Faced with an opponent who had decimated all opposition in his path, Stephen Thompson made it look easy on Saturday night.
“Wonderboy” was in prime form in the UFC Fight Night 183 headliner, as he outstruck Geoff Neal for the better part of five rounds in a unanimous decision victory at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. As a result, Thompson re-established himself as one of the welterweight division’s top contenders. It wasn’t all easy, however, because the South Carolina native suffered an apparent knee injury late in the fight which hindered his trademark movement.
“After the fourth round, I thought it was my kneecap. I felt this stiffness in my right leg. I looked down and saw this ball and thought it was my kneecap,” Thompson explained. “I tried to bend my knee and it ended up being muscle. Hopefully it’s not too bad and I don’t have to have surgery.”
A veteran of two title bouts and six 25-minute fights in the UFC overall, Thompson let experience take over down the stretch. Ultimately, he had more than enough left in the tank to hold off a hard-charging Neal in the championship frames.
“In the fight game, you’re going to have your ups and downs—your injuries. But you can hurt later and that’s what your train for,” Thompson said. “I’ve been fighting since I was 15 years old. All the fighters out here, we go through a conditioning process. You take your bumps and bruises and then during the fight ignore that. I wasn’t able to move the angles I wanted to, so I had to learn on the fly and adapt. That’s it. He’s a pressure fighter. All I had to do was sit down, grit my teeth and throw.”
Thompson was nonetheless able to confound his opponent with his speed and movement througout the bout, and when all was said and done, “Wonderboy” had landed 171 significant strikes — twice as many as Neal and the eighth most in UFC welterweight history. Thompson kept his opponent off balance with punching combinations, a variety of kicks and solid body work, but Neal rarely showed signs of being hurt during the 25-minute encounter.
“I’m used to adversity being out there in the Octagon. In the fight with Vicente Luque, I ended up breaking both my hands. This time I ended up hurting my right knee, but you have to put that in the back of your head, forget about it and do what you do. I felt great,” Thompson said. “Geoff Neal is super tough. Every time I hit him, he felt like a rock. He just kept coming forward. I hit him with a full on roundhouse kick to the face, to the dome-piece, and he just kept on coming. I’m very happy with my performance, even with the injuries. I’m feeling great.”
In many instances, Thompson’s style frustrates his opponents. The soon-to-be 38-year-old tipped his cap to Neal for staying the course.
“He's got a good boxing base. He’s very good at staying in positions. I know he was getting frustrated out there in the beginning of the rounds, but he just wouldn’t come out of position,” Thompson said. “Most guys I frustrate end up doing things they normally wouldn’t do—and that’s when I got you. He didn’t. He just kept good position, kept coming forward and I was very impressed with that. We had a lot of respect out there.”
On the heels of his latest triumph, Thompson has designs on another championship run in the UFC’s welterweight division. First, he’d like to run it back against Jorge Masvidal, who he defeated in their initial meeting at UFC 217.
“With good wins over Geoff Neal and Vicente Luque, they’ve got to give me someone in the top five. I’m still here ranked No. 5,” he said. “Jorge Masvidal would be an awesome fight, because we fought each other before. We’ll see what happens.”