If you’re a fan of top-class striking, the main card clash between welterweight contenders Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and Jorge "Gamebred" Masvidal should be right up your alley.
The pair offers contrasting striking styles, but it shares one key attribute: excellence.
"Wonderboy" is a throwback to the days of the early UFC, where fighters stepped into the octagon from a specific area of martial arts.
Back then we saw judokas taking on wrestlers or karatekas taking on boxers, as the early no-holds-barred era of the Ultimate Fighting Championship pitted style against style to see which martial art was the most effective in a true one-on-one combat situation.
Thompson is a pure-bred karate fighter who transitioned into kickboxing with spectacular success before adding more skills to his game and moving into mixed martial arts. Today, "Wonderboy" is one of the very best welterweights on the planet, but his karate style still shines through.
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Masvidal is much more of a Swiss Army Knife of a fighter. The Miami native is a hard-nosed blend of slick boxing and skilled grappling honed over years of tough competition inside and outside the cage. His nickname, "Gamebred," is well earned.
A look at Masvidal’s pure numbers tells only part of the story. A veteran of 44 career MMA bouts, the 32-year-old has 12 defeats on his record, but make no mistake, Masvidal is in the prime of his career heading into this weekend’s matchup. In pure fighting terms, his credentials are as legit as they come.
Breaking through the mental blocks
This fight will be particularly interesting, because both men have perceived mental blocks that, despite their world-beating skillsets, have hindered their progress toward the top of the division.
For Thompson, it’s his ability to pull the trigger. "Wonderboy" has unmatched striking skills in the UFC’s 170-pound division, but at times he can be a little too hesitant when faced with the highest-level opponents.
We saw it twice against reigning world champion Tyron Woodley. While Woodley looked to sit back and wait to counter Thompson’s attacks, Thompson looked reluctant to initiate any exchanges when, skills-wise, he had the clear upper-hand in the striking department.
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Masvidal’s issue is similar, but different. Often we see "Gamebred" stamp his authority on his opponents early on in bouts and establish what looks like a fight-winning rhythm. But on notable occasions we’ve seen him seemingly sit back and take his foot off the gas in the middle of the fight.
It’s cost him decisions on more than one occasion, as fights that seemed to be in his complete control early on have slipped away on the judges’ scorecards.
If either man can correct these minor, but crucial, tendencies, they could well find themselves holding a UFC championship belt by this time next year.
The question this weekend is which man will be able to show the most improvement when they face off at Madison Square Garden?
Striking versus striking?
Both men are excellent strikers, but based on their previous displays, "Wonderboy" looks to have the advantage in the stand-up for two key reasons: range and variety.
Thompson’s karate style, which utilizes a lot of kicks, especially his side kick, allows him to keep the fight at a distance where he can score with strikes, but his opponents struggle. In addition, his arsenal of strikes is as varied as you’ll see anywhere in the UFC.
Masvidal’s best striking work undoubtedly takes place closer in, where his more traditional boxing style thrives in the pocket. But to find himself in that spot, he’ll have to work his way inside Thompson’s kicks, and that’s something few fighters have been able to consistently manage.
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The game-changer for "Gamebred" could come even closer in. If he can blitz his way into the clinch, the Floridian will have a significant grappling advantage, and if he can take "Wonderboy" to the mat, the fight will swing dramatically in Masvidal’s favor.
Don’t let Masvidal’s record deceive you. He may only have two submission victories to his name, but it’s on the mat where he may well have his best chance of victory. And any man who can fend off jiu-jitsu phenom Demian Maia on the mat without succumbing to a submission deserves respect.
We’ll probably need all three rounds
Looking at the careers of both men, the smart play here is to bet on the fight reaching the scorecards. Despite a lengthy 44-fight career where he’s faced knockout artists of the caliber of Paul Daley, Tim Means, Jake Ellenberger and Donald Cerrone, Masvidal has never been stopped by strikes as a welterweight.
It’s a similar story for Thompson, too. He’s shared the octagon with noted finishers Ellenberger, Patrick Cote and Tyron Woodley (twice) and hasn’t been stopped in his entire career. He also owns finishes over former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and current interim middleweight champ Robert Whittaker.
While both men are noted for finishing fights, their respective durability suggests this one may well go the distance.
Workrate will win the day
Given the durability and fight IQs of both men, I’m expecting the fight to go all three rounds, with the most active fighter taking the win after a very closely contested bout.
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And, after seeing his chance at the title slip through his fingers not once, but twice, I’m expecting Thompson to step into the octagon looking to prove a point.
He’s gone the full five-round championship duration in each of his last two outings, so should be able to throw himself into this three-rounder with more gusto than previously.
As with so many bouts on this card, it’s a coin-flip contest, but I think Thompson’s ability to control the range and the pace of the contest should prove the deciding factor that sees him through to a win on the scorecards.
PICK: Thompson to win via decision
[Main photo credit: © Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports / Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports]
Go Embedded at UFC 217
Follow the build-up to UFC 217 right here on Sports Action as we lead in to the fights with daily previews and behind-the-scenes footage from the UFC.
On day three of the UFC’s "Embedded" video blog, the fighters enjoy some rare R&R time in New York before they launch into the media frenzy of fight week.