UFC 244: The Curious Case of Stephen Thompson

Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque UFC 244
Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque Credit: Marcus Rebelo/Cageside Press

Is Stephen Thompson doomed to become another “best fighter to never win gold in the UFC?” After UFC 244 on Saturday night, perhaps not.

Stephen Thompson entered UFC 244 on a career low two-fight losing streak. In a journey spanning almost a decade, Thompson had never suffered consecutive losses. He had lost a lot of name value, and was looking at the brink of irrelevance when he locked horns against “The Silent Assassin”, Vicente Luque. The fight was a fun back and forth, and also earned Thompson his second fight of the night bonus and his overall seventh post-fight bonus.

Back in 2016 when Thompson defeated former two-time title challenger Rory MacDonald, he was hailed as the next king of the division. His resume was super-strong with names like Robert Whittaker and Johnny Hendricks, and he came across as funny and positive. Thus making him a very powerful figure to invest in. He was a man with both fighting and commercial potential. In simpler words, he was the perfect candidate to have a reign over the welterweight division.

The first smudge on the would-be perfect picture of Thompson came at UFC 201. Robbie Lawler was having one of the greatest title reigns in recent times; two bloody and fiery matches had established him as one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters. Defeating him would be a huge achievement for any athlete. So by defeating Lawler, Thompson could have a perfect start to his glorious run. However, he never got that opportunity. At UFC 201, Lawler was defeated by someone whom many never really considered as a potential threat to the throne, Tyron Woodley. Woodley entered the fight off a break of over a year and was not really expected to win. Though he entered the fight on a two-fight winning streak his record wasn’t nearly impressive enough to make anyone consider him a threat to Lawler.

On the d-day, things turned out in favour of Woodley. He knocked out “Ruthless” in the very first round thus robbing Wonderboy of the opportunity to end the historic run. Instead, Thompson was booked to face Woodley at UFC 205. The two locked horns in one of the best fights of the year, with several moments where each fighter reached a high. The pair traded strong blows and Wonderboy even survived a deep guillotine-choke submission. In simpler words, the fight was the theatrical beginning one would expect Wonderboy’ title reign. However, the fight was just too close for the judges, who ruled it a draw.

Fans clashed on social media debating who won, the rematch was set for UFC 209 and unlike their first fight, Woodley vs. Thompson 2 turned out to be, well, frankly boring. The fight saw absolutely no exciting exchanges and was simply way too slow for anyone to pay much attention to. The result saw Wonderboy lose a decision, and thus began his downslide.

Woodley meanwhile delivered another win, this time against Demian Maia, and sealed his position as a long term champion, further distancing Wonderboy from a title shot. Thompson went on to win a fight against Jorge Masvidal before losing to Darren Till; at this point almost everyone was sure that Wonderboy was no more a contender, but a gatekeeper instead. He had lost twice to the current champion and also lost to potential title challenger, in both the cases his fights weren’t even remotely active or competitive. He was in the pits.

March 2019, things took a positive turn for Thompson when Woodley lost the title to Kamaru Usman at UFC 235. So when he faced Anthony Pettis later that month, Thompson could have built an opportunity to make a case for another crack at the title. The fight saw Wonderboy losing, however, and this time by knockout, sending him further down the line.

Things looked bleak. With a win at UFC 244, Thompson has managed to fight off irrelevance but the memory of the past losses, especially the Pettis knockout, is still very fresh in most minds.

Where does he go? Thompson has the most interesting trajectory of great fighters who never became champion. For most of them the problem was seeing a fighter way too dominant ruling the division. That doesn’t mean reaching the title is impossible, mind you. Miesha Tate and Daniel Cormier are two popular fighters who did manage to touch the gold, despite dominant champions reigning before them. Still, others like Joseph Benavidez and Claudia Gadelha have never got that chance. Thompson proved it at UFC 244 that he still has a lot to offer. He is still that sharp striker, who can deliver powerful performances. And given Woodley isn’t champion anymore, Thompson remains a contender.

Now that Stephen Thompson’s latest performance has been noticed by both fans and the UFC, where does he go from here? Will he fight for the title? If yes, whom does he need to face, and how many fights will it take to get him back to a shot for the belt? That remains to be seen. But there is hope yet for Thompson and his dream of UFC gold