Coming off a first-round knockout win over former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks in early February, Stephen Thompson was sure that he’d done enough to earn the chance to face Robbie Lawler for the world title sometime this summer.
The victory was Thompson’s sixth straight and marked the first time Hendricks was stopped in his career, two factors which seemed like they might be enough to move “Wonderboy” to the top of the list of contenders in the 170-pound ranks, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Last Friday at the UFC’s “Unstoppable” launch event, where the company laid out its schedule for April, May and June, company president Dana White announced that the surging contender would instead take on former title challenger Rory MacDonald in the main event of the organization’s debut event in Ottawa, Ontario on Saturday, June 18.
“After the Hendricks fight, I wanted Lawler, but sometimes that just doesn’t work out,” Thompson said following the press event at the MGM Grand. “To go against somebody and finish him in the first round – a guy that has never been finished before and has gone 10 rounds with Robbie Lawler, (where) both (fights) were controversial, I knew for a fact I was going to get that fight with Lawler after finishing Hendricks the way I did, but that didn’t happen.
“It’s disappointing and I’m ready to put on another show for the fans here and the fans in Canada and I hope we can do that in June. And what better guy to fight in Canada than Rory MacDonald? He’s the best in the welterweight division. He’s the No. 1-ranked guy and to prove to the fans and the UFC that I’m ready for the next level, I have to face off against him.”
While the matchup pits the top two contenders in the welterweight division against one another, it’s also a pairing of two athletes that have spent plenty of time training together on the mats at Montreal’s Tristar Gym.
Even before Thompson burst on the scene with a first-round knockout win over Dan Stittgen at UFC 143, the multiple-time world champion kickboxer was making trips north of the border to train with Georges St-Pierre and the rest of the team at the Ferrier St. fight gym, including MacDonald.
That makes the matchup a little difficult and one that Thompson had hoped to avoid, but with a shot at Lawler and the welterweight title not in the cards for his next outing, the Simpsonville, South Carolina native is ready to set friendship aside and share the cage with the Canadian contender.
“I never really wanted to fight Rory because we’ve done training before, known each other for a long time, spent many years up at Tristar with (head coach) Firas (Zahabi) and Georges,” admitted Thompson, who also counts victories over Jake Ellenberger, Robert Whittaker and another Canuck, Patrick Cote, amongst the fighters he’s turned aside during his current six-fight winning streak. “That’s one thing I try to avoid, but sometimes you have to go out there and do it.
“It’s been a few years (since I last trained up there), but we’ve crossed paths many times – hung out, chatted. To me, it’s kind of like fighting a brother and me, I’ve got two brothers and we fight all the time.
“We both know it’s business and we’ll be friends before and after the fight; now we just get to punch each other in the face,” he added with a laugh, echoing thoughts MacDonald had shared earlier in the afternoon.
Whereas Thompson will enter the June main event in Ottawa off the biggest win of his career, MacDonald will be returning to the Octagon for the first time since coming up short in his bid to wrestle the welterweight title away from Lawler at UFC 189 last summer.
The bout, which topped Fight of the Year lists throughout the MMA community, was an instant classic that saw Lawler bloody MacDonald early, only to have the Canadian roar back to put the champion on the ropes, with the two engaging in a stand-off in the center of the Octagon, refusing to break eye contact with each other, at the close of the fourth round.
But a minute into the fifth, Lawler connected with another clean left and MacDonald went down and the bout was over, as his body succumbed to the accumulated punishment it had endured.
Many have wondered how such a physical and exhausting battle will impact “The Red King” going forward, questioning whether MacDonald will be the same fighter the next time he crosses the threshold into the Octagon. But the man who will face him in that return to the cage has no doubt that the 26-year-old Canadian will come back stronger than ever.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Rory is the most well-rounded fighter I believe that I’ve faced, and he’s been rounds with the champ,” Thompson offered. “He just came off a fight with Lawler and it was a war. He had Robbie Lawler hurt with the head kick. It was a blood bath, one of the most exciting fights of the year. I think people become better fighters after a loss and I think I’m going to step into the Octagon in June against the best Rory that we’ve seen in a few years.
“I truly believe that’s what is going to happen and I want that to be true because I want to fight the best Rory. I don’t want to fight anybody that’s injured or not 100 percent. As a fighter – and I know Rory is an honorable fighter as well – that’s what I want.”