Kicking off a fight card can be a lonely experience—even in the UFC, which usually reserves that spot for newbies and snoozers competing in quarter-filled arenas. To make fans take notice is a difficult feat, but Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson was up to the task at UFC 143.
Stephen Thompson got his opportunity to open up a show at February’s UFC 143. At 5-0, Thompson was slotted to fight The Ultimate Fighter alum and three-time Octagon veteran Justin Edwards. An injury to Edwards, however, required a change of opponent, and fellow UFC rookie Dan Stittgen got the call.
While Thompson’s MMA credentials made him look slightly less experienced on paper than Stittgen (7-1), the true story takes a little bit of digging to get to. Thompson went into his UFC debut with an unblemished record in nearly 60 amateur and professional kickboxing matches, sporting a knockout percentage of almost 70%. In fact, before Thompson stepped into the cage, he was already training with
some of the top MMA talent in the world, including Rashad Evans, Nate Marquardt, and Georges St-Pierre, who walked Thompson to the Octagon for his debut.
After a hug from the UFC Welterweight Champion, the Octagon door shut and Thompson wasted no time showcasing his world-class karate skills, landing a stealthy head kick-KO of Stittgen in the first round. With the KO, Wonderboy put the UFC welterweight division on notice…short notice.
Growing up in the small town of Simpsonville, South Carolina, Thompson didn’t have much of a choice when it came to martial arts. It was in his blood. His father, Ray, was an influential figure and instructor on the kickboxing scene.
“It was a family thing,” says Thompson. “Sitting at the dinner table, we talked about the fight game and what tournament was coming up the next weekend. It was a great way of life. The martial arts that I grew up with were not all about kicking and punching—they were also about building character.”
One of five kids, Thompson and his siblings hit the mats at Ray’s studio when they turned 3 years old. The integration of martial arts at such a young age helped Thompson earn black belts in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and Kenpo Karate and become a talented kickboxer. He racked up titles everywhere he went, including in Chuck Norris’ World Combat League and a 2005 World Association of Kickboxing Organizations Championship at a tournament held in Szeged, Hungary, to become the first American to win a gold in the tournament since 1983. Just a year later, however, Thompson tore all of the ligaments in his left knee while training, putting him out of kickboxing for three years. He had two surgeries on his knee, and 40 percent of his meniscus had to be removed.
“I was told that I would probably never fight again,” says Thompson. “That was devastating to hear at first, but that’s one of the reasons martial arts helps you. It keeps your mind strong, always persevering and keeping that indomitable spirit alive. I always keep positive people around me, so I didn’t let that get me down.”
The ACL injury that has ruined careers for countless athletes across pro sports turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Thompson could have done the easy thing—retreat and focus on the Simpsonville school that his father started and where he continues to work as the head children’s instructor. But with the “Wonderboy” moniker, you get the sense that Thompson isn’t someone who takes the path of least resistance.
During his knee rehab, he made the decision to start training for his MMA debut. He met St-Pierre and TriStar Gym head trainer Firas Zahabi in 2008, and they requested that Thompson help GSP train for his upcoming fight with Jon Fitch. Thompson was hooked. From there, he began working with Rashad Evans during one of his training camps and even spent time with Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida.
In February 2010, Thompson made his pro MMA debut, and, in less than two years, he racked up an undefeated record of 5-0 before the UFC came calling. Humbled by the ground game early on, Thompson’s training with St-Pierre, Evans, Marquardt, and his brother-in-law Carlos Machado—an eighth degree black belt in BJJ—is paying off.
“I move a lot more in a kickboxing match because I know the guy isn’t going to try to take me down,” he says. “During my training camps with Rashad, Georges, and Nate—these guys are sick wrestlers—I kept getting taken down every freaking time I would try to hit them. I had to go back and change some things up with the way I moved and with my stance. That was something I had to play with and think about for a while, but it has definitely paid off.”
Road to Atlanta
After his quick KO at UFC 143 and subsequent $65,000 Knockout of the Night Bonus, Thompson was quickly put back to work. He will travel to Atlanta, GA, for UFC 145 on April 21 for a scrap with Matt Brown, who has recently made some disparaging remarks about the level of Thompson’s kickboxing and karate opponents, saying, “I could go 100–0 beating a bunch of idiots.”
“Brown is from a Muay Thai background, and I’m from American Kickboxing, so it’s always the story of what’s better—Muay Thai or karate,” says the 28-year-old Thompson. “I’ve fought all over the world against the best strikers in the world. For him to talk like that, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He will definitely find out on April 21.”
In the lead up to UFC 145, Thompson has been living the life of a high profile fighter, traveling with Evans and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones as the three fighters attended a preevent press conference and all of the subsequent media obligations that come with notoriety.
Thompson has come a long way from his humble beginnings as a toddler in his father’s karate studio, but even with the new fame, Thompson is still the same guy.
“I’m always training, and I feel confident,” he says. “It’s my dream come true, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
“The martial arts that I grew up with were not all about kicking and punching—they were also about building character.”
Name: STEPHEN THOMPSON
Record: 6 -0
Class: Welterweight (170 lbs.)
Born: Simpsonville, SC
Fighting out of: Simpsonville, SC
Association: Pitch Black MMA/TriStar
Style: Kenpo, Karate
Enter the Wonder Dragon
As mentioned by UFC commentator Joe Rogan during the UFC 143 telecast, Stephen Thompson’s fighting stance is very unique and similar to the stance of Lyoto Machida, who is a past training partner of Thompson. Here’s how Thompson explained his stance:
“It’s definitely part of my karate background with a wide stance that’s more sideways, which allows me to switch sides. It’s a lot different than what people are used to in MMA. Lyoto and I are both karate guys, so our stances are similar. Our movement and way of covering distance are somewhat the same, but if you watch Lyoto, he leans back a little bit. When I’m fighting, my stance is wider. I’m a little more forward and my hands are down. I remember watching Muhammad Ali fight, and the way he kept his hands down and moved was amazing. I can distribute my weight faster with my hands down because I’m top-heavy. I can use my front leg a bit easier and people don’t expect that. To use a round kick or side kick as a jab, people don’t see that in MMA. Karate has definitely helped out with my success in MMA.”