Stephen Thompson vs. Anthony Pettis headlines UFC Nashville this March 23, 2019 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Record: Stephen Thompson 14-3-1 Draw | Anthony Pettis 21-7
Odds: Stephen Thompson -335 | Anthony Pettis +305
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Thompson was supposed to be the next Raymond Daniels. A protege of Chuck Norris’ personal YAMMA pit. A good fighter when you’re trying to replicate the random fight scene between John Cusack and Benny the Jet. Less so when the punches are actually landing. Instead Thompson carved out a respectable early stretch before showing with his huevos in tow for a fight that Matt Brown didn’t completely embarrass him in. Not only did Thompson develop like a typical fighter learning the ropes, but he curved beyond what his skillset would seem to allow.
Phil: Thompson was broadly expected to be less-fun Michael Page: a unique, weird kickboxer who would get badly exposed by the first serious grappler that he came up against and who would then shrug, tick the “competed in the UFC” box and then leave the sport to go and teach kids how to stand up to the Cobra Kai at his dad’s gym. But he took that Matt Brown loss with surprising gameness, and developed a surprisingly effective MMA-ready style which took him to a title shot, twice.
David: Things started out well for Pettis. His only loss early in his career was an illegitimate decision loss to Bart Palaszewski. Then the Guida fight happened. Then Pettis appeared to figure it out. Somewhere along the way Pettis went from Wheaties model to a cable TV main event. Somewhere along the way Pettis went from a cable TV main event to an action movie star. He’s not very good at it, but he is very entertaining. I don’t know when Pettis turned into the martial arts hero sidekick who makes it halfway through the movie, but I’m not complaining.
Phil: I’m not sure if there was ever a “Pettis era” but much like BJ Penn, it seemed absolutely inconceivable that he ever could have been staring down the barrel of what could be a genuinely shocking UFC record: if he goes down on Saturday he’s at 8 wins and 8 losses. He was never untouchable, but he was so incredibly threatening as both a striking and submission threat that it was hard to see how other fighters could stay consistent enough to beat him. But… they did. Henderson and Melendez opened the door a little bit, and then RDA stormed through, and that was the end of Pettis the champion. His career has largely been in the service of meaningless fun since then: down to featherweight to fight Holloway, brief surges of success which kept him in the conversation, and then shut-out losses which confirmed that he was never getting back to a belt. This seems like something of a culmination of that journey, and not in a particularly good way.
What’s at stake?
David: It’s a tough fight for both guys, but it’s not a tough decision for the UFC matchamking. If one guy wins, he gets another fight. The guy who loses, gets another fight. Apologies for the lame tautologies, but both fighters are in the hyperbaric chamber right now.
Phil: Ehh. This feels like a couple of things: the UFC not knowing what to do with either of these men, and then looking to ensure that they can rehabilitate at least one of their highlight reel wacky strikers for the purpose of throwing them back into title contention storylines. The loser is likely to have some serious struggles in clawing their way back up.
Where do they want it?
David: The last stretch of fights have been…odd. Against elite competition over the last five bouts, Thompson has managed to technically break even going 2-2-1. I think part of this is a function of style. Fighters who have karate bases have to be effective on a specific axis on the feet. Different styles don’t neutralize them so much as disrupt the general flow of the action. Just look at Machida. A lot of his early fights were kind of awful. Against Sam Hoger, Kazuhiro Nakamura, and even Tito Ortiz — Machida’s striking felt dormant at times. I wonder if Thompson isn’t experiencing that evolution in reverse. As he gains more experience, he feels like he needs to adjust his striking against his opponents, not realizing that what he’s good at already works like gangbusters. It’s the whole “don’t leave it in the hands of people paid to do their job effectively” part that he hasn’t beat.
Phil: The strange thing about Thompson is that other than Matt Brown, no one has really been able to beat him yet. Not really. Sure, he’s had some awful, neutralizing, point karate performances and has technically lost two of them, but there was nothing decisive there. In some ways it feels like he’s gotten to that same point that Machida did, where opponents figured out that they could just match his incredibly slow pace by just never attacking him, apart from when they’d try and steal brief moments of unpredictable offense (see: Machida vs Davis, Henderson, etc). Conversely, though, Machida also had decisive losses (Shogun, Jones) whereas Thompson has never been stopped. At least partially this is because Wonderboy is far bigger and more comparatively athletic by the standards of his division: no-one has really been able to plow forward and mess him up, or really hurt him by leveraging a range advantage. Aside from that he remains who he is: bouncing around on the outside, he likes to favour southpaw to draw opponents into that pull counter, while pecking with lead leg side kicks, or switching to orthodox for a more traditional round kick series.
David: Pettis is the kid in the sandbox who will play fun games with everyone as long as he brings his toys and only his toys. The other kids are cool with it. Until they realize that the toys Pettis brought aren’t even real GI Joe’s. They’re knockoffs with no points of articulation: like a bunch of Ram Men without a copyright. It’s fitting that as Pettis’ recent fights have become increasingly blood-soaked and chaotic, he’s been less effective. By now we’ve all read the book. Give Pettis time and space, and he will work some choreographed magic. Take away time and space, and Pettis will look like every kickboxer-turned-parttime mixed martial artist. Of course, Pettis’ submission game is very good. Which is why he’s not a fight illiterate. Still, Pettis has yet to adapt to the things that work against him. He hasn’t yet figured out how to slow the fight down. And worse, he hasn’t yet figured out how to manipulate range in the middle of a sequence.
Phil: Pettis is a more definitively mirrored fighter than Thompson, and this is something which comes through in a couple of ways. Firstly, he’s relatively ambidextrous in his approach. While Thompson has more defined strikes from either stance, and hence has strategic uses for both of them (power from orthodox, “pestering” from southpaw), Pettis really is fairly similar in approach whichever stance he’s in. The one-two is used to feed through to the rear leg head and body kick, primarily. Mirrored also tends to define his approach to his opponents, as well. In the quest for the open stance body kick, he generally tends to specifically favour open stance: going southpaw against orthodox fighters, and orthodox for southpaws. That presents an interesting quandary here, because he’s at a major height and size disadvantage. I’m not sure whether he should actually want to maximize the distance between the two fighters by going open stance. Other than that, Pettis’ flaws remain well-known: he has terrible defensive and offensive footwork, mediocre general defense, and lacks significant clinch or wrestling offense to bail him out if he’s pressured. On the other hand, though, he remains one of the most purely dangerous kickers we’ve ever seen in the sport (more dangerous shot-for-shot than Barboza, for my money) and a tremendous submission threat.
Insight from past fights
David: Nothing worth noting. Their styles are worlds apart, and they fight in different divisions. “Insight” is worth mentioning at the level of psychology. When Pettis gets hit, he doesn’t counter. He doesn’t move. He tries to reset when the attack is either done, or has subsided. That’s not a good sign against a fighter who will chain offense together when he lands, who is tall enough that he won’t need to move quick to find him.
Phil: Barboza and Holloway represented two of Pettis’ more damning losses, in part because they finally crushed the “he just struggles with powerful wrestlers” myth. That should have been quashed by the RDA beating anyway, but what they showed was something more important. Primarily, that Pettis struggles to close down his opponent’s movement at least as much as he struggles with moving away from pressure. In both fights he defaulted to doggedly plodding around after his more mobile opponent, who constantly peppered him with shots.
David: A lot’s been said about size, but the smaller fighters have done well after moving up because they know how to maximize their quickness. Pettis doesn’t do any of this. Pettis would be better served moving down in weight because at least there his strength can potentially even out the technique-disadvantage, and his power is potent even at 155. At welterweight, his power becomes less potent, and his speed is a wash since all of his quickness comes from the mechanics of his punches — not his ability to sequence pressure and offense together.
Phil: Mainly how Pettis responds to going up to welterweight. Even if he looks great, I don’t think it’s going to help a lot, to be honest. He’s not a fast-moving blitzer who’s going to be zipping in inside Wonderboy’s reach, and I think he’ll miss having approximate reach parity quite a lot.
David: It’s always possible to see Pettis land a bomb of a kick to Thompson’s ribs, and Thompson just caves in. That wouldn’t shock me. A bad fight wouldn’t shock me. What I expect — however — is Thompson landed a good strike here and there, and using those strikes to flurry Pettis into a turtle shell of offense. Stephen Thompson by Decision.
Phil: There are a few ways this one goes. In the funniest, Pettis just outduels Thompson in a kicking battle, by battering his lead leg, and potentially takes him out in a sudden submission scramble. In the much more likely ones, Thompson either draws him onto counters repeatedly, and exploits his mediocre head movement to light him up with karate blitzes. In the worst timeline they have a terrible, low-paced fight where they show each other flashy moves and nod and high five one another while everyone groans. Let us pray it does not come to pass. Stephen Thompson by unanimous decision.
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