In a division suddenly flush with contenders, Stephen Thompson has risen to the top.
Thompson chewed up and spit out Johny Hendricks in the UFC Fight Night 82 main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as he took out the former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder with first-round punches. Finished for the first time in his 21-fight career, Hendricks required intervention from referee John McCarthy 3:31 into round one.
“Wonderboy” was dazzling. He shut down the only two takedowns Hendricks attempted and went to work with his standup. Thompson blasted the four-time NCAA All-American with kicks to the legs, body, arms and head while mixing in crisp, powerful punches. He staggered Hendricks with a searing right hand upstairs, pressed him into the cage and slammed a thrusting kick into his chest. A stabbing straight left sat down the “Bigg Rigg,” and Thompson cleaned up the rest with one final burst of punches.
According to FightMetric data, Thompson outpaced Hendricks 25-11 in total strikes and 24-7 in significant strikes. It was the kind of rout few saw coming.
In wake of UFC Fight Night “Hendricks vs. Thompson,” here are five matches that ought to be considered:
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Stephen Thompson vs. Robbie Lawler: With the status of Carlos Condit still uncertain and with Tyron Woodley having remained inactive for more than a year, Thompson has become the most logical choice as the No. 1 contender at 170 pounds. He has rattled off six straight victories, four of them finishes, since his April 2012 loss to Matt Brown and appears to have closed the remaining holes in his game. Plus, Thompson’s exciting style makes him an easy sell. Lawler last fought at UFC 195 on Jan. 2, when he retained his title with a split decision over the aforementioned Condit.
Roy Nelson vs. Derrick Lewis: Nelson, who turns 40 in June, did nothing to add to his extensive highlight reel, but he did enough to get past the plodding Jared Rosholt in the co-main event. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 winner snapped a three-fight losing streak with the unanimous decision and kept his foot in the heavyweight door. While Nelson clearly has seen his better days, his howitzer of a right hand makes him a threat against almost anyone and allows him to serve as a proper litmus test for rising contenders. Lewis clobbered Damian Grabowski with ground-and-pound on the undercard, securing his fifth win in seven UFC appearances.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Kyoji Horiguchi: Unfortunately for Benavidez, two losses to flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson stand as roadblocks to another shot at 125-pound gold. Nevertheless, the 31-year-old answered the challenge from Zach Makovsky, rolled to a unanimous decision and extended his latest winning streak to five fights. Benavidez overwhelmed the former Bellator MMA and Resurrection Fighting Alliance titleholder with speed and volume, racking up 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 marks on the scorecards. Horiguchi has won 10 of his last 11 bouts -- his only loss was to Johnson -- and last competed at a UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 26 in Japan, where be bested Roufusport’s Chico Camus.
Ovince St. Preux vs. Jimi Manuwa: St. Preux fought through an apparent ankle injury to take a unanimous verdict from onetime Strikeforce champion Rafael Cavalcante. A former linebacker at the University of Tennessee, the 32-year-old lashed out at the fading Cavalcante with kicks to the body and clubbing left hands upstairs. St. Preux also mixed in takedowns and brutalized the Brazilian with ground-and-pound, nearly finishing it in the waning moments of the third round. He owns a stellar 16-3 record across his past 19 outings, losing only to Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader and Gegard Mousasi. The twice-beaten Manuwa has not fought since being knocked out by Anthony Johnson at UFC 191 in September.
Mike Pyle vs. Court McGee: Pyle keeps trucking along at the age of 40. The former World Extreme Cagefighting champion weathered a shaky start against Sean Spencer and wiped out the Octagon MMA rep with a spinning back elbow and a subsequent volley of violent strikes -- knees finished the job -- in the third round of their welterweight showcase. Pyle entered the cage on a two-fight losing streak and left it having breathed new life into his career. McGee returned from a two-year absence at UFC 194 on Dec. 14, when “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 11 winner captured a unanimous decision from Marcio Alexandre Jr.