Stephen Thompson’s life has been changing in some subtle and not so subtle ways, since he stopped former world champion Johny Hendricks earlier this year. The striking phenom is going on international media tours and this past weekend met his next opponent — Rory MacDonald — at a big press conference event promoting their bout.
The South Carolina fighter described the flashy Vegas scene in his typical humble way. "It was pretty cool to be there for the fights and everything. I’d never done a press conference on that level, before," he told FOXSports, Monday.
"I’m just glad I got asked a question! (laughs) Some guys get brought to these things and don’t get any questions asked to them. That’s rough! I was worried no one would ask me anything."
They did, and we had a few more questions for "Wonderboy" this week — namely why in the world did he decide to fight Rory MacDonald instead of easier bouts or trying to hold out for a title fight. More on that in a bit, however.
First, Thompson reflected on what it felt like to not just extend his win-streak to six, but to also beat the best opponent of his career in Hendricks. Before he took on the "Bigg Rigg," Thompson admitted to us that Hendricks was the best wrestler and fighter he’d ever been paid up with in MMA.
Thompson used stance-changes, level changes, and many other technical edges to keep Hendricks guessing and making it difficult for him to get a bead on his legs to begin takedowns, to say nothing of finish them. The welterweight contender was always confident, but he had to admit that it felt good to prove he and his team right.
Rory MacDonald (L) and Stephen Thompson face off during the UFC Unstoppable launch press conference at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 4, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
"I knew he would have problems getting his hands on me, just because until you’ve faced someone with this style every day, it is really hard to get used to it," he continued.
"You think he’s in one stance, then he’s in another. You think he’s about to attack, then he doesn’t, then it throws you off."
"So, I knew it would be hard for him to get to me, but it was so satisfying to see and feel everything we’ve been working on for years turn out the way we planned and wanted it to."
Now, onto MacDonald. The TriStar protege is certainly one of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound.
Still, he’s coming off of a loss in his epic title rematch last July against champion Robbie Lawler. Usually, fighters off of wins — to say nothing of huge win streaks, the type of which Thompson is currently riding — fight others who are coming off of wins.
Considering he’s just dominated a former world champion, Thompson fighting MacDonald would seem to be a much bigger opportunity for the Canadian than for the American. A win for MacDonald against the red-hot Thompson will put him right back in que, quickly, for a title shot.
If Thompson wins, all of his wins over the past few years will fade from people’s memories, and he’ll likely have to start from square one in pursuit of a title shot. Furthermore, MacDonald is pretty much as good as the current champion, without the win-streak or title to gain from facing him.
Thompson concedes that he’s taking a big risk putting his streak on the line against someone so elite, who doesn’t have the title he covets. It seemed better than the alternatives, however.
"Yeah, it is a risk. I wanted the title shot after the last fight. I felt I deserved it and could make it a great fight. I was really hoping for that," Thompson said.
"So this fight is a risk, but the way I look at it is that every fight in the top five is a risk. Yes, Rory is probably the most well-rounded guy in that top five, before the champion. He’s got great boxing, amazing jiu-jitsu. This is a very hard fight.
"But I also didn’t want to sit around and wait for a fight. You look at Tyron Woodley – he’s the only guy in front of me and he’s been waiting for that title shot. I don’t even know when he’s going to fight, again. I don’t know if he is playing hardball, if the UFC is playing hardball, but I didn’t want to deal with that."
Thompson would rather fight top fighter after top fighter than sit around and not collect pay checks. As a competitor, Thompson also wouldn’t mind the feather in his cap of being able to beat someone as great as MacDonald.
"I’d rather fight and take a risk than have to wait around and go back and forth like [Woodley] has had to," he continued.
"I’m looking forward to proving, again, to everyone that I’m ready for a title fight. More than that, though, I think this is about proving something else to myself. Rory is a great fighter and a really good guy. I trained up at TriStar with them, mostly Georges [St-Pierre], and so they know me. But I’ve improved so much since then,"
Thompson plans to go back to being friendly with TriStar and MacDonald once their fight is over, no matter the result. "I talked to Rory before the press conference last week. I told him he was still cool with me," he detailed.
"So, we’re going to fight, but afterwards we’ll shake each other’s hands and hopefully still be cool with each other."