able to do something about it when it happens. That's why, not to take anything away from Johny, it was so easy because I knew exactly what he was going to do and I drilled that punch over and over again, so I didn't have to think about it. I just did it.
When it comes to sparring, I do very little, maybe twice a week. Wednesday is mostly stand-up sparring, and Saturday is more of MMA. So we'll do five five-minute rounds.
We keep it light because a lot of fighters didn't lose their chin in the cage, they lost it in the gym beating the crap out of each other. And that's one of the things Forrest Griffin told me, "Hey, man, I didn't lose my chin in the cage, I lost it in the gym. We just didn't train smart."
If you want a long career in this sport, you're really going to have to take care of your body outside the Octagon.
B/R: That makes a ton of sense.
Shifting gears just a bit, one of the things that stands out about your game is that you're always working at a pace. You're always putting volume on your opponent. S o even if you can't create the knockout shot, you've still got a strong process in the sense that you're winning rounds. When you're thinking about your opponents, how much do you think about scoring and how much do you think about looking for the finish?
Thompson: I never go out looking for the finish. I've been in the fight game for a long time doing kickboxing and MMA, and I know what it feels like to go out there and try to finish somebody—and when it doesn't happen, how that can affect you mentally. It can really mess with you, and you're like, "Crap, I'm giving this guy everything I've got, and nothing's happening."
It feels like the more I try to go out there and finish guys, it just doesn't happen. I just try to play my game and land punches and pressure my opponent.
With my style, you never know what I'm going to throw. My opponent has to be on edge the whole time, and that can be exhausting. I may do a little flinch here or there to make him react, and those little, tiny reactions will wear and tear on you as the rounds go on.
For instance, sometimes we'll have guys come in to do a sparring session, and the first round I won't throw a single technique. I'll just move around, feint, do some awkward movements, and the next thing you know, they're tired. They're tired because they're tense and they don't know what's going to happen.
That's my plan, to go out there and frustrate them, throw my kicks and punches, try not to be there when they swing and miss. After a while, that gets frustrating, and then they start to do things they normally wouldn't do, like really lunging in with those hands or shooting in from too far.
That's when you can start catching them.
B/R: It's interesting that you put it in those terms because you can see that process happening with your opponents in the middle of the fight. You can see guys start to get frustrated and think too much, like, "OK, I've got to cover the gap. There's too much distance. I've got to get inside."
That was clear when you fought Hendricks. He had gone to all this trouble to close the distance, and then you escaped, reset and landed a really hard side kick. All that had been for nothing, and he was right back at long range where he'd started. You could see the frustration, and the fight was basically over at that point.
Thompson: Yeah, exactly. I got off the cage and hit him with a side thrust kick, and the technique right after looked like it was going to be a side kick. But it was actually a round kick to the face. Once he dropped his hands and shook his head, I knew I had him. I could see it in his eyes.
All I needed to do was pick at him a little bit more until he started lunging in, and that was when I started landing the strikes.
But sometimes it doesn't happen. Sometimes you have to go out there and play the game, like with Rory. When we went back and watched film with Rory, every time we saw him fight, he had something different. And that's a dangerous fighter. Every time they step out there, they're improving, doing something new, and Rory is very hard to prepare for because I didn't know what he was going to do.
Is he going to rely on his wrestling? I knew he was going to try to take me down, but I didn't know what he was going to try to take me down with—a traditional single leg, like we've seen him do in the past, or something crazy. I had a feeling he was going to try something crazy, and I was right.
In the first round, when I went out there I knew I was ready for the takedown, but I had to lure it out of him with my movement. That's why the first round was kind of slow, just picking away with the jab to try to lure that takedown out. I was thinking, "Come on, man, hurry up and try to take me down so I can figure out what you're going to try to take me down with!"
And then he went into that flying heel hook, and I'm like, "OK, I know what he's going to try and do," and I started to feel a little more comfortable. I knew what to prepare for and what to expect, and I started letting things go from there.
But man, my brain was on overload after that fight.
B/R: I've talked to Firas Zahabi [Rory MacDonald's coach] a number of times and been up to Tristar and know how deeply he's into game-planning. There's always a trick up his sleeve. Rory is kind of his baseline fighter: He's formless, and he can be shaped into whatever he needs to be for any given fight. That's a tremendously difficult thing to prepare for.
Thompson: Definitely, but I love those fights because you're getting out there with somebody who's playing the game with you.
Some guys I've fought in the past just kind of wait for it. They try to meet you in the middle and start throwing punches like Rock'em Sock'em Robots. They just aren't playing the game. With Rory, he's definitely a thinker, and I had to be on edge all five rounds because I didn't know what to expect.
You have to sit there and adapt, and that's where that feel comes in. A lot of sparring sessions with a lot of different people come in. I've been fighting since I was 15, but I've sparred so many different people that I can go out there and change up a game plan.
Of course, I'm still working on stuff and I'm still trying to figure things out. I have a lot of improving to do on my striking and everything else.
But man, that was just such a fun fight for me. It was one of my favorite ones. There were a lot of people who weren't happy with it; they thought it was a little slow, and I guess they expected us to go out there and brawl. I'm smarter than that, though, especially with someone like Rory.
B/R: So without getting too much into your game plan, what do you see when you look at Tyron Woodley? When you take that kind of analytical approach that you've talked about, what do you see in him?
Thompson: I see a very explosive athlete. Very fast, very explosive and he throws hard. A lot of people say he tires out, but for me, I'm preparing for the best Tyron Woodley when I step out there.
But from looking at him, he's a very explosive guy. He looks for the double [-leg takedown] off the right hand, but he slows down as the rounds go on a little bit, backs up to the cage and lets his opponent tee off first.
I'm looking at the same game plan going in that I had against Johny Hendricks, just with the other leg forward—throws the big hand, looks for the takedown. I know he's going to be strong in the clinch, and I know eventually he's going to try to take me down, but that's true of just about everybody I step out there in the Octagon with.
That's what I'm looking out for, just trying to stay away from those heavy hands. He may try and chain-wrestle me a while, switch from a single to a double against the cage to try to tire me out. That's a strategy we've seen in the past from strong wrestlers like Georges St-Pierre—try to tire the striker out by just hanging on him and making him wrestle.
I've had really good guys in for this camp. Obviously, I've had Chris Weidman, who's a grinder on his own, so I'm definitely prepared for that.
B/R: I really appreciate your insight, and it was fascinating talking to you about all of this.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.