UFC 209: Stephen Thompson Looks to Usher in New Era

Stephen Thompson gets his much-desired title shot at UFC 209, but even the world title may not give him the validation he has earned.

After so much debate and discussion about race leading up to UFC 209, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson finds himself in an unenviable position leading up to his rematch against Tyron Woodley.  There is little argument that Woodley has been slighted in terms of being promoted by the UFC, and a loss for the current welterweight champion would do little to change that fact.  All of which puts the top welterweight contender in a difficult spot as he attempts to wrest the belt away.

All the talk has taken away from the fact that Thompson has been on a fantastic run en route to the world title.  He dismantled seven straight opponents prior to his battle with Woodley in New York, most notably former title challenger Rory MacDonald, and current middleweight contender Robert Whittaker.

His striking is the best in the welterweight division, and easily among the best in the entire UFC.  His dazzling array of moves on the feet have made him a fan-favorite and he has all the ability to create an opportunity to dispatch Woodley early on in the rematch if necessary.  Added into that, he has improved his takedown defense as more opponents look to avoid a battle on the feet.

For all his technical prowess, his Fight of the Year candidate against “The Chosen One” at UFC 205 remains among the most exciting chess matches in MMA history.  Thompson’s physical advantages over the shorter Woodley were evident, but the champion patiently avoided the more dangerous strikes of “Wonderboy” before creating the openings to land his powerful right hand that nearly ended the fight.

The result was a back-and-forth contest where Thompson was able to out maneuver Woodley for several rounds. Twice, however, the champion connected with punches the dropped Thompson and nearly finished the fight.  The final scores reflected the multitude of ways the bout could have been scored.  In the end, however, the contest ended in anticlimactic fashion with a draw.

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The aftermath further clouded the future of the division.  Their clash in the Big Apple was a strong candidate for a rematch considering the outcome, but Woodley was very vocal in exploring other options.  The rumors of a potential return by Georges St-Pierre entered the discussion.  Through social media, Woodley and middleweight champion Michael Bisping tried to drum up attention for a champion versus champion super fight.  The talk led to “Wonderboy” very quickly being the odd man out in the title picture.

As none of the proposed bouts came to fruition, Woodley agreed to terms for a rematch with the top contender but it was not long before another topic began to dominate.  Woodley drew focus to the topic that he’s not being promoted as fairly as the UFC pushed other white athletes.

He drew attention to the fact that pre-fight media never pushed the different aspects of his life.  Perhaps the most glaring incident occurred after he became champion and the highlight of his being knocked out by Nate Marquardt was used by the UFC in poor taste to promote another fight by the latter.  Woodley was very vocal in stating that it was unheard of for the promotion to do that to any other current champion.

This has left Thompson in an understandably uncomfortable situation.  There is no question that the current champion is being slighted and has a very good argument.  But that can’t affect the challenger as he re-enters the cage with such a formidable opponent.  For the time being at least, Thompson needs to focus on his own task at hand.

In their first fight, Woodley was extremely effective in neutralizing Thompson’s control of the distance and avoiding his vaunted striking.  “Wonderboy” needs to look to bring Woodley out to the center of the Octagon where he can keep the champion at the end of his strikes and force him to take risks to close the distance.  Thompson has experienced Woodley’s power first hand and it goes without saying he’ll need to tighten up his defense in the rematch.

With the return of GSP imminent and more contenders fluctuating in and out of the top five, holding the title has never been more important in booking marquee fights.  Thompson can force himself in the center of the conversation on Saturday night with a victory, but it’s going to require a supreme effort against one of the most durable champions in the UFC.