In the competitive realm of UFC, the road to the zenith is filled with twists, turns, and unexpected detours. Two-time welterweight title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson understands this journey all too well. Over the years, he has graced the octagon with commendable grace and skill, locking horns with some of the most formidable adversaries the sport has seen. As the anticipation for UFC 296 rises, he prepares to face yet another formidable challenger: the undefeated Shavkat Rakhmonov.
Rakhmonov, with his impeccable 17-0 record, emerged as a surprise package in the UFC in 2020. Many seasoned fighters, including Thompson, were unfamiliar with this new entrant. Sharing his initial reservations on *The MMA Hour*, “Wonderboy” said, “It was a year-and-a-half ago, maybe, the UFC wanted me to fight Shavkat, and to be honest with you, I didn’t know who he was at the time.” However, after witnessing Rakhmonov’s triumphs over high-caliber opponents like Neil Magny and Geoff Neal, Thompson’s perspective took a 180-degree turn.
Thompson’s aspirations extend beyond just Rakhmonov. The desire to compete with those ranked above him is evident in his statements. “I wanted [Kamaru] Usman, because Usman called me out, but the UFC already has something set up for him. Most of the guys I’ve faced have been ranked behind me… So the Usman fight didn’t happen, so there was Shavkat.”
Thompson’s UFC journey has been nothing short of a roller-coaster. His tenacity was on full display at UFC 205, where he battled Tyron Woodley to a majority draw. However, an immediate rematch at UFC 209 saw him face a disheartening majority decision loss. His subsequent 4-5 record post the Woodley bouts, including a commendable win over Kevin Holland, kept him in the limelight but just outside the championship circle.
However, the mark of a true champion is the ability to rise, adapt, and evolve. Thompson’s sharp focus on the challenge ahead reveals his championship mindset. Analyzing Rakhmonov’s technique, he remarked, “He’s a great fighter, he’s undefeated… So what better guy to show the UFC that I deserve a No. 1 shot or a title than to fight the dude that nobody wants to fight?”
For Thompson, strategy is paramount. Drawing from Rakhmonov’s past performances and strengths, Thompson has his game plan chalked out. “No. 1, defend the takedown,” he articulated, highlighting the importance of verticality in this duel. Acknowledging Rakhmonov’s unparalleled wrestling skills and his own past vulnerabilities, “Wonderboy” adds, “He’s going to be trying to shoot… He’s got that 77-inch reach… So my goal, obviously, keep the fight standing and pick him apart.”
Despite his unwavering dedication and spectacular performance against Kevin Holland in 2022, Thompson encountered unexpected setbacks. A much-anticipated bout against Michel Pereira was derailed, leading to a series of controversies and debates in the MMA community. UFC President Dana White’s remarks further stirred the pot. Yet, amidst all the chaos, “Wonderboy” remained steadfast, his eyes firmly set on the prize.
UFC 296 isn’t just another fight for Thompson. It symbolizes a chance at redemption, an opportunity to showcase his prowess, and a platform to reassert his position in the welterweight division. While some observers view his match against Rakhmonov as a punitive measure, Thompson chooses to see it as a golden opportunity. His recent remarks reflect this sentiment, “He was supposed to fight Gastelum, (but) I think Gastelum got cut. He didn’t have anybody. I saw him on social media. I know he’s ranked above me. It just worked out for both of us.”
For Thompson, the bout is a step closer to reclaiming his legacy, a legacy built punch by punch, fight by fight. As the MMA community awaits this electrifying showdown, one thing is certain: both warriors will give it their all, but only one will emerge victorious.