With all of the machismo that exists in the MMA world — whether it’s the lifted Hummers, the over-the-top tattoos, Ed Hardy t-shirts, goofy haircuts or anything else that a hater might use to stereotype the sport — it’s refreshing to speak with a fighter that’s truly just out there having fun.
Real hardcore martial-arts fans remember Chuck Norris’s World Combat League. While MMA was slowly creeping into the mainstream, the WCL was turning out some of the most dangerous strikers in the world. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson was the greatest kickboxer to ever enter the WCL ring. He wasn’t too flashy or obnoxious, but he did exhibit traditional martial-arts values while knocking people out. He is arguably the most technically proficient striker to transition to MMA.
In the mid-2000s, the WCL went under. A couple years later, Thompson made his pro MMA debut. From his first fight in February 2010 to his sixth fight at UFC 143, he carried his combined kickboxing and MMA record to 26 straight wins, with no defeats. Enter Matt “The Immortal” Brown. Brown was the first and only opponent to hand the South Carolina native a ding on his pro record, with one weird exception.
“That was legitimately my first lost,” Thompson told Combat Press. “I fought in the World Combat League against Raymond Daniels, and in the first 30 seconds of the first round, I ended up tearing every ligament in my left leg, so it didn’t really count, because nothing was really thrown.
“Raymond Daniels had actually grabbed me around my neck, which you weren’t supposed to do at the time. When he grabbed me and pulled me to the side, I ended up stepping with my left leg and my leg was straight. Well, they didn’t end up getting the sweat off the mat from the previous fight, so my foot slipped and my knee just buckled inward. My foot was pretty much close to my face. It was pretty disgusting.”
Thompson has to be one of the only guys in the world of combat that will speak about his only true loss or his gruesome injury with a smile on his face. This guy is not only a badass, but he’s like talking to a grade schooler without a care in the world. A lot of this has to do with the way he was brought up.
Thompson’s father, Ray, has been training in martial arts for over four decades and holds black belts in various disciplines. In 1983, he opened Upstate Karate in Simpsonville, S.C., and his eldest son quickly followed in his father’s footsteps. Wonderboy also holds black belts in multiple disciplines, as well as a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under his brother-in-law, Carlos. While Stephen Thompson’s own training has shaped him as the man he is today, he enjoys teaching others more than anything else.
“I’ve been teaching kids’ classes since the age of 15, and I love it, man,” Thompson said. “Most fighters, they train, and that’s all they can focus on. I love teaching the kids, because I know what martial arts did for me growing up. It taught me respect, honesty, integrity, courtesy, self-control and indomitable spirit, and that’s what I like to give back to them.
“I’m a kid at heart, and I love to see the changes. We have kids that have been there for eight, nine, 10 years. Just to see how they were when they first started to how they are now, is completely different. Those are positive changes, and I love to see that.”
Teaching and training is what Thompson does. It’s not just for work and not just for fun. The gym is his life, so it only makes sense that he now sits in the upper echelon of the UFC’s welterweight division.
After his loss to Brown, Thompson got right back to his winning ways and hasn’t looked back. In just over three years, he knocked out three opponents, including Jake Ellenberger and Robert Whittaker. He also took a couple of decision wins, bringing his standing to No. 8 in the UFC’s official welterweight rankings. He hasn’t fought since July 2015, but he has been chomping at the bit to get back into action. That all came to fruition during one of the great American holidays.
“I was actually spending Thanksgiving with Chris Weidman up in Long Island, and I wasn’t really expecting it,” Thompson explained. “[UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva had called my manager and told my manager that I’ll be fighting Johny Hendricks on Feb. 6, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ At the time, before that, I was expecting a fight with Neil Magny, but he went up to fight Kelvin Gastelum. I was disappointed I didn’t have a fight, and the only other guys were Tyron Woodley and Johny Hendricks. I knew Woodley was promised the next title fight, so the only one left was Hendricks. At first, I was nervous, but after that, I was more excited than anything. This is why I do this. I want to fight the best fighters and move up the rankings and, hopefully, have a title shot here pretty soon.”
On Saturday night, at UFC Fight Night 82 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Thompson and Hendricks will headline what is sure to be an explosive night of action. While this may be one of the rare non-title events for this particular venue, this fight certainly has title implications. It is the biggest fight of Thompson’s young career, and it is a must-win contest for Hendricks.
Hendricks has already been at the top once. The very last person to face Georges St-Pierre before he retired and vacated the strap, Hendricks was also the only person to take GSP to a split decision during the Canadian’s record-setting run of nine successful title defenses in a row. As soon as GSP left the promotion, Hendricks was back in the saddle, capturing the vacant title in a scrap against Robbie Lawler, who was in the middle of a career resurgence.
Lawler was able to win the pair’s December 2014 rematch by split decision, but the UFC did not grant Hendricks the immediate rubber match. The champ Lawler has since moved on to defend his belt twice. The welterweight division has plenty of folks in line, with the aforementioned Woodley loosely scheduled next, but a dominant performance by Hendricks this weekend could push him to the front of the line. However, if Thompson goes in there and puts a stamp on the former champ, it’s going to be very hard to ignore the Wonderboy as well. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for the 32-year-old kickboxing champion.
“I think it depends on how I win the fight,” Thompson said. “If it’s a spectacular knockout, hopefully, I get the title shot after Woodley — because, as I understand, Woodley was promised the next title shot. But, if it goes all three rounds and I win by unanimous or split decision, or whatever, I may need to fight one more time to get up to that next title shot.”
Hendricks is no cake walk. In addition to his tremendous striking power, his most impressive pedigree lies in his wrestling. As a four-time NCAA Division I All-American out of Oklahoma State University, Hendricks won national championships in 2005 and 2006 before transitioning into MMA right out of college. Thompson has been training with Weidman, another Division I All-American wrestler, since the former middleweight champ’s first bout against Anderson Silva in 2013. However, in his recent camps, Thompson also brought in Olympic-level wrestler Matt Miller, who trains out of Tristar Gym in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
“Working with Matt Miller and Chris has given me tremendous confidence in my wrestling,” said Thompson. “Obviously, I want to keep the fight standing, because they eventually want to take the fight to the ground once they realize they can’t stand with me. But, I understand that Johny Hendricks has one-[punch] knockout power. He can knock out anybody on a good day, so I also need to be aware of that. I need to keep the distance management, keep him on the ends on my kicks and punches, and try to beat him on my feet. I also understand I’ll end up getting taken down — it just happens when you have a guy like that — but I’ll work on getting back up to my feet.”
There are not a lot of secrets here. Everyone knows how Thompson and Hendricks fight and what skills they bring to the table. At this point, it’s just a waiting game until Saturday night to see who can impose their will more effectively.
In the meantime, life is business as usual for Thompson. Teaching, training and maintaining his success as a fighter is what he’s all about. He very much lives a life similar to NFL lineman J.J. Watt. Watt’s friends are always prodding him to go out and party and maintain the life that people are accustomed to with football players. However, Watt lives by a different tune.
A couple years ago, a quote was released explaining why Watt doesn’t have a very interesting personal life. The quote very much spoke to his limited time to have a successful career, and how the partying and girls can wait until he’s finished. Thompson sees eye to eye with Watt in his own approach to his life and career.
“I’m not married, not dating. I’m a single man, and I’ve got a short window to do what I want to do,” said Thompson. “That’s about it. You know, you can do all that stuff later. I think it’s OK to go out and have a good time now and then, when you’re not in training camp, but during training camp, you have to stay focused on that. On Feb. 6, I’m about to go step into the cage with one of the best fighters in the world. That’s all I’m focused on right now. You have plenty of time to do that stuff later.”
Regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, Thompson’s students can expect to see him back at the gym very soon.
“Man, I live at that place,” he said. “Upstate Karate is my second home. Actually, it’s my first home. The house I live in is really my second home, because I’m at work more than I’m at home. But, it’s a family-owned business — my family has owned it for 32 years — and we live in a small town, so everybody goes to Upstate Karate. We have grandkids of students. We have three generations of martial artists.”
Thompson falls well outside of the stereotypical fighter profile. He’s not focused on flash. He’s not trying to act like a badass for publicity reasons. When he steps into the cage at UFC Fight Night 82, fans are going to see the true spirit of a martial artist from a guy who is really just a kid at heart.