Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson: Fighting Style Breakdown Part 1 of 2

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, the UFC fighter riding a series of impressive wins with a current win over Johny “Big Rig” Hendricks. His style is unique and his movement is as dynamic as it gets for the welterweight division. According to Firas Zahabi (A coach who has worked with Thompson), he is a 5 time world kickboxing champion.

We’ll be taking a look at aspects of Wonderboy’s style and go in-depth about things coaches and fighters are saying about him. Additionally, we’ll be taking a look at some of his signature habits and the art of how he sets up his offense.

The Outside

Firas Zahabi has mentioned before in his Johny Hendricks vs Stephen Thompson discussion video that Wonderboy likes to fight on the outside. He also goes on to mention that Wonderboy’s father instilled that particular preference in him as well. He’s capable of fighting on the inside, but much prefers fighting on the outside range. Even without this bit of information, it’s very obvious his likes to keep the fight on the outside range. He’s always striking at the end of his punches and using kicks from outside.

He can often be seen disengaging the inside position of fighting to get back his outside range where he’s has the advantage in striking.

Against the cage. He’s always looking to defend the takedowns and moving away from the cage with attempts to gain back back the center of the octogon. movement with wonderboy.gif

In the clinch. He’s usually looking to create that distance by breaking the clinch away to get back his outside range. Matt Brown was ultimately able to grind his way in the clinch and force Wonderboy to work on the ground to ultimately earn a decision victory over him.

wonderboy clinch escape.gif

Considering the options Wonderboy usually opts for, it’s apparent his intentions are to keep on the outside.

The Art of Movement

If you watched the post fight Fox interviews, Johny Hendricks shared his discontent with how the fight played out. Specifically, it was the constant movement that made that fight frustrating for him. Hendricks went on to mention that he “didn’t bring the fight.” Hendricks mentions that his sparring partners stayed in the pocket to fight back and he was hopping Wonderboy would have done the same. This would have worked well in Hendricks favor since he was looking for a brawl and a chance to stay on the inside to work his takedowns. However, Thompson had no interest in allowing the fight take place where Hendricks was at his best.

Dominick Cruz commented on the matter pointing out that Wonderboy’s not there letting you hit him in the face. Stating that this is the way the sport is evolving and that Footwork needs to be used more. The fighters moving their feet, using angles, and switching stances like Wonderboy are “blowing guys out of the water.” As the current bantamweight champion, Cruz understands the importance of dynamic movement.

Next, we take a look at certain movement patterns Wonderboy uses to keep the fight on his terms.

Shifting Escape

Wonderboy fights on the outside but he’s also capable closing in as well. Because he likes to fight on the outside, he often uses angles to get back his outside range instead of staying on the inside where clinching and takedowns are a threat.

wonderboy shift escape.gif
Wonderboy shifts his rear leg forward while throwing the cross, pushes off that foot to escape at a lateral angle away from the pocket.

It’s pretty similar to this example demonstrated by Roy Jones Jr. and Dominick Cruz. By shifting stances, they can use that new foot positioning to push off into a new angle away from the pocket. Also note that the weight is now on a foot where you can move towards to get back outside.

cruz and roy

 

stephen shifting cross esape, come back cross
Here Wonderboy shifts his stance off a cross, evades away and comes back to throw another cross.

Counter and Angle off

There is another particular movement that comes to mind when watching Wonderboy. As mentioned by Firas Zahabi, Wonderboy is very good at striking while moving. This played an important role in his fight against Hendricks in numerous ways. When countering, the fighter has to be mindful of takedown awareness. When Wonderboy counters on the move, he doesn’t want to always keep the body stationary in the event the opponent attempts to take him down. Wonderboy does a good job re-positioning his hips and the position of his legs off so that he’s not directly in front of Hendricks for takedowns. It’s harder to get a single leg on an opponent always dynamically moving and denying you that leg.

Here, Wonderboy demonstrates moving counters while changing the position of his lead leg and hips off to the side. This allows him to stay on the outside while keeping in advantageous angles. Keep in mind that when you hit another angle, it forces the opponent to adjust to your new position. You often have split time window to attack during this transition.

wonderboy pivot shot comp.gif
Wonderboy pivots that led leg off at an angle while throwing counters.

I believe this is a particular discipline Dominick Cruz understands well as he used a similar strategy against T.J. Dillashaw.

Cruz quarter circle evade counter
Cruz removes his lead leg while striking and hits a new angle away from T.J.’s path of attack, forcing a reset.

In my previous post fight breakdown of Cruz vs Dillashaw, I went further in-depth with how the movement is done for those interested in learning the movement. Here’s a link to the in depth detail: Movement infor in part 3 of 4 in Cruz vs Dillashaw post fight breakdown.

This next example of just another form of strike in conjunction with positioning. Wonderboy used this jab predominantly against Cote. You can see Wonderboy moving his hips over while throwing the jab. The positional allows him to avoid being directly in front of the opponent.

stephen forward posture jab timing.gif

Wonderboy has a variety of other moving counters. There were just a few common movements one could observe him doing.

The Art of the Blitz!

Wonderboy has this rhythm of hopping back and forth, just like how you see many Taekwondo practitioners do. There are quite a few UFC fighters (with Karate or Taekowndo roots) who do this as well. Conor McGregor can be see on occasions bouncing back and forth in such a manner. They seem to do this as a normal neutral stance. There are a lot of benefits from doing this. For one, static movement is easier to predict than dynamic movement. Moving dynamically often disguises your intentions. You’re often moving so invariably that it becomes unpredictable.

hop edited wonderboy.gif

Moving your feet dynamically makes it hard for the opponent to find their own rhythm. The constant little steps forward and back makes the opponent unsure if they should defend or follow-up. When you move back it’s a natural reaction that the opponent will want to take that space to come forward. Likewise, when you step towards the opponent, they may perceive that as an offensive approach and enter defensive awareness.

One of the reasons why the blitz can work well to close distance is because of its deceptive nature. Keep in mind that this movement happens very fast. During a fight, when Wonderboy steps back, the opponent’s mind focuses on the question “are they retreating?” and as Wonderboy hops forward, the opponent has to think “are they going to attack?” This process happens quickly over and over, back and forth. In a sense, Wonderboy is constantly changing his rhythm back and forth, going from the perception of attack mode to perception of defensive evasive mode. And here lies the key to killing the opponent’s rhythm. You can quickly make them comfortable by entering an evasive rhythm (as you hop back)… than ABRUPTLY hop forward to attack as they let down their guard. Likewise, this can also be used to make them unsure of their own rhythm, giving you a perfect time to attack. There are two particular fighters who use this movement well to land the what is commonly referred to as the “karate Blitz.” It is of course Wonderboy himself and Kyoji Horoguchi who can pull this off.

wonderboy blitz comp.gif
As he hops back, opponents enter an offensive state to move forward. Thompson breaks his rhythm by quickly bursting forward.
kyoji foot feinting closing distance.gif
Get them comfortable with foot movement, quickly change your foot pattern to move in.

There are a few advantages of the constant hoping back and forth. It looks similar to you moving forward to attack and moving back to retreat. This means that you can use this as a feint to constantly gauge the opponent’s reaction. keep in mind when you throw a lot of feints that pose no threat, the opponent begins to let down their guard as they become accustomed to the passive threat having no follow up. The foot movement also looks deceptive and it allows you to disguise your advancement.

As you hop back on the rear foot, you’re balanced and can spring forward from that leg to close in. Because of the stance, Wonderboy’s spine is fully erect with weight evenly distributed to both legs. This is important because it allows Wonderboy to move in either direction quickly in the event he wants to retreat or move forward to blitz the opponent on short notice. The constant subtle moving of the feet gives Wonderboy the luxury of adjusting proper distance on the fly accordingly as the fight progresses.

stephen evasive counters and cage escape.gif
Note how balanced Wonderboy is and how capable he is of moving forward to attack or moving backwards to counter.
stephen pull counter and stance shift back.gif
Note how the little hops allow him to adjust distance accordingly as Wonderboy hops to scoot his foot back to precisely adjust proper distance to time a hook counter moving away. Also note his head posture is slightly forward and he moves it away to time his hook.

Bernard Hopkins has mentioned how important killing rhythm can be and how hitting them off their rhythm is like hitting them with a shot they don’t see coming. One of the best ways to do that is to attack when the opponent is trying to find their rhythm. It’s an ideal time when they’re not quite sure to attack or defend. The hopping movement with Wonderboy is used well to offset rhythm. The opponent becomes unsure of their own rhythm as they’re trying to establish an answer. As fox analyst Micheal Bisping mentioned when commenting on this fight, he doesn’t know where they’re coming from.

stephen hop movement with counter timing.gif
One last note it’s worth mentioning that Wonderboy has a particular habit of using his hop movement when he’s ready to blitz in (predominantly with hand strikes). Watch out for this when you see him fight. One of the drawbacks to this is that he doesn’t use too much head movement going on the blitz, which could prove troublesome down the line if someone times a counter down his centerline.

On part 2, we’ll get into the dynamic kicking game of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson here: Stephen Thompson Breakdown part 2

 

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