While the eyes of the MMA world will be focused on Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier on Saturday evening, the UFC 264 co-headliner also provides quite the dose of intrigue. In that co-main event, Stephen ”Wonderboy” Thompson takes on Gilbert Burns. UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman does not have a deserving challenger at this time, therefore this weekend’s contest appears to be an opportunity for Thompson to stake his claim for a title shot.
UFC President Dana White has repeatedly stated in recent months that Colby Covington will be Usman’s next opponent, but the “Nigerian Nightmare” has made it clear in interviews and on social media that he is not willing to fight the former interim titleholder.
Usman has defended his title four times and is widely regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. With this status comes an ability to dictate the direction of his career. As a result, Usman’s opinion will likely hold weight during the process of choosing his next opponent. His reluctance to fight Covington again has opened the door for other contenders to make their case to be the next challenger at 170 pounds.
Leon Edwards appeared to be just one win away from getting a title shot heading into his UFC 263 appearance. The Englishman had won eight of his previous nine bouts, but he had also spent two years away from the Octagon for various reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Edwards had a scheduled fight with Tyron Woodley in London cancelled in March 2020. He later had proposed contests with Khamzat Chimaev called off on multiple occasions after both men tested positive for the virus. He eventually made his return against Belal Muhammad in March, but the bout came to an abrupt end in the second round when an eye poke from Edwards rendered Muhammad unable to continue. That fight was ruled a no-contest. Edwards soon had a new fight booked: Nate Diaz at UFC 263. This bout was the first five-round non-title, non-main event contest to take place in UFC history.
In keeping with the consensus amongst fans and analysts before the fight, Edwards proceeded to dominate Diaz for the majority of the contest. However, his performance was overshadowed by what transpired in the final minute of the final round when he got rocked and badly hurt. As a result of this, it has seemed that Edwards has lost any faint chance he had of getting a title opportunity in his next contest. With another possible title challenger now seemingly out of the running, the importance of Thompson picking up the victory against Burns has increased considerably.
Thompson has reinserted himself into the welterweight title picture through his last two performances. His knockout loss to Anthony Pettis in March 2019 gave the 38-year-old setbacks in three of his previous four outings. His hopes of ever competing for a UFC title again seemed to be all but over. However, he responded to this by delivering two virtuoso displays that served as a reaffirmation of his ability.
The first of these fights came at UFC 244 in late 2019. Thompson fought Vicente Luque, a hard-hitting, durable opponent who also possesses a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. There were questions regarding Thompson’s ability to take a shot after the Pettis loss and whether he still had the physical attributes at this stage of his career to be able to successfully deploy his elusive, counter-striking style. He emphatically answered these questions by giving a striking masterclass against Luque inside the Octagon.
After a relatively even first round in which both fighters were able to land effective strikes, Thompson took over in the second stanza. He successfully gauged Luque’s timing and started to land with increasing regularity. He showcased his wide array of strikes, dropping the Brazilian with a front-leg side kick, whilst also utilizing his excellent jab and hooks. Thompson even connected with spinning wheel kicks. The South Carolina native also stayed in the pocket at times, taking some big shots from Luque and proving that he still had the durability to compete at the highest level.
He continued to inflict punishment on Luque in the third frame and appeared to be on the verge of getting a finish when he dropped the Brazilian with a hard left. To Luque’s credit, he demonstrated his resilience by recovering and managing to survive to the final bell. Thompson took the win with a unanimous decision on the judges’ scorecards.
Thompson then took on another rising prospect in the undefeated Geoff Neal in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in December. This contest was held inside the 25-foot UFC Apex Octagon, which is smaller than the standard 30-foot Octagon. This was thought to be to the detriment of the elusive style of Thompson, but it actually ended up highlighting the adaptability of his striking game.
Thompson ultimately out-struck Neal by a vast margin by using his speed, accuracy, variety of attacks, and in-and-out movement. The only major success that the Texas native had was during the brief moments when he was able to clinch Thompson against the cage. Thompson diligently adhered to his game plan and emerged with the victory via unanimous decision.
Burns is coming off a knockout loss against the aforementioned Usman, but he will present a threat to Thompson. The 34-year-old is one of the highest-level jiu-jitsu players in the entire UFC. He has won both Gi and No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu World Championships.
“Wonderboy” will be confident in being able to prevent Burns from taking him down. He knows that any slight lapse in concentration on the ground could result in his downfall. The Brazilian’s striking has improved by a great margin in recent years, too, and he has developed explosive one-punch power. His knockout of Demian Maia was the best example of this, as Maia had only been knocked out once in 37 professional fights at the time.
The fact that Burns poses such danger on the feet and on the ground means that Thompson will have to be at his very best to secure the victory. He will be confident knowing that he has a blueprint on executing a winning game plan against a similar type of athlete in his fight against Luque. Coincidentally, Burns is a close friend and also a teammate of Luque at the Sanford MMA gym in Florida.
The success that Thompson has enjoyed during his career has been largely predicated on his ability to minimize risk. However, on Saturday, he might need to take more chances to make the statement needed if he is to become the top contender. As dominant as he was in his last two outings, the lack of a finish in both instances seemed to contribute to those performances flying under the radar of the MMA community.
Despite the fact that he stepped across the cage from one of the most durable opponents in UFC history in Diaz, Edwards received criticism for his failure to secure a finish in that contest. If Thompson is able to knock out Burns, it would help him convince Usman that he is a worthy challenger whilst also reminding the UFC management of his ability to entertain and captivate a crowd. The latter will be crucial, given that Dana White has explained how the entertaining nature of the first clash between Usman and Covington has led to the company wanting the rematch to take place next.
The usually quiet Thompson actively campaigned for a title shot in the time after Usman’s title defense against Burns and before the announcement of the champion’s rematch with Jorge Masvidal. If he scores an impressive victory on what is likely to be one of the most purchased pay-per-views in MMA history will help separate Thompson from the pack. Thompson is only one of two fighters in the top five of the welterweight division to have never faced Usman, and this also works in his favor. At the age of 38, with two unsuccessful title attempts behind him, it is a case of now or never for Thompson’s championship aspirations.