The hierarchy of divisions can stay rigid at times. In others, they change in an instant. When Stephen Thompson bested former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks inside four minutes into the the first round of their UFC Fight Night 82 clash last month, the victory had a disruptive effect.
Was Tyron Woodley still the top contender? How was Thompson able to stop Hendricks in less than one round when champion Robbie Lawler couldn't do it in 10? Where does this leave other top contenders?
The process of resorting is already in full swing, however, and Thompson is set to face Rory MacDonald in June at UFC Fight Night 89. It's arguably the most important fight of his career, but as Thompson sees it, it's not clear why he didn't get a title shot.
"After beating Johny Hendricks, the No. 2-ranked guy before and former welterweight champion. Some even say that his last fight was controversial with Robbie Lawler. I definitely wanted that fight. I know Rory MacDonald fought him last July, actually fought him the day before I fought Ellenberger, and ended up losing," he said on Monday's The MMA Hour.
"I thought they would give the new guy a shot. That's the fight I wanted and still want, but sometimes it doesn't go your way."
According to Thompson, he and his management explicitly asked the UFC for a title fight, but "UFC wasn't having it."
What they are having is a bout between contenders at the very peak of the division. And given their relevant rankings placement, Thompson argued the math is definitive in what it all means.
"I'm ranked No. 2," Thompson noted. "There's one guy in front of me, the No. 1 contender, which is Rory MacDonald. That's why I'm in the game: to fight the best. I want that spot and Rory MacDonald, it is!" he laughed.
A win in that fight means the coveted spot at the front of the welterweight queue, but it does have its drawbacks, Thompson said. Chief among them, Thompson's background with and friendly relationship with Tristar Gym, MacDonald's home team.
"I don't know why," Thompson claimed about why the UFC paired he and MacDonald. "I don't know what the UFC was thinking, they matched us up. Everybody's saying, 'Hey, you trained at Tristar.' Actually, the last time I trained at Tristar was several years ago when Georges [St-Pierre] was still fighting. I think it was before I was even fighting in MMA was the last time I was there.
"We always keep in touch," he continued. "Georges and Firas [Zahabi], they're good friends of mine and so is Rory MacDonald. A) I was wanting the Robbie Lawler fight, b) I don't want to fight a friend, but I know it's business."
Thompson claimed he and MacDonald have spoken. "We understand it's business. It is what it is, man," he said. "You really can't do anything."
The two met at the recent "Unstoppable" press conference in Las Vegas on the Friday before UFC 196. As the South Carolinian told it, the two basically had a mutual understanding there'd be no hard feelings between the two. Their competition was strictly business.
"It was cool," Thompson said of their encounter. "I saw him at the press conference and went over there and said, 'Hey, every time we see each other, we always talk.' Been to a few afterparties together and just kinda hanging out, being there at Tristar. Being new to the game, he's helped me out a lot at the time with being a good wrestling coach. We've never actually sparred, but he was a wrestling partner.
"'Hey man, it sucks that we gotta do it,'" Thompson recalled saying. "But he understands it's business and we'll be buds after. We're just going to be friends that are going to punch each other in the face."
What lingers for Thompson is the prize beyond the prize: a UFC title shot. He simply can't shake it's allure and doesn't pretend to. He also believes with his resume adding MacDonald to his own victory column, they'll be left with no choice, but to award him what he wants.
"If they don't give it to me, there's something wrong," he argued. "I'm going to be pushing like crazy. I'm not the type of guy to really sit out and wait for anything, but I'm the no. 1 contender. They have to give it to me. I don't know why they wouldn't at that point.
"I know I can put on a good show and I know I can beat Robbie Lawler. I know I can be the welterweight champion."
The issue for Thompson wasn't merely that he defeated Hendricks, but the nature of how he did it. That, more than anything, has given him a simple confidence that, perhaps for the first time, his professional ambitions are within arm's reach.
"I'm not trying to be disrespectful to Johny Hendricks or anything. That was just my night. After, I was just like, 'Man, that was easy," Thompson said. "I know I came late into the MMA game. I'm still learning. I know I am. Still evolving. I'm 33 years old, but I feel like I haven't even hit my peak yet. I know that I can give a lot more."
Thompson gave credit to the particularly special camp he had this time around. As he told it, the partners - Chris Weidman, Ryan Hall, Matt Miller and others - were upper echelon, but more than that, they all just seemed to have a beat on Hendricks.
"Just the confidence I had going in there was unbelievable. To be honest, I did more drilling than I did sparring," he confessed. "We knew exactly what Johny Hendricks was going to do. He wasn't the type of guy to really make any dramatic changes. If you've seen Johny Hendricks fight, from the very beginning to the very end, he's fought pretty much the exact same: right-side forward, throws the big left hand, gets you to the cage, tries to take you down. He's the kind of guy to stand there and duke it out with you.
"There was no thinking out there," he continued. "I just reacted to exactly what we worked on and it was just money every time."
Following the Hendricks win, Thompson won't say his life has changed, but the pace is certainly different. The UFC sent him on a tour of East Asia, only to bring him back for the Unstoppable press conference. It's involved a lot of travel, media and more, but Thompson knows it's a taste of what's to come if he can find a way to take Lawler's crown.
More importantly, it's also something 'Wonderboy' said he was ready to do.
"Right after I got back from that, we were headed to Vegas to announce the Rory MacDonald fight. It just kinda snowballed from there. It's just a little bit busier," he said of his life. "But I'm back in South Carolina getting mentally ready for my training camp.
"It's all been awesome," Thompson stressed. "I think it's just going to get even crazier from here on out, so I gotta get used to it."