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Stephen Thompson’s virtuoso performance places him in complicated title picture

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS – If Stephen Thompson was ever going to announce that he had arrived, Saturday night was a good time to do it. His UFC 196 pay-per-view co-main event with Johny Hendricks became a UFC Fight Night main event on free television when the Cain Velasquez-Fabricio Werdum heavyweight title fight fell out. Hendricks was a former champion who was still positioned near the top of the division. And it was ripe set-up for a knockout artist like "Wonderboy" to prove that even the most infallible chins cave in behind his touch.

Hendricks had never been finished in 13 professional fights, which is a feat when you consider he’s stood in against current champion Robbie Lawler twice, Matt Brown, Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit. If Thompson could knockout a guy who doesn’t get knocked out in a big spot like this — who in fact, never loses emphatically at all — perhaps he could leapfrog a mile of would-be contenders and get the next title shot.

And guess what? Thompson did just that. He knocked Hendricks out at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in front of 7,000-plus fidgety bystanders. He figured out his range and tagged "Bigg Rigg" early with his full array of kicks from bouncing, Giacometti-thin side stance. After the first exchange or two, Hendricks was twitching and batting away ghosts. When he got anxious and came forward, it was as if Thompson was inviting a moving target into his wheelhouse. The finishing blows came just past the midway point of the first round, when Thompson blew up Hendricks with a barrage of spinning stuff, kicks, and fists as he crumbled dramatically along the fence.

Just like that Hendricks had been licked and there was a new contender in the welterweight division.

The very polite 32-year old "Wonderboy" said he would like a title shot right away, which was a simple enough way to approach things. With six wins in a row — four coming via TKO or KO — he’s got a definitive voice in the matter. Problem is, this is a division that didn’t really account for Hendricks jumping right back in the picture to begin with, which means Thompson was a surprise guest to the logjam at the pass. Everyone wants that crack at Lawler.

Tyron Woodley is lurking, and he’s been "next" for a while now because he hasn’t fought in over a year. There’s Condit, who just had a Fight of the Year candidate against Lawler at UFC 195. People want to see that rematch, particularly if it means he won’t retire. There’s Demian Maia who has won four in a row, including a one-sided dismantling of Gunnar Nelson in what was supposed to be a proverbial game of kinetic chess in the grappling department. Should Maia beat Matt Brown at UFC 198 in May, he’d be right there for a title shot, too. Rory MacDonald still exists, too.

And none of this accounts for the higher-end scenarios surrounding the welters, the hunch plays that keep popping up. Longtime champion Georges St-Pierre is still hovering on the edge of a return. Should he decide to come back with designs on regaining his belt, he almost certainly gets the VIP treatment straight to the front of the line. Unless, of course, Conor McGregor runs through Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196 next month to win a second belt and acts on the wild hair to conquer still another division. Crazy? Everything McGregor does is crazy at first blush. And McGregor trumps every man in line, including the great GSP.

What McGregor wants, McGregor gets.

All of this is to say, Thompson had his breakthrough moment at a time when there are a lot of obstacles in his way. He made the most of his big spot with Hendricks, did everything asked of him, and accomplished what many people deemed highly improbable. Yet it feels like rather than make an irrefutable case for a title shot, he just made the welterweight division that much more complicated to figure out. That much more compelling. That much more full of possibility.

If Saturday night was any indication, the year 2016 may well end up being the year of "Wonderboy." But here’s guessing he’ll have to duplicate his tall feat before getting a chance at the most coveted belt in the UFC.