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Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson disappointed that ‘hype’ and ‘popularity’ matter more than accomplishments these days

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Stephen Thompson post-fight Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson thought he had the perfect plan to make his return to action against another top five ranked opponent.

After dismantling Vicente Luque in his last appearance, the former two-time title challenger hoped that the UFC would offer him an opportunity to take a step up rather than a step back as he looked to climb back up the ladder in the welterweight division.

When No. 3-ranked Leon Edwards was calling for a higher-ranked opponent as well, Thompson felt like that was almost fate intervening because that’s the exactly the kind of matchup he wanted. In a rare move, Thompson actually took to social media to respectfully ask Edwards for a fight but the response he received was definitely confusing.

“I was looking at Leon Edwards but he didn’t want anything to do with me,” Thompson said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Next thing you know he’s being kicked out of the division [rankings] and moved back but now he’s fighting Khamzat [Chimaev] and he got COVID. It’s definitely an up and down situation with the welterweight division. It’s crazy.”

Of course, Edwards has faced a rocky road in 2020 after he missed out on an opportunity to face former champion Tyron Woodley after the coronavirus pandemic nixed their planned fight earlier this year. Edwards then had to endure a long lockdown in his native England that prevented him from really training on a regular basis.

Once he was finally able to book another fight, Edwards wanted to build on his current win streak by facing someone like Jorge Masvidal or Colby Covington in hopes that would secure a title shot. Instead, the UFC bumped him out of the welterweight rankings and a day later he was scheduled for a main event fight against rising star Khamzat Chimaev, who is currently just 1-0 in the division.

“I was kind of scratching my head,” Thompson said. “First off, he gets on social media and he’s saying everybody at the top is keeping his name out of their mouths. He’s calling them out and I’m sitting here like I’m ranked No. 5, not too far behind you and I’ll fight you in the nicest way possible. But he didn’t bite. He didn’t take the bait.

“You hear about this Khamzat guy that the UFC is pushing really, really, really hard. I’m like why is this? I’m like why are they pushing Khamzat so hard trying to fight someone in the top 10 or even in the top five. I was like watch Khabib [Nurmagomedov] retire. Cause they come from the same neck of the woods and I guess they need somebody to push that market. He did end up retiring. But still this guy’s had one fight at welterweight and he fought a guy who’s a lightweight. He’s ranked No. 15 at this point. It’s like what’s going on?”

While Edwards was originally scheduled to face Chimaev in the UFC Vegas 17 main event, a positive COVID-19 test forced a change with that matchup now expected to take place in January.

Thompson now gets a chance to move into the headline spot with his fight against Geoff Neal but it’s still a little difficult for veteran welterweight contender to understand how he got here.

Throughout his UFC career, “Wonderboy” has faced a laundry list of title contenders, champions and ex-champions to earn his place in the division. Meanwhile, Chimaev is now ranked No. 15 in the world with a single win in the division and yet he was drawing Edwards as his next opponent.

“I’m not taking away anything from Khamzat,” Thompson said. “He is a very good fighter but everybody that’s gotten to where they are has had to work their behinds off to get there. It’s almost like a slap in the face to everybody else who’s trying. I feel like Vicente Luque deserves a better shot than Khamzat does to face off against somebody in the top five.

“This guy’s had one fight. That’s it. You really haven’t seen a whole lot from him. Cause he’s been finishing dudes for sure but I went through a murderer’s row to get to where I’m at. I had to fight Patrick Cote then Robert Whittaker and Jake Ellenberger and [Johny] Hendricks and then Rory MacDonald and it is a little disappointing to see the hype out do the work that the other fighters are putting in.”

It may be disheartening for Thompson to see how he had to scratch and claw his way to the top while others are seemingly just handed a ladder after arriving in the UFC but that’s apparently the way the combat sports world is working these days.

With YouTube celebrities like Logan and Jake Paul earning high profile fights as well as the kind of attention to take part in the biggest boxing pay-per-view of the year, the sport is definitely changing and Thompson isn’t sure that’s for the better.

“That’s kind of the culture now,” Thompson lamented. You’ve got Logan Paul getting ready to fight [Floyd] Mayweather. It’s the hype. It’s the popularity around these guys. At this point, Khamzat has a lot of popularity because of his wins, I think mostly out of Russia but that’s just me. It is a little disappointing to see this happen.”