Stephen Thompson proves nice guys are tough and don’t always finish last

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5-min read

LAS VEGAS — Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson smiles a lot, likes to laugh and joke, is polite as all get-out and rarely has a bad thing to say about anyone. All that niceness — can we permanently dub him the “NMF” in the UFC, by the way? — tends to obscure his toughness.

But in his last outing, a Fight of the Night win over Vicente Luque at UFC 244 at Madison Square Garden in front of a sell-out crowd that included President Trump, Thompson fought more than half the fight with broken hands.

For a striker, that’s kind of like asking a sprinter to win the 100-meter with a sprained ankle. Each time Thompson threw a punch, it ached.

“Normally when you’re fighting, the adrenaline kicks in so much that when you get injured, you don’t feel it,” said Thompson, the No. 5-ranked welterweight who will face No. 11 Geoff Neal on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 17.

“When you can feel it in the fight, you know something is up.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d been through such a thing. At UFC 217 against Jorge Masvidal — the future “BMF,” by the way — Thompson broke both of his thumbs, but gutted out a unanimous decision victory.

It’s part of the mentality he learned from his father/coach, Ray Thompson. And when he walked to his corner following the first round of his fight with Luque, he brought along with him some bad news.

“I said, ‘Pops, I broke my hand,’ and he just said, ‘OK, but hit him with it anyway,’ ” Thompson said, giggling. “You learn when you are in this sport for any length of time that you’re always going to be dealing with an injury of some sort or other, so you have to know how to push the pain off to the side. In MMA, you go through this conditioning process.

“You condition your body and you get used to taking these bumps and bruises and feeling pain on a daily basis. You just have to put the pain out of your mind and keep pushing forward. It’s funny because after that [Luque] fight, everybody was coming up to me and saying, ‘Man, you had him hurt! Why didn’t you finish him?’ And I was like, ‘I was trying to,’ but my body wouldn’t let me hit him as hard as I wanted to.”

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 23:  Stephen Thompson walks to the Octagon prior to his welterweight bout against Anthony Pettis during the UFC Fight Night event at Bridgestone Arena on March 23, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Stephen Thompson, 37, holds a record of 15-4-1 with three of his losses coming in his last five fights. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

But for all the bumps and bruises he’s taken, Thompson said he feels no sense of urgency to win the title soon. He’s going to be 38 in February and in most cases, fighters who are closing in on 40 can all but forget about becoming a champion.

Thompson, though, doesn’t believe he’s anywhere near the end despite the aches and pains from a long fighting career.

He hasn’t been thrilled with the UFC’s matchmaking and, despite meaning no offense to Neal, doesn’t feel a win over the 11th ranked contender will move him forward toward his goal of winning the welterweight title.

“If I were him, I’d be feeling the same way,” Neal said.

But he wanted to get a fight in before 2020 was out and when he couldn’t get anyone ranked higher, he accepted the fight with Neal. But he believes that despite his lengthy career in MMA and in karate before that, he’s still got much left.

“I feel like I’m going to be able to do this at a high-level for many years to come,” Thompson said. “I’m 37 and I’ll be 38 in February, but I feel like I’m 25 years old. I haven’t taken a ton of damage, especially to the noggin. The first time I ever got knocked out was against Anthony Pettis [on March 23, 2019].

“To be candid, that’s the only fight I feel like I lost. There were the Tyson Woodley fights, the Darren Till fight, I felt like I won those. So the Pettis fight was the first one I felt I’d lost and the first time I’d been knocked out in close to 80 fights.”

He also has the benefit of having his father at his side. Ray Thompson is a long-time MMA coach who understands the sport inside and out. While many father and son combinations have petered out and the son has wound up leaving the father, the Thompsons started together and will end together.

Stephen said he has his say on things, but defers to his father whom he said he respects and knows will always have his back.

“My Dad allows me to put my say in every now and then,” Stephen Thompson said. “Sometimes, I’ll put some ideas out there, but if I get a little too far ahead of myself, my Dad will say, ‘Listen, I’m the coach. You’re the student. You’re the guy fighting, but this is my job to train you.’ I understand that, and that has to do with just all-out respect.

“I respect my father and what he has done for me, not only as a martial artist but as a man. That has a lot to do with our relationship remaining so strong, me understanding that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. Once you start getting a big head and thinking you have it all figured out and not listening to your coaches, that’s when things start going downhill. I have so much respect for my Dad as a man, as a coach and as someone who knows what’s best for him, I understand where the line needs to be drawn in that regard.”

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