He woke up as a nervous young man on the morning of his UFC debut on February 4. He’d been competing – and winning – since he was just 3, but he was now 29 and at the pinnacle of his career.
The realization of what lay ahead had hit him. He was 62-0 in his fighting career, but fighting in the UFC was, well, different.
“I was very nervous at breakfast,” he says now, chuckling at the thought. “There was a lot of hype around me and so many people were wanting to see me do well and were expecting a lot from me.
“There was also an internal sense that I wanted to do well, not just for me but for [UFC president] Dana White, [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva and all those guys who had faith in me and gave me a chance.”
As he walked to the cage, he thought about letting the fight unfold naturally and not trying to force things.
Just as a baseball player will say it’s hardest to hit a home run when you’re trying to do so, a fighter will tell you it’s difficult to score a knockout when you’re looking for it all the time and loading up on every shot.
“I didn’t want to force things and try to do something spectacular,” Thompson said. “When you try to do something spectacular, it never happens.”
So Thompson decided to just go out and follow his game plan against Stittgen. As the fight unfolded, he was doing extremely well, landing a punch here and a kick there that, while not necessarily doing a lot of damage, were scoring points.
He settled into a comfortable groove when, all of a sudden, the spectacular came out of nowhere.
He threw a jab and then a right hand behind it. He let the right hand hang out there a bit longer than normal. Often, that can be dangerous, but Thompson followed the right with a roundhouse kick to the head.
Stittgen was out upon impact and the fans in the arena roared their approval at one of the most spectacular head-kick knockouts in UFC history.
To make it even better, Thompson didn’t realize he had exploited Stittgen’s weakness.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t see the opening,” Thompson said. “What a lot of people who don’t know the fight game don’t understand is that it’s your coaches, and what they see outside the cage, that has a lot to do with how you perform. My Dad [Ray] might see something I don’t see and you have to practice while you’re up in the cage listening to your coaches. A lot of times, fighters have a hard time doing that.
“My Dad saw the opening. Every time my opponent threw a jab, he’d drop his right hand. My Dad saw that and he began to yell to me, ‘Show me the money! Show me that money!’ It’s a very basic technique we call ‘The Money Maker.’ ”
Thompson followed orders and the money soon followed. He earned a $65,000 bonus for Knockout of the Night, but he also got a return engagement in the UFC fairly quickly.
Matt Brown, who fought later on the card, knocked out Chris Cope in 79 seconds. He pleaded with White, Silva and UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta for the Knockout of the Night bonus. When they ignored Brown’s pleas and opted to go with Thompson, Brown asked to fight Thompson.
On Monday, Thompson got an unexpected phone call from Silva.
“He was calling to offer me a fight with Matt Brown,” Thompson said. “Of course I said ‘yes.’ ”
And now, the pressure will ratchet up a little against Brown, a veteran with 24 MMA fights.
If meeting a guy with four times as much MMA experience didn’t put enough pressure on him, his buddy, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, unintentionally added a bit more.
In a video he did with the UFC, St. Pierre said Thompson is championship material and raved about his striking.
“Wonderboy is the best striker I’ve seen in my life,” St. Pierre told the UFC camera crew. “And he will have a lot of success in the UFC.”
St. Pierre may be right and Thompson may go on to unprecedented heights in the UFC. But it’s hard to imagine he’ll do anything more spectacular than he did in the first round of his first UFC fight.
That head kick-knockout of Stittgen is one that will be on UFC highlight reels forever.
“It’s nice to get something like that, but you know what, you’re only as good as your last fight,” he said. “It’s nice to make my debut like that, but now, all that matters is how I fight against Matt Brown.”
True enough. Nobody who ever saw it, though, will forget that moment when Thompson separated Stittgen from his senses.