ANALYSIS: The 'D' word will be key for Rory MacDonald and Stephen Thompson's Ottawa war
Styles make fights.
It may be a hackneyed phrase that grew from the wild west days of MMA when a one-gloved Art Jimmerson was being submitted by Royce Gracie donning a full gi, but much like the sport itself, the expression has evolved.
The contrasting fighting styles of Rory MacDonald (18-3, 9-3 UFC) and Stephen Thompson (12-1, 7-1 UFC) are what makes this fight so fascinating. While both fighters are extremely well-rounded and complete mixed martial artists, their respective paths to the big leagues and the distinct weapons they've honed throughout the years are very different.
Thompson, a fifth degree black belt in Tetsushin Ryu Kempo Karate and an undefeated kickboxer with a 57-0 record who crossed over to MMA, takes on one of the prototypes of the new breed of the modern MMA fighter in MacDonald, who started by training in a variety of disciplines specifically-geared towards becoming the archetypal mixed martial artist.
Something's got to give
Thompson undoubtedly has the advantage in the striking department but has shown stark improvements in his grappling. MacDonald is the better grappler, but with Thompson's insane ability to keep his opponent on the outside, at kicking range, will the Canadian be able to get in close enough to utilise this skill?
It's not as if MacDonald is a slouch on the feet either, he's up their with the elite strikers of the welterweight division and, as everyone saw in what Dana White described as the "best fight of... ever" against Robbie Lawler, he has that gameness that allows him to take punishment and keep coming forward.
OPINION: Robbie Lawler v Rory MacDonald II is up there with the greatest fights in UFC history http://t.co/CR14iStEbj pic.twitter.com/HxgNuby6b2
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 13, 2015
Considering that he described having his face pummelled into hamburger meat by cinder-block hands himself as the 'greatest experience of his life', it's safe to assume that he's not going to be intimidated by the striking prowess of the former undefeated kickboxer.
It's been reported that when Thompson trained at Tristar, he didn't spend much time with MacDonald so he didn't really gain as much insight into his game from this experience as you might think. However, the fact that he's been sparring with Raymond Daniels who was not only a black belt in American Kenpo and Shotokan, but has also fought Thompson before in amateur kickboxing. While Firas Zahabi and MacDonald both claim that they don't formulate gameplans for specific opponents, it's hard to understand why they wouldn't draft up a few strategic outlines for this one.
While we learned about the frightening effectiveness of Thompson's kicking prowess and the evolution of his takedown defence from his first round TKO victory over Johny Hendricks as the former welterweight champion had him up against the cage but couldn't really do much.
For the entirety of the build-up to that fight, all we heard about was about how much Bigg Rigg's boxing had improved. However, his overcommitment to trying to secure that takedown against the fence meant that we never got to see him let his hands go.
If we take a look at how that failed takedown attempt ended, which was brilliantly defended by Wonderboy, you'll notice that Hendricks didn't capitalise on a golden opportunity to land. Either he wasn't anticipating his opponent breaking free from the clinch or he had no intention of trying to clip him after the escape. His head was glued to the floor, his hands were still in grappling mode, while Wonderboy's were down by his side and his chin was high, begging to be tagged.
This type of gritty game that Hendricks didn't want to engage in is something we've seen from MacDonald in the past, particularly in the fight against BJ Penn. Admittedly, despite Penn being a former welterweight champion, he's better suited to the featherweight division, as you can tell by how the much larger MacDonald bullied him in the clinch and outgrappled him throughout the fight.
That being said, it's still BJ Penn, one of the pound-for-pound greatest fighters ever, and when MacDonald had him up against the cage, he didn't really pursue the takedown. Instead, MacDonald used head control before letting go of the clinch, ripping his opponent with a punch or elbow on the exit and then maintaining pressure with his striking to keep him trapped in the "red zone" (the area between the central Octagon on the canvas and the cage).
The phone box
In previous fights, we've seen that Wonderboy doesn't like it when he gets forced into fighting in the "phone box" i.e. trapped in close quarters fighting against the cage. This was very apparent in his loss to Matt Brown, the only one on his record, and his hard-fought victory over Nah-Shon Burrell.
Thompson got the nod against Burrell by virtue of being the more technical fighter. However, it wasn't an easy night's work for Wonderboy by any means. He looked out of his element when Burrell tried to turn it into a brawl and he struggled to find his rhythm because of Burrell's constant forward pressure which dictated the range the battle took place.
We saw the same thing happen in the Matt Brown fight. Although it was Brown's superior ground game and Thompson's inability to defend the takedown that were the decisive factors in that fight, Brown was only able to take it to the mat because of the threats he posed on the feet.
He waded forward inside the kicking range, blocked and caught Thompson's kicks and had him so worried about being taken down that he ended up exerting a lot of energy, often in vain, trying to prevent that from happening. The experience of Brown allowed him to recognise this and alternate between going for the shot, and pulling out and making it a filthy technical brawl against the fence.
You know who else thrives in a technical brawl in the phone box?
The key to victory for both fighters here will be whoever can keep the fight at the distance that suits them.
Wonderboy will want to keep it on the outside, with MacDonald just inside his kicking range, so that he can stick and move and occasionally move in and blitz him with combinations. That's where he's at his most comfortable, that's where he finds his flow, that's where he gets his highlight-reel knockouts. If you want to know more about why he's so God damn good at this range, consult our good friend Jean-Claude Van Damme.
MacDonald's aggressive style could mean that the centre of the Octagon may not be viable real estate, but Wonderboy will definitely want to avoid letting the Red King pressure him into the red zone, where he will try to steal his soul with a vicious onslaught of attacks. He would also want to be wary of that trusty front kick to the body that's often MacDonald's go-to weapon to get his opponent on the back foot.
Watch out for the hand-fighting game MacDonald likes to play too. This is another technique he likes to implement when he gets in close to measure the distance, prepping for some more peppering while also upsetting his opponent's flow and allowing him to edge forward.
MacDonald is also incredibly talented at cutting off angles and making the Octagon seem a whole lot smaller than it actually is which was very prevalent in that brilliant decision win over the next title challenger at 170, Tyron Woodley.
"The Chosen One" came into the bout with a reputation as an explosive, athletically-gifted knockout artist, but MacDonald expertly snared the beast, reducing his powers and completely dominating him on the feet, landing more than twice as many significant and total strikes.
A large part of how he was able to achieve this can be attributed to how well he mixed things up in the striking department. Woodley was kept constantly guessing, unsure whether a jab, a front kick, a question mark kick or any of the other terrifying weapons in MacDonald's arsenal were going to attack him next.
One final thought
Going back to the solitary loss on Thompson's record, it was very noticeable how much he was floundering under the rising tide of Brown's ground game. While he has since graduated from a blue belt to a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under brother-in-law Carlos Machado, MacDonald, a black-belt in BJJ, should still have the clear advantage on the canvas.
MacDonald has the unpredictable striking style to close the distance in order to initiate the takedown and the sheer strength to get most fighters to the ground where he can work away at submissions and rain down with his brutal ground and pound.
We must reiterate, against most fighters.
However, as we all know, most fighters don't possess the striking skills of Thompson.
Check out UFC Ottawa headlined by Rory MacDonald vs Stephen Thompson on Saturday June 18, with main card proceedings kicking off at 3:30 am Irish time on Sunday morning.