Initially, when the bout between Stephen Thompson and Anthony Pettis was announced for UFC Fight Night 148 the reaction of the fanbase was slight interest with a mix of bewilderment. The situation came with the feeling that the UFC was without a headliner for their ESPN+ card and like a bored child, they were going to smash two actions figures with high name recognition together in order to create inconsequential excitement. This is not to say that fans weren’t interested to see this bout, just that they didn’t know why it was happening.
While it is still unclear how the result will impact the standing of both fighters in their respective divisions, we should take the time to appreciate the spectacular display of violence we saw from Anthony Pettis that resulted in the first knockout loss in the career of Stephen Thompson.
Any objective viewer of this bout would concur that Wonderboy won the first nine minutes and fifty-five seconds of the fight. While Pettis was having moments of success, it was Stephen Thompson who was setting the pace and inflicting the most damage. From the opening bell, he was able to implement his karate-based gameplan, hitting Pettis with powerful kicks from the appropriate range while staying off of the fence. As the karate style of fighting that Thompson so expertly employs requires the ability to move freely it is imperative that he stays off of the cage, which he did. Here we can see Pettis land a kick and back Thompson up. Recognizing that his back is at the fence Thompson circles out to his right, returning to the center of the cage where he has the space to move freely.
Staying off of the cage is a crucial skill for a karate fighter to possess and be able to implement. Thompson showed he is aware of this as he was able to avoid being trapped against the fence for the entirety of the fight.
By circling off of the fence and into the middle of the Octagon, Thompson was able to blast Pettis with the powerful kicks that he has spent the entirety of his adult life developing, racking up consequential damage. While we typically think of karate kicks as only the spinning hook kick knockouts we see on the UFC’s highlight reel, in actuality, they are quite effective as an incremental strategy. Five rounds of consistently eating kicks from Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is going to result in a significant amount of accumulated damage, even if the individual kicks are not crippling on their own. While this is just one example of this strategy, here we see Wonderboy sitting at a long range and dealing damage with kicks.
It is quite clear from the two rounds we were able to see that Thompson’s gameplan was to stay at range and rack up damage on Pettis throughout all five rounds, likely making an attempt to finish towards the end. But if he was so successful in both hurting Pettis and staying off of the cage, what lead to the fight ending with him being knocked out?
Failing to Recognize the Pressure
As we discussed previously, the karate style implemented by Wonderboy needs sufficient time and space to be implemented effectively. If the opponent can take away that space, they can smother the Karate specialist and force them to box. In this screenshot, we can see the desired range for a Karate fighter. Notice how Thompson’s hands are down, but because it would take so much time for Pettis to punch him from this range it is not that grand of an issue.
One occurrence we saw throughout the fight was that Pettis would actually take away this space, staying in the face of Thompson. In fact, it is fair to say that Pettis was crowding into this space for the majority of the bout. See here how much closer Pettis is, and that Thompson’s hands are down even at this close of a range. Pettis resided here for large periods of the fight.
The appropriate response from a karate specialist would be to immediately use their hands to box their opponent back, forcing them to return to the range that the karate fighter prefers. As we can see in these clips below, Thompson did do this throughout the fight, but only periodically. Here Thompson feels Pettis pressuring in, so he throws a combination to force him back, then settles into his karate stance at his desired range.
And here, where Thompson rushes into Pettis with a flurry, forcing him to cover and retreat. Notice how Thompson returns to the low and wide Karate stance after the flurry, as getting back to this position is the objective of his punching attacks.
While Thompson did use this tactic throughout the bout, he failed to do it every time Pettis entered into his space. Typically when we see Thompson fight, he has an opponent at range where they are being peppered with kicks. Then when they pressure in to stop the kicks, he forces them back out with punches. The only difference in this fight was that Pettis was not camping in the “out” range, but much closer in. While he was in the “in” range he wasn’t attacking urgently, but instead acting like he was at a much longer range and not attacking. Pettis’ relative inaction while inside this close range seemed to lull Wonderboy into a sense of acceptance with his opponent being this close, as he kept his hands low and didn’t force him back. This was the one error that cost him the bout.
Had his opponent been staying outside of this range and then entered in we would see Wonderboy immediately punch them back out of his zone. While we did see him do this to Pettis occasionally, because Pettis immediately wandered back into this range and didn’t attack fervently, Thompson was content to let him reside there as opposed to urgently forcing him back out. Here we see Thompson allowing Pettis to camp out in the close range while keeping his hands low. As Pettis is so close to him, Wonderboy should have either launched into a combination to force him back or picked his hands up to cover his face.
While Pettis’ inactivity from this smothering range obviously didn’t result in him racking up accumulative damage while shutting down the Karate style, it did allow him to land the spectacular one punch that was needed to give Wonderboy his first knockout loss. As Wonderboy became complacent with allowing Pettis to remain at a close range uncontested while he kept his hands low, Showtime was able to land one fantastic Superman punch that sent Thompson to the canvas.
It is difficult to say that if Pettis had been urgently attacking and pressuring Wonderboy from the inside range that the fight would have ended the way it did. Perhaps if Pettis had been attempting to strike and smother every time he got close to Thompson, Thompson would have remembered that he was in danger and kept his hands up or boxed him back to an outside range where he could have resumed his Karate based attacks.
Regardless of the hypothetical scenarios, Anthony Pettis vs. Stephen Thompson was a fun fight that greatly improved the prestige of Anthony Pettis with this incredible KO. To not only be victorious at welterweight upon his first appearance but to also be the first to knock out the legendary Stephen Thompson is perhaps Anthony Pettis’ most distinct accomplishment.