Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
As one of the most dynamic and creative strikers in all of MMA, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has become accustomed to most of his opponents preferring not to stand and trade with him on the feet.
Those who have chosen to test his talented hands and feet have typically come away with a loss, which is why the former karate champion turned UFC contender has developed some of the best takedown defense in the sport.
This weekend at UFC 264, Thompson faces an interesting challenge from former title contender Gilbert Burns, who made a name for himself as a suffocating grappler with a nasty submission arsenal at his disposal. But Burns also has added knockout power to his repertoire in recent years as well.
In fact, Burns was more than happy to test his hands against former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley for the better part of five rounds when he won a lopsided decision against him last year.
Still for all the power Burns packs in his punches, Thompson expects that the Brazilian will eventually start diving for his legs as he seeks what he might believe is the path of least resistance for a victory.
“I know anything can happen,” Thompson said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “Obviously, the fight with Anthony Pettis, anything can happen. But I do welcome those [kinds of fights], I do. I lead myself to believe that most everybody I face, at some point in time whether it’s early or if it’s a little bit later, I have to be wary because at some point in time, they’re going to try to take me down.
“They know they can’t stand in there and strike with me. They’re going to be shooting for the legs and I know for a fact Gilbert Burns will as well. He might just go straight out and try to shoot [for a takedown]. You never know. Get me to the cage, try to wear me down. Kind of like the old GSP (Georges St-Pierre) tactics against strikers. Get you up against the cage, lay on you, wear those arms out.”
In his most recent outing, Burns went toe-to-toe with UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and while he clipped his former teammate early with a hard shot, he ultimately succumbed to strikes in the second round.
Obviously, Burns will look to bounce back from that defeat but it’s a mystery if he’ll be willing to test out his hands again while facing a notable striker like Thompson or if he’ll return to his roots in stick to grappling.
Either way, Thompson promises he’s ready for whatever Burns throws at him.
“I’ve got the best of the best at my gym right now and they’re helping me every step of the way, up against the fence, on the ground and of course standing,” Thompson said. “This is such an awesome training camp in the fact that I’m at the top. I’ve been in this game a long time but I feel myself getting better.
“Will I ever be as good as Gilbert Burns on the ground? No, but I can do enough to be able to survive and get back up to my feet if that happens. I’m ready to rock.”
Thompson has previously declared his intention to call for a title shot with a win at UFC 264 with hopes that he’ll draw Usman for a fight before the end of the year.
At 38, Thompson might seem like he’s entering the last phase of his career, and perhaps this could be his final run at a UFC championship. But he would quickly counter that idea.
Instead, the ageless “Wonderboy” actually feels like he’s better than he’s ever been before and only now is he beginning to truly realize his full potential.
“I came into this game fairly late – I was 28 years old,” Thompson explained. “I only had five MMA fights before that and I’ve just been along for the ride ever since. Trying to get better everyday. Do I feel like I’m the best MMA fighter? At this point, no but that’s mindset that I keep so I keep pushing myself and I keep evolving. Each fight I learn something different and I try to improve that after a win or a loss. I try to improve that, for that next fight. I feel like I’m in my prime.
“I’m ready to go out there and show everybody what I’m capable of. That I’m ready to fight for the title. I told everybody after my last fight, 2021, I’m going to be champ.”