Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event between Stephen Thompson and Anthony Pettis has the potential to take our breath away. What more can we ask from an MMA fight — especially one that, much like a karate kick of “Wonderboy” Thompson or a taekwondo kick of “Showtime” Pettis, seemingly appeared out of nowhere?
This fight in Nashville, Tennessee, doesn’t fit neatly within the typical palette of UFC matchmaking. It’s not a convergence of rising contenders jostling for position in the one-lane path to the top, nor is it one of those pivotal meetings at the crossroads, in which an emerging talent is put to the test against a veteran not yet ready to fade away. Two flashy strikers from different weight classes meeting at 170 pounds is not the logical conclusion to the standard fight-game approach, and there hasn’t really been any buildup in narrative along the way. It is, instead, one of those deliciously implausible pairings that pop up every once in a while in this sport.
What we should expect
Thompson is going to throw kicks. Pettis is going to throw kicks. That means there is going to be an awful lot of distance gauging going on. Both of these men are good at that, having had plenty of kicks directed their way over the years, Thompson in karate and kickboxing, Pettis in taekwondo. But strikers like these two are a rarity in MMA, so neither man has seen much of anything like what the other will dish out. Thompson did fight Darren Till last year, but the Brit did most of his damage with his hands. Pettis fought Edson Barboza in 2016, and it did not go well. As a souvenir of that loss, Pettis was left with purple welts on his lower left leg from Barboza’s kicks.
By the numbers
5: Consecutive fights in which Thompson has gone to a decision. Prior to that, he had won four of his previous five by KO/TKO in the first or second round.
548: Strikes from distance by Thompson in his UFC career, accounting for 87.1 percent of all his significant strikes. That percentage is fifth highest among qualifying active welterweights.
3: Consecutive losses for Pettis in UFC main events.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
“This is another guy that trains with Tyron’s coach, Coach [Duke] Roufus. … I can see why he thinks he’s got me figured out, but he ain’t seen nothing yet. … I think I can land those kicks, I can land those punches to finish him in the first round. That said, I’m prepared for a five[-round] gruesome war.”
“He has great standup, great range. But I feel like if we break down the skills, I beat him in jiu-jitsu, and straight kickboxing … I think I’m better than him at straight kickboxing. Traditional martial arts, that’s going to be the [deciding] factor: Who puts it together better.”
— Anthony Pettis, on Ariel Helwani’s MMA show
The best of Wonderboy:
Pettis shows off the Showtime kick:
And the winner is …
If there’s an X factor in Pettis’ favor, it is his coach. This is the third time Duke Roufus has trained a fighter to face Thompson, who is tricky and takes some getting used to. The coaches at Roufusport in Milwaukee prepared Tyron Woodley for Wonderboy twice and came away with a win and a draw. And now Roufus, who was himself a multitime world kickboxing champion, gets to throw by far his best striker at Thompson.
If this striking duel gets swept off its feet, Pettis should have the grappling edge. Thompson trains with brother-in-law/ex-champ Chris Weidman, who is strong on the mat, but Wonderboy has not had a submission win in nearly nine years, whereas Pettis has nearly as many subs (8) in his career as he does knockouts (9). Of course, some of those tapouts came from opponents who’d been softened up by punches and kicks. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that Showtime poses the more multifaceted threat.
Although Thompson is 1-2-1 over the past nearly two and a half years, he is a clear gambling favorite, -450 at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Pettis, with a 3-5 record since losing the lightweight belt in 2015, is a +350 underdog. According to ESPN Stats & Information, these are the longest odds Pettis has faced in his 22 UFC/WEC fights.
Both fighters badly need a win, and guys in that position often fight tactically, out of concern that a go-for-broke approach could leave their career broken. That suggests that this fight will take place at distance, where the bigger man has more opportunities to hit and not be hit. Size doesn’t always matter — hello, Henry Cejudo — but it usually does, and it will on Saturday.
Prediction: Thompson by third-round KO/TKO.
Kamaru Usman has a lot of names on his mind at the moment, but the new welterweight champion might need to make room for one more. Thompson was a ghost among the 170-pounders before Usman took the belt away from Woodley earlier this month, because Wonderboy had already had two shots at T-Wood and wasn’t likely to get a third. But now, with Usman flashing the gold, a victory on Saturday allows Thompson to dive right back into the pool of contenders. If that happens, everyone in that overflowing pool — Colby Covington, Ben Askren, Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards — will need to join the champ in keeping an eye on Thompson.
What to watch for beyond the main event
The fighter most in need of a win is …
Maycee Barber is 6-0 and in absolutely no peril of losing her job on Saturday. But she has painted herself into a corner nonetheless. Although Barber is just 20 years old and calls herself “The Future,” the Colorado strawweight is not patiently waiting for that future to come to her. Right after winning her UFC debut in November, she marched over to company president Dana White and told him (according to an MMAfighting.com interview) that she’s “gonna be as big, if not bigger, than Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey and all of the stars he has.” If that’s her destined future, she’d better be able to handle unranked JJ Aldrich at present. An ugly loss here would derail her self-generated hype.
You’ll see this fight on SportsCenter tomorrow
The main event promises to fill up a highlight reel, but looking deeper on the card, there’s one fight that stands out above all others. It’s the evening’s only bout that matches up two fighters in their division’s top 10 in the ESPN rankings. That’s the flyweight clash between No. 4-ranked Jussier Formiga and No. 5 Deiveson Figueiredo. Each of these Brazilians is dynamic in his own way, Figueiredo especially so. He’s 15-0 and has finished three of his four UFC opponents, with 13 career finishes overall (8 KOs, 5 submissions). Figueiredo is someone to watch, for as long as his fights last.
Not for the squeamish
You might remember Bryce Mitchell from his time on “The Ultimate Fighter” or his UFC debut last July. But the 24-year-old featherweight is probably best known for a gruesome injury he suffered in August. Mitchell (10-0), who fights Bobby Moffett (14-3) in the feature bout of the prelims, was at the top of a ladder outside his Arkansas home working on the roof when he needed to put down his power drill. He had no tool belt, so he stuck the drill in his pants.
“I had my drill tucked,” Mitchell told ESPN, “thinking I was a gangster.”
Bad move. The drill turned on, ripping through his scrotum and into one of his testicles. Mitchell had to reverse the drill action to free himself, before driving himself to the hospital. “Thug Nasty” is now recovered and ready to resume his career, presumably undeterred by any pain or suffering that might befall him in a mere MMA fight.
The stakes are heavy
Curtis Blaydes would be undefeated if there were no such thing as a Francis Ngannou. Unfortunately for Blaydes, he has had to tangle with “The Predator” twice, and both times he has been knocked out — including in his last fight, which lasted just 45 seconds. But just prior to that most recent KO, Blaydes (10-2-1) had scored consecutive wins over Alexei Oleinik, Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem — two of them by KO. The 28-year-old out of Chicago is a serious contender at heavyweight, and his opponent, Justin Willis, is headed in that same direction, having won all eight fights since losing his pro MMA debut back in 2012. Blaydes is closer to the top of the mountain — he’s No. 5 in the ESPN rankings — but Saturday could be mighty uplifting for the unranked Willis.
The night’s best nickname is …
At the top of the marquee is a “Wonderboy” (Thompson) vs. a “Showtime” (Pettis), and there’s actually a second “Showtime” in the evening’s first fight (flyweight Eric Shelton). Curtis “Razor” Blaydes gets credit for deft wordplay, whereas his heavyweight opponent, Justin “Big Pretty” Willis, missed a classic TV opportunity by not going with “What You Talkin’ ‘Bout” Willis.
None of this matters, though, because these fighters simply cannot hang with Luis Pena, the featherweight better known as “Violent Bob Ross.” That nickname is a nod to the gentle (nonviolent) host of PBS’s old “The Joy of Painting,” and it is a masterpiece.