If you thought the welterweight pairing of Stephen Thompson vs. Anthony Pettis felt a bit odd from the moment it was announced as the main event of UFC Nashville, you’re not alone.
A two-time title challenger, Thompson has long been one of the top contenders in the UFC’s welterweight division. Pettis, on the other hand, is a former champion who’s spent most of his career at 155 pounds and has never been a particularly big lightweight, having even fought as low as 145 pounds. But nonetheless, Pettis proposed the matchup on social media out of the blue, and now the matchup is set for March 23 at UFC Nashville, where Thompson will officially welcome Pettis to the welterweight division.
It’s somewhat of a no-win situation for Thompson, who stands at the No. 4 spot on the UFC’s media-generated welterweight rankings. But after sitting idle since his controversial May 2018 loss to Darren Till, “Wonderboy” was simply happy to finally get a fight booked.
“There’s a lot of guys right now who I’d like to fight but they have fights coming up, so it just wasn’t working out for me in the 170 [matchmaking] the past few months,” Thompson explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “So I was keeping my fingers crossed, and next thing you know, Anthony Pettis is calling me out. So I was like, sure, let’s do it. And I think he thinks he’s got my number. I’ve fought Tyron (Woodley) twice. He’s got the same coach, Duke Roufus, and Roufus thinks he’s got my number, so I’m here to prove him wrong.”
UFC Nashville won’t be Thompson’s first run-in with Pettis or his team. Thompson stood against Milwaukee’s Roufusport squad twice in a five-month span from Nov. 2016 to March 2017 for his back-to-back title challenges against UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. Thompson fought to a majority draw against Woodley at UFC 205, then lost a majority decision in the rematch at UFC 209, however both fights were close and Roufus played a key role in the gameplanning for Woodley’s victories — and Thompson believes Roufus is confident he replicate the feat for Pettis at UFC Nashville.
“Tyron’s a different fighter, and still he didn’t have an answer for me,” Thompson said. “He hit me in the fourth round with a right hand — he actually hit me with it twice — but I think it was more on my fault, rushing in with my hands down, than anything. He still was kind of confused. He still really didn’t have an answer, and it was still a very close fight, both of them. We got the draw the first fight, the second fight was controversial. So, I don’t think he’s got my number. My style is very hard to bring in fighters for and to prepare for, so I think it’s going to an exciting fight. Anthony Pettis, he’s got some really good striking, coming from his background, his taekwondo background, so I think it’s going to be fun.”
Thompson admitted to being frustrated with how the nine months since his loss to Till have gone. After healing up from a knee injury he suffered in the first round of that contest, Thompson said he aggressively pursued fights against a myriad of top contenders in the 170-pound division, but was rebuffed at every turn.
“I tried to get (Robbie) Lawler,” Thompson said. “I was pushing Lawler really hard. I was pushing it, the UFC was saying that it may or may not happen, Lawler was saying it was going to happen, and I was in New York helping Chris Weidman get prepped for his fight against ‘Jacare’ Souza and then they announced that [Lawler] was fighting (Ben) Askren. So I’m like, alright. So I tried to fight RDA, he said he was having surgery; Leon Edwards, he said his sciatica was acting up; and then (Santiago) Ponzinibbio, he just said no. So it just wasn’t working out for me, so I was just willing to take anything, to be honest with you.
“Anthony Pettis has a name,” added Thompson. “At this point in time, I’ve been out for almost seven months, I had a knee injury after the (Darren) Till fight.
“You see this with fighters all the time, if you’re not staying active, you’re kinda put on the shelf a little bit. And I’m still going for that title, I’m not giving up on it, and I think with some wins, no matter who it is, it’s going to keep me where I’m at, or hopefully will put me — with a good win over Pettis — in the UFC’s mind, ‘Hey, let’s push this guy up a little bit. Let’s give him a fight with another top-five guy.’”
While the matchup between Thompson and Pettis may be an unexpected one, it is intriguing from a stylistic standpoint. Both men are decorated and unorthodox strikers with lengthy highlight-reels filled with creative knockouts. And although Thompson respects the skill set Pettis brings with him into the cage, he also is confident that his own striking will carry the day.
“I’m more of a mover, I think,” Thompson said. “More of an angler. Whenever I fight, whenever you see me fight, I work a lot off of angles, using my kicks a lot. I think I throw more of a variety of kicks than Pettis does.
“It’s very difficult to break down, because we have some similarities and we have some differences. I think he’s more well-rounded. Like, he’s submitted some really good, high-level grapplers in the past. I mean, his last fight at 155 he submitted (Michael) Chiesa, which I thought was going to go the other way around. He submitted him and [since then] Chiesa’s moved up to 170, defeated Carlos Condit, so I think that’s another reason why he thinks he’s going to do well in the 170 division, because you’ve got a lot of 155ers moving up. Of course, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone has done well in my division. He’s moved back down.
“But yeah man, I always think I’m the better striker. I’m definitely the better striker than Pettis. I’ve got the reach on him, I’m faster than him, and I’m coming with more power.
“This is not a fight that I’m going to take lightly,” added Thompson. “He does have great striking, he’s got a knockout reel, so I welcome him with open arms to 170.”