If the recent shake-ups in the UFC’s welterweight division mean better routes for bygone contenders to return, count Stephen Thompson among the reborn. After a draw and a majority decision loss, “Wonderboy” didn’t have a clear path back to a title under Tyron Woodley’s rule. Yet now that Kamaru Usman is trotting around with the coveted accessory, and Colby Covington appears to be the next in line to try and wrest it away, Thompson is well within his rights to dream again.
Or at least he will be, if he can showcase well against Anthony Pettis on Saturday night in Nashville. Thompson is returning for what’s being considered a “creative” main event after 10 months away, and knows that center stage these days means more than it used to.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” he told MMA Fighting this week. “Out of sight out of mind, I haven’t fought in 10 months and people forget about you. That’s part of the sport. My goal is to go out and put on a good show for the fans, and hopefully come out with the finish, and let everybody know — the fans, and the UFC — that I’m still here.”
Thompson’s last fight was a thing of wonder, at least for some. He traveled to Liverpool, England to confront the then-undefeated Darren Till among his partisan crowd, and — though it appeared he’d done enough to escape with a victory — didn’t do enough to impress the judges. Till won a five-round unanimous decision, with two of those ringside arbiters scoring it 4-1 for Till.
Though he was ever a classic sportsman in defeat, it was a tough pill to swallow for Thompson; and 10 months was a long time for that pill to sit in his stomach.
“I did think I won in the end, but you can’t sit there and dwell on the past, so I moved on from it,” Thompson says. “I try prepare myself to not leave it in the judge’s eyes again. That’s something we’ve been working on in our camp, being a little more aggressive, but being smart with it — trying to push the action a little more. That’s something I’ve learned in the Till fight and the second Tyron fight. So, I kind of put it behind me and learned from it, but it’s rekindled a flame in me to be a better fighter.”
There are a great many “what if’s” that have plagued Thompson’s career over the last couple of years, since coming off a victory against Rory MacDonald to earn him a title shot in 2016. What if he’d pushed the action in the Woodley rematch a little bit more? What if the Till fight had gone his way? The truth is, Thompson has never been completely outclassed, and he has never been close to finished. In his last four fights the two losses and the majority draw — with a victory over Jorge Masvidal sprinkled in — have all been coin-flip affairs.
“You do kind of play the ‘what if’ games — ‘what if’ I had won the title, ‘what if’ I beat this guy, where would I be right now? You do play that ranking game a little bit, but when it comes down to it you’ve got to be real about it. I know where I stand in the welterweight division. I haven’t fought in 10 months, and it really is out of sight out of mind. I’m not being talked about. I’ve been trying to get a fight in the months I’ve been out, but it hasn’t worked out. Then this thing falls in your lap a little bit.”
Enter this fight with Anthony Pettis, a former lightweight champion who has moonlighted as a featherweight. The fight is novel in that Pettis is coming up to fight Thompson, who was in a no-man’s land between gatekeeper and stay-busy contender. Pettis was the perfect fight at the perfect time for Thompson, who had been trying — fruitlessly — for a fight for months.
“Showtime” Pettis was the solution for his predicament. He is a dynamic action-fighter who has a name, a reputation, and a fan-friendly approach to fighting.
“That’s the first thing I thought of when it was announced — this is going to be a ninja fight,” Thompson says. “This is going to be to see who is going to be the better ninja Saturday night. He’s been known to throw some flashy stuff, and I’m known to throw some flashy stuff here and there as well.
“But that’s exactly what this is — this is a fan’s fight, and we wanted to do this for the fans. I think it’s great. To be able to sit back and see that some of these fighters can still make their fights. That’s how this fight was made, it was on social media. He called me out. He was looking for a fight, I was looking for a fight. He said let’s make it happen, and the fans were all about it. That excited me.”
It’s been seven years since Thompson — a South Carolina native, through and through — has fought in the South. The last time he did was in his second UFC fight against Matt Brown at UFC 145 in Atlanta. That fight ended up becoming the first loss on his record, which — as Thompson has pointed out over the years — became the catalyst for his subsequent seven-fight win streak.
“Most of my fights have been in New York and Vegas, so it’s great to be so close to home,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of family and friends making their way down to Nashville to catch the fight, and that’s another reason it has fueled me to train as hard as I can for this fight.”
In all of his months away from competing, many things have happened. The UFC began its five-year partnership with ESPN, and the gravity of how a fighter handles himself during fight week has taken on added import. And it seems his welterweight colleagues are leading the charge.
A few weeks ago at UFC 235 in Las Vegas, newcomer Ben Askren fairly dominated the headlines leading into his fight with Robbie Lawler. Colby Covington, who was not even on the card, crashed the party and lobbied for his title shot among the faithful. Kamaru Usman made the most of his moment by not only dominating Tyron Woodley, he made the colors of the Nigerian flag run through the Octagon.
And in London last week, Jorge Masvidal ascended from OG status to cult icon when he silenced the O2 Arena with a ridiculous knockout of Darren Till, then followed that up with a “three piece with the soda” against Leon Edwards backstage.
It seems everyone at 170 pounds is making the most of the spotlight right now, and things are changing fast. It’s a wide-open playing field, and this weekend in Nashville is Wonderboy’s chance to reinsert himself into the thick of things.
“I like it, to be honest with you,” Thompson says. “For a while there it had been stagnant. You had the whole Tyron Woodley/Colby Covington/Kamaru Usman debacle, and everybody was kind of on hold to see what was going to happen, if they were going to be next. Then the title changed. Then you have Masvidal knocking out Till, which I didn’t see that coming a mile away. It’s being shaken up, and I’m excited for it.
“I’m glad the welterweight division’s being talked about in a positive way right now, with the upsets and the whole trash-talking component, the whole ‘three-piece and soda’ Masvidal gave Leon Edwards. That’s being talked about like crazy too. I’m excited about the welterweight division right now, even though it’s the toughest division in the UFC, I believe. Golly.”