The spotlight is not all it’s cracked up to be. In combat sports, especially, the spotlight can come with a lot of baggage and high expectations. When a fighter is training for a world championship, media obligations can often become quite a distraction.
For over two years now, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has served as the headliner or co-headliner of a UFC card. The first one was pretty low-key. He faced Jake Ellenberger at The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale. The last one was a rematch against Tyron Woodley for the welterweight championship. The first time he faced the champ, it ended in a majority draw. The rematch was a majority decision in favor of the incumbent champ.
“Never leave it in the judges’ hands,” Thompson told Combat Press. “You got to go in there and put in the work. You need to let your hands and feet fly, like I know I can. I’m very disappointed in my last fight. Even though I thought I won it, I didn’t do the best that I’m capable of. I was very hesitant knowing that Tyron Woodley is a very powerful guy, and he backed up the whole time. I didn’t expect that at all. I thought he was going to come forward. I just need to let my hands go and do what I know I can do.”
Thompson felt out of sorts in his last couple outings. Some of this can be attributed to his media obligations really stealing his focus. The more “promotional” the UFC has become, the more cumbersome are the obligations that come with it.
This Saturday, Thompson is back in action on the main card of UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Even though he will be standing across the cage from fellow top-five welterweight Jorge Masvidal in a pairing that could easily serve as a main event in its own right, the two sit behind three title fights.
“I think it’s great,” said the decorated karate black belt. “It gives me something different, because I was thinking about Tyron Woodley for a year. It gives me a different style. It’s cool to fight in New York City, which is like a home away from home for me anyway. The fans there are amazing, but I don’t have the media obligations that I did for Tyron. I can just sit back and focus on the fight, rather than having to do all those media things, traveling everywhere. I can just focus on the fight, which is great. My last five fights have been main events, so it’s kind of cool.
“I don’t see how Conor McGregor does all that media stuff. You have to have training in that itself.”
The fight with Masvidal really does bring up an interesting match-up. Since joining the UFC, both guys have won most of their fights with striking. Neither has been stopped in the Octagon. Thompson has the most dazzling kicking arsenal in the game. Masvidal has very quick and heavy hands. This one is not likely to get to the ground. The best part about this bout is that the two fighters were the ones working to set this match-up.
“Actually, me and Jorge had talked about it, before the UFC came to talk to us about it,” Thompson said. “He had just come off a loss to [Demian] Maia and said he wanted a fight, and I told him I’d fight him. I was on the injured list, but I’d fight him. I wanted to fight somebody in the top five anyway. He called me out on social media, and that kind of fired the fans up and the UFC jumped on board.”
Thompson usually travels out to New York to train with UFC middleweight Chris Weidman and many others for his fight camps. This time, however, he chose to stay close to home.
“It was too difficult for me to head out,” Thompson explained. “I wanted to go to New York, and then New York came to us. Chris Weidman came to South Carolina and spent a week with us here. We got some good training in. My buddy Danny Salinas from New Mexico came out. He is a very fiery, scrappy fighter, a lot like Jorge Masvidal. I brought in pretty much everybody I could, and when I train at home, I feel more comfortable anyway.”
Thompson has always been a light-hearted and relaxed fighter. He attributes a lot of this to the kids program at his family’s gym, Upstate Karate in Simpsonville, S.C., where he serves as an instructor. He has always stated in the past that this is one of the most important aspects of his training.
“When we get down to the last two weeks, we back off of the hard sparring, so we’ve been doing a lot of small glove stuff, light sparring and a lot of situational stuff,” Thompson said. “For most of the cardio, I run hills, and I do a lot of hard bag work and mitt work. We do five, five-minute rounds, even though it’s a three-round fight. It pushes me harder and makes the three rounds a little bit easier.
“I’ve got my first training session already in today. I’m getting ready to eat lunch right now, and we’ll being picking up kids from school about two o’clock for our after-school program. For me, it’s full-time. I already consider myself a young 34-year-old. It keeps me young still being here, hanging out with the kids [and] teaching them. It’s a blast.”
Thompson has become a very well-rounded fighter over the years, but striking has always been his forte. That makes the match-up with Masvidal a dream fight. This one could easily steal the show.
“You’re going to see the best Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson — the best striking,” Thompson promised. “This fight has fireworks written all over it. People are talking about me and Jorge’s fight more than the main-event guys. People are really excited about it, which really pushes me and drives me to put on a show and give it all I got. You know, I never go out there looking for a knockout, but you are really going to see some fireworks from Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.”
Saturday night is going to be chock full of fun fights, including a stacked UFC 217 main card. A win over Masvidal will put Thompson right back in the title conversation. He is ready to make that happen. What’s next is still up in the air, but Wonderboy is feeling loose and ready to rumble.
“Of course, I know that [UFC President] Dana White said the winner of Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos will be up next, but I don’t know how long Tyron will be out, so I want the winner of that fight,” said Thompson. “You don’t really have a real No. 1 contender, which makes the 170-pound division really exciting right now. I think it’s the toughest division in the UFC. I would love to fight one of those guys. I’m not giving up on that belt, man. I’m still moving forward.”