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Title opportunities can be precious commodities in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Michael Bisping chased his title shot for a decade, and it looked like he was never going to get it. When he did, he capitalized in grand fashion with a shocking upset win over Luke Rockhold. Now, he’s going to receive the biggest paycheck of his career by far when he welcomes Georges St. Pierre back to the Octagon. Matt Serra wasn’t thought to be a top contender at welterweight or much of a threat to St. Pierre, but Serra earned his chance on “The Ultimate Fighter” and it resulted in a spectacular title victory. Serra will likely have fans coming up to congratulate him for that moment every week for the rest of his life.
Over the last six months, Stephen Thompson has had 50 minutes in that Octagon to capture championship gold. Few fighters will ever receive that type of opportunity, and there’s no guarantee it will come again for “Wonderboy.” That makes it all the more disappointing that Thompson was so passive offensively on the biggest stage of his career. Many fighters have risen to the occasion in their biggest fights, but Thompson went in the opposite direction. He went in as a favorite twice against Tyron Woodley and left twice without the title, principally because Woodley seemed to want it more.
Some have blamed both Woodley and Thompson equally for the disappointing UFC 209 main event on Saturday in Las Vegas. However, there are some critical differences between the two fighters’ performances at UFC 205 and UFC 209 that make Thompson’s all the more disappointing. First and most importantly, both fights were contested primarily on Thompson’s terms. It’s understandable that Woodley, who rose up the ranks utilizing his wrestling background, would be cautious in a kickboxing bout with a kickboxer. Thompson, on the other hand, fought much of both fights at distance in the standup but just wasn’t throwing punches or kicks.
Prior to his two title fights with Woodley, Thompson threw 9.61 significant strike attempts per minute in nine UFC fights. Against Woodley, that number plummeted to 6.14, a 36 percent decrease. One might expect a fighter to land less as he steps up in competition, but that’s pure output. Statistically, he simply did much less when fighting for the title than when he wasn’t.
There were of course reasons for Thompson to be cautious. Woodley has both power -- albeit a lower knockout rate than Thompson -- and the threat of takedowns, factors which surely weighed on the mind of the challenger. However, after getting a long feel for Woodley’s style, Thompson made little effort to capitalize on openings from a much less refined standup fighter. Instead, Thompson seemed content to try to narrowly skate by on the judges’ scorecards. The first Woodley-Thompson fight was much better received, but that was primarily because Woodley had greater spurts of offense. Thompson only threw 15 more significant strikes in the first fight than the second and actually landed more in the second.
Sometimes, a fighter just can’t get the fight to be contested on his terms. Anderson Silva-Demian Maia was widely panned, but when Maia was unable to get the fight to the ground, he had little choice but to be cautious. Strikers have rarely been criticized over the years for holding and hoping for a standup when they had been taken down by superior grapplers. Thompson had the fight he wanted twice and didn’t take advantage of it.
The second key difference between Woodley and Thompson? When Woodley saw an opening, he went for it. Woodley opened up on Thompson’s head with strikes on the ground and relentlessly attacked while looking for a finish when he landed big shots on the feet. Were it not for Woodley’s desperate charge late in the fifth round, he likely would have lost his title. Thompson, by contrast, rarely stepped up to another gear. He was playing prevent defense to the very end, but there was too much time left on the clock.
When Lyoto Machida, another unique striker with even more of a reputation for defense, received his title shot, he knew there might not be another if he didn’t take care of Rashad Evans. When he caught Evans, he swarmed in a manner that resembled Wanderlei Silva more than the cautious Shotokan master UFC fans had seen previously. Woodley and Machida showed how badly they wanted it with their ferociousness at the right moments. Thompson surely wanted it badly, as well, but that desire manifested itself in counterproductive caution.
The third key reason for disappointment in Thompson relative to Woodley was that Thompson was trying to win the welterweight title. That doesn’t matter in the scoring, as fighters should be evaluated the same regardless of whether they are champion or challenger. However, one would hope a challenger gunning for his first title would be particularly hungry. Champions can become complacent, but one doesn’t expect challengers to approach their big title shot hoping to squeak by on points.
For one thing, even if it’s not right, champions do often get close rounds from the judges. It’s not a matter of giving the benefit of the doubt to the challenger but natural cognitive bias to expect the more established athlete to be doing better. For another, no athlete wants to look back at his or her career wondering why he or she didn’t do more. Unfortunately for Thompson, that may well be what awaits him. There’s no more time to land that championship-winning shot, but there’s plenty of time left to think about it.