Stephen Thompson, welcome to the elite.
‘Wonderboy’ pulled off a huge upset with a TKO stoppage of former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks at UFC Fight Night 82 on Saturday.
Now, his name has joined the lengthening list of contenders with a legitimate shot at taking on the 170lbs king, Robbie Lawler.
Arguable though, after the impressive nature of his performance, he has jumped the queue.
Tyron Woodley will have something to say about that, as will Carlos Condit but Thompson’s dismantling of Hendricks certainly poses the question.
From start to the short finish he was on top, dazzling with his Kenpo Karate style, switching stances and unloading an array of unpredictable kicks and counter punches.
A hesitant Hendricks was stunned and after Thompson let loose with a violent flurry of punches and kicks, his slumped foe was saved at 3 minutes and 31 seconds of the first round.
And make no mistake about it, the win for Thompson is huge.
Hendricks is an elite fighter. He went 10 rounds with Lawler, has beaten Condit and lost a razor-thin decision to Georges St-Pierre.
Yet, Thompson made it look easy, countering with precision and striking with surgical accuracy.
Now on a six-fight win tear, the longest in the division, he’s on a streak that leads to only one place.
Stephen Thompson tells @arielhelwani that he "hopes he didn't break anything" by kicking Hendricks in the elbow.— Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) February 7, 2016
“Of course, defeating Hendricks, he’s a tough guy, the No2-ranked guy, former welterweight champion – I’m asking for the title,” Thompson said. “I know there’s a lot of guys in line, but I think after that performance, I deserved it.”
No longer is Thompson a curiosity, he’s a contender.
After his defeat to Matt Brown in his second Octagon appearance, many dismissed the heralded kickboxer as an over-hyped, one-trick pony. Not anymore. He is a credible mixed martial artist with a striking game to fear.
In that Brown defeat his susceptibility against wrestling was exposed but in the early exchanges yesterday morning he showed composure, working his way back to his feet when Hendricks had him pressed up against the cage.
“Once I was able to get out, I felt at home. I felt comfortable,” added the 57-0 kickboxer.
“Johny, he’s strong, man. He’s a strong dude. I know if I could stuff that takedown and get back to the centre, I could put him away. That’s exactly what we worked on and that’s exactly what I did.”
Wonderboy was simply wonderful and there’s no doubt about it, he’s among the elite.
Elsewhere in Las Vegas, Mickey Gall’s debut in the UFC had it all.
There was plenty of media attention heading into the fight with a win for Gall handing him the golden ticket of facing former WWE superstar CM Punk.
And he delivered, choking out fellow welterweight Mike Jackson in just 45 seconds with a rear-naked choke before an awkward staredown with Punk afterwards.
“I respect that dude,” Gall said. “He made himself a superstar. But it’s a big fight for me. I get to beat up a superstar. That’s what I’m
going to do.”
For former champion Johny Hendricks the five-round bout with Stephen Thompson, now the main event after Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez’s injury pullouts, is a must-win.
And that’s a position difficult to comprehend when you consider just over a year ago Hendricks was viewed as the heir apparent to George St-Pierre’s throne.
Two split decision losses, one to the semi-retired Canadian legend and the other to the current champ Robbie Lawler, has seen Hendricks slide out of the championship picture.
He’s had disastrous weight cuts, most notably dropping out of a title eliminator against Tyron Woodley at UFC 192, and distractions away from the Octagon after losing his Steakhouse.
Now, ‘Bigg Rigg’ finds himself in a position where has to prove he’s ready for another big gig against an unheralded but talented Thompson. And the 32-year-old is determined to do just that.
“Yeah, I wish a lot of things could have went different but they didn’t and it is what it is,” Hendricks told ESPN.com. “I’m still that guy, though. The best way I can say it is that I’m going to be there again.
“What I’m saying every day now is, ‘How do I erase everything that happened?’ And it’s by proving to the world where I belong.”
While Hendricks is making the climb back to the top, Thompson is on his first ascent.
After arriving in the UFC four years ago as a formidable kickboxing champ, ‘Wonderboy’, has crept up the rankings and is riding high on a five-fight winning streak.
Indeed, he is a man with title ambitions of his own but in Hendricks he faces a step up in class.
“Fighting Johny Hendricks is definitely my goal as a fighter,” Thompson told MMA Junkie.
“I want to fight the best guys in the world and he definitely is. He’s a former welterweight champion and still has the skills and abilities to be champion, but I feel confident in my training and myself that I can beat these guys.”
It’s certainly one way to introduce yourself to the UFC world and will surely have provided both his girlfriend and the MMA company a most memorable moment.
Nicholson will now hope that he can back it up with victory over Cirkunov when the two engage in the octagon.
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