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5 reasons why Stephen Thompson is the best pure striker in MMA

UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3
Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson, arguably the best pure striker in MMA

Stephen Thompson is one of the most exceptional strikers in MMA. An undefeated kickboxer who eventually made the switch to mixed martial arts, 'Wonderboy' has dazzled spectators since his UFC debut.

However, he is not the only striker who has captured the imagination of MMA fans.

The two-time UFC title challenger has had to contend with striking clinics put on by other greats in the promotion. Israel Adesanya, who fights at middleweight, is another name that is often thrown into the hat when discussions about MMA's best striker arise.

Furthermore, the ascension of other ultra-talented strikers like Rafael Fiziev and Alex Pereira has led many to wonder who reigns supreme as MMA's best striker. After 'Wonderboy's' impressive performance against Kevin Holland, this list contends that it is Stephen Thompson.


#5. Stephen Thompson is a master of range

Oftentimes, great strikers who master their range and manage distance well are held back by their over-reliance on being taller and longer than their foes. Part of Israel Adesanya's discomfort against Alex Pereira was due to being unable to simply lean away from his foe's punches due to the Brazilian's reach.

Similarly, Jon Jones' toughest-ever fight was against Alexander Gustafsson, whose reach was long enough for his punches to still catch 'Bones' after he tried to post-and-retreat. This is not the case with Stephen Thompson. He does not rely on being longer and taller than his opponents.

His recent win over Kevin Holland, who is two inches taller and has a ridiculous 81-inch reach, is evidence of that. 'Wonderboy' circumvents his opponent's reach advantage through his stance and counterpunching. Stephen Thompson is a specialist in creating controlled collisions.

Stephen Thompson drops Masvidal and somewhere backstage Michael Bisping is loving it #UFC217 https://t.co/aPxch4Anxi

His wide, bladed stance causes him to stand sideways. This stance allows him to dart in and out of range with absurd speed. This makes 'Wonderboy's entries difficult to time. Additionally, he also maintains an unusually long distance to undercut his opponent's reach advantage.

Thus, whenever his foes try to land punches, they must take additional steps forward to close the distance. This affords 'Wonderboy' more time to make reads that inform his counters. Furthermore, all this telegraphs his opponent's intentions.

So, every time his opponents step forward, Thompson takes advantage of the speed and time his stance and distance give him to counter. He then resets his range, frustrating his opponents into lunging forward. Unfortunately, they often lunge into the path of an intercepting-straight left.


#4. His anti-low kicking game

Not long ago, Stephen Thompson faced Vicente Luque and showcased a striking masterpiece during the bout. The Brazilian power puncher is one of the best low-kickers in the sport. On paper, it should've given him some advantage against 'Wonderboy's wide, bladed stance.

Due to how wide and sideways he stands, Thompson's lead leg always appears to be within touching distance of a low kick. This is especially true, given how overexposed the back of his lead leg is. Thus, many might imagine that a strong low-kicker can do to him what Dustin Poirier did to Conor McGregor.

Additionally, strikers are often advised to use their longest weapon, which is their leg, to attack their opponent's nearest body part, which is their lead leg. This serves fighters well if their opponents often retreat and circle away. The last body part of the opponent to exit range will always be the legs.

The Front Side Kick featuring Stephen Thompson https://t.co/4xmi2RIC3Q

But Stephen Thompson is unlike any other fighter, for even Israel Adesanya struggles to counter low kicks -- the Nigerian simply fires back with harder low kicks.

'Wonderboy', however, makes his opponents pay without having to sustain damage from low kicks.

He stands by his traditional stance and fakes a forward step to draw out his foe's low kick. Once his opponent takes the bait, Thompson slides out of range before stepping back into range. He does so with either a counterpunch or a side-kick while his opponent's kicking leg is still airborne.

Thus, Stephen Thompson counters his opponent's low kicks when their balance is at its worst. He did so enough times against Vicente Luque that the Brazilian stopped low-kicking altogether.


#3. He is comfortable moving backward and forward

While he mainly operates as a counterpuncher, Stephen Thompson is capable of fighting on the front foot in addition to the backfoot. Both approaches lend themselves to a different style of engagement that 'Wonderboy' can switch to depending on his opponent.

Against foes who willingly come forward, the two-time title challenger maintains a long-range that forces them to rush forward. The moment they commit to lunging forward to close the distance, 'Wonderboy' steps forward at the same time. Since both he and his opponent are bursting forward, he times them with a straight left for added power.

Day 18 of the #MMAHiatus:Stephen Thompson gets the TKO finish over Johny Hendricks in the first round in 2016.This was Stephen Thompson’s most recent finish. He is coming off a unanimous decision against Vicente Luque. Personally I think he beats Jorge Masvidal again. πŸ‘€πŸ‘€ https://t.co/WKINr0qqGl

The straight left takes advantage of the mutual momentum that he and his foes are creating by stepping forward. This leads to a collision between his fist and his opponent's chin. At times, he'll also sidestep lunging foes to assume a dominant angle on their open side and flatten them with kicks they don't see coming.

By sidestepping an over-eager foe, 'Wonderboy' causes them to be wildly out of position right after they miss. This also allows him to counter them with combinations from their exposed side as they reset their stance. Against opponents who do not charge forward, Stephen Thompson uses point-fighting.

It doesn't earn him finishes, but it allows him to safely snatch victories from opponents who are too scared to engage. He uses the quick linear movement provided by his bladed stance to dart in and out with straight punches and kicks. This enables him to back up his foes to the fence.

Once his opponents are trapped there, like Johny Hendricks was when the pair fought, he can freely unload with stinging combinations.


#2. Stephen Thompson's defensive footwork and movement

Cage and ring generalship are valuable assets in MMA. Mobile fighters who utilize time and space to be effective cannot be limited by their movement. The optimal fighter will have the footwork to move linearly and laterally. Junior dos Santos and Anthony Pettis, for example, are cases of limited strikers.

One of the reasons why 'JDS' failed so miserably against Cain Velasquez in their last two fights was due to his inability to move laterally. He was simply backed up in a straight line until his back touched the fence. Similarly, 'Showtime' struggled against pressure fighters due to the absence of pivots in his game.

UFC 244, November 2nd 2019Stephen Thompson defeats Vicente Luque via Unanimous Decision (30–26, 30–26, 29–27) A great win for Wonderboy, Rd3 was scored a 10-8 #MMA https://t.co/qCieN2TV8o

Stephen Thompson is among the greatest cage generals in MMA. It is incredibly difficult to back him up to the fence. Even skilled pressure fighters like Vicente Luque struggled against him. While the Brazilian tried to cut off 'Wonderboy's angles by stepping across him every time he circled, it didn't work.

Every time he gets close to the black lines before the fence, he quickly flattens out his stance and starts shuffling from side to side. Before circling, he fakes a step in one direction before shuffling in another.

This allows 'Wonderboy' to circle out of the pocket on his opponent's open side, creating the first step for a devastating counter as well. His defensive footwork leads to his brilliant counters. Even when he is crowded, he simply pivots away at tight angles.


#1. He is still winning in the twilight of his career

Most gifted strikers experience sharp declines in their abilities as they reach their late thirties. This is especially true for lighter weight classes like welterweight. The reason for this is that most strikers rely on certain physical attributes to aid their stand-up game.

These attributes are typically cardio and speed, which take a hit as a fighter ages. Lyoto Machida's striking ability declined significantly due to the former light heavyweight champion's over-reliance on speed.

While the need for speed might look like the case with Stephen Thompson, the truth is far from it.

Kevin Holland acts surprised by the speed of the β€œold” Stephen ThompsonπŸ˜‚ https://t.co/MWqyhYgnwY

'Wonderboy' does not need to be faster than his opponents. Instead, the nuances of his footwork create the illusion that he is naturally much faster than his opponents. While he's certainly fast, his apparent speed is actually a combination of timing and footwork.

As mentioned in the initial entry of this list, Stephen Thompson forces opponents to take additional forward steps that telegraph their intentions. This makes it easier for him to predict his opponent's movements. He also causes them to get out of position more often than not.

This has allowed him, in his late thirties, to defeat much younger opponents like Kevin Holland, Geoff Neal, and Vicente Luque.

IMHO, Stephen Thompson deserves his moniker, and we may never see anyone like him ever again.

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Edited by Virat Deswal
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