UFC Nashville: Anthony Pettis-Stephen Thompson main event is matchmaking perfection | MMA
When it was first discussed, Saturday’s UFC Nashville main event pairing between Stephen Thompson and Anthony Pettis felt like one of those matchups people come up with on social media and text threads while spitballing ideas for the most entertaining fights possible at the moment with friends and colleagues.
After all, “Wonderboy” fights at welterweight and although he took a quick, two-fight trip down to featherweight a few years back, “Showtime” has spent the two years back at lightweight, where he’d re-established himself as a dangerous veteran in the upper tier of the UFC’s most deep and talented division.
It’s one of those fights that sounds tremendous when you’re cycling through a collection of names to stick next to either one of these tenured stars, but not something that was ever going to come together inside the Octagon.
It sounded like fantasy matchmaking at its finest, but not something that would actually come to pass, which is why the UFC deserves a ton of credit for bringing these two exciting athletes together in what is a perfect bit of matchmaking.
First and foremost, this is the kind of matchup that is sure to get everyone excited, as both have highlight reels filled with flashy offensive attacks and resumes that feature victories over some of the biggest names in their respective divisions.
Just thinking about these two standing across from one another inside the Octagon, it’s impossible not to envision a striking match where the two have taken a page out of Chris Lytle’s old playbook and entered into a gentlemen’s agreement to do away with takedowns and clinch work for the evening and keep things standing. Even if there isn’t a handshake deal in place, the likelihood that this turns into a back-and-forth kickboxing contest is high as both are at their best when they’re getting loose with their kick-heavy offensive attacks.
Secondly, this pairing comes at the right time for both men given where they each stand in their respective divisions and careers.
Thompson is 36-years-old and though he’s only 18-fights deep into his MMA career, the South Carolina native has been competing at a high level for the majority of his adult life, having amassed a 58-0 kickboxing record before transitioning to mixed martial arts.
He’s already shared the cage with a handful of the top names in the welterweight division, having gone 0-1-1 in his two-fight championship series against Tyron Woodley, and split a pair of fights with last weekend’s headlining tandem of Darren Till and Jorge Masvidal, losing to the former while defeating the latter.
While there are still a myriad of top contenders native to the welterweight division whom Thompson could face, the combination of his recent lack of results coupled with his standing as a tough, awkward out for just about anyone makes him a risky matchup for any of the new names working their way up the divisional ladder at the moment.
Although Kamaru Usman wrestling the title away from Woodley at UFC 235 creates a fresh opportunity for Thompson to potentially challenge for the belt again in the future, there are several contenders already within range of fighting for the title and “Wonderboy” would need to win three or four fights (perhaps more) in order to work his way into that grouping.
He’s certainly capable of putting together such a winning streak and beating Pettis would be a strong starting point, but you also have to wonder how keen Thompson is on facing some of the lesser-known, dangerous threats starting to work their way up the welterweight ranks at the moment.
Pettis is four years Thompson’s junior, but Saturday’s main event will be his 29th professional appearance and his days as an elite lightweight appear to be over.
As much as he looked outstanding collecting a second-round submission win over Michael Chiesa at UFC 226 last summer and put up a valiant effort against Tony Ferguson three months later, the former champion is just 2-5 in his last seven appearances in the 155-pound weight class and 3-6 overall in his last nine dating back to his title loss to Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 185.
Much like Thompson, “Showtime” has shared the Octagon with many of the biggest names in the division and isn’t in a position to merit a matchup with any of the others at the moment, which would seemingly relegate him to being the veteran half in a “Veteran vs. Upstart” pairing designed to get the up-and-coming name over.
It’s good work if you can get it and you’re interested, but Pettis appears uninterested in playing that role, which is understandable. When you’ve spent the better part of the last decade in the championship mix and facing some of the most established names in the division, the prospects of taking tough emerging talents like Gregor Gillespie, Carlos Diego Ferreira or Davi Ramos doesn’t sound all that appealing.
But a main event assignment against a fellow striker that doesn’t involve a serious weight cut is a much better fit and offers Pettis an opportunity to potentially jumpstart a permanent move to welterweight by knocking off a two-time title challenger and Top 5 fixture right out of the gate.
Lastly, it shows the UFC is willing to think outside of the box when it comes to booking main event bouts for standard Fight Night events and not just putting together the biggest names possible when pay-per-views are in need of headlining acts.
Saturday’s return to Nashville could have easily been Thompson taking on Leon Edwards or Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos or another relatively anonymous welterweight on a solid winning streak or Pettis facing a comparable lightweight foe.
Either option would have been justified, though neither would have been as well received, and rather than going the “what’s best for the division” route, the UFC found a way to put together an exciting, unconventional main event matchup that appeals to the masses and ultimately makes a lot of sense.
With reaction to this fight being generally positive and the potential for it being a fun, entertaining scrap, there is the potential for this being the first in a line of unexpected, but awesome matchups the promotion cobbles together with other competitors who reach a similar point in their careers.
And if this ends up being a one-off thing, here’s hoping it turns out as terrific on Saturday night as it looks on paper and is from a booking standpoint.