Stephen Thompson: Say Hello To The Bad Guy
Two weeks ago, I sat up at 2am hotly anticipating an arranged telephone interview with the UFC’s number one Welterweight Contender Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. As a long-time fan of Thompsons, we exchanged formalities to begin our conversation and I had been instantly captivated by the sheer charm of the 35 year old from South Carolina. At a time when trash talking is a formality, it was refreshing to hear someone remain true to themselves, particularly when the opposite characteristics have proven to be so successful with a certain contender that fights for an interim belt at UFC225.
Heading into his bout with Darren Till at UFC Liverpool on May 27th, he explained that he now finds himself in a strange situation – ‘It’s funny because I’m considered the bad guy, and when you think of the bad guy, you definitely don’t think of Stephen Thompson’. Till is right when he says there will be a raucous atmosphere on the night; 11,000 tickets sold out within an hour and the majority of those in the crowd will be proud Scousers, roaring their man on to victory. The Scousers always back their own and so Wonderboy could be the nastiest man on the planet, and the reception he would receive would likely be no different.
Traditionally, Liverpool has always been a fighting city, from the days of Shea Neary, Nel Tarleton and John Conteh, to the present day and the likes of Tony Bellew, ‘The Smith Brothers’, Paddy Holohan and of course Darren Till. At its roots, South Carolina wouldn’t be renowned as a fighting hotbed, but Thompson instead comes from a fighting family – ‘This is something that I’ve been doing since the age of three years old and I had my first kickboxing fight at the age of 15, following on from my Dad that fought in the 70s, my sister fought before me also’ he explained. His father, the great Ray Thompson now works as his trainer and manager, continuing the great history of fighting in the Thompson family.
I asked Thompson what his motivation for fighting was, it’s a hard sport to be in and after several setbacks at the highest level, I pondered what was able to keep him going at a competitive level. After a brief pause, he responded, recalling his roots through a gloried amateur kickboxing career (amassing 5 world titles along the way), to linking up with Georges Saint Pierre and honing his craft with elite wrestlers and jiu-jitsu practitioners. ‘I want to be known as the best fighter in the world’ he stated, before continuing ‘I wanna make my Dad proud and I want to be a good role model for my students. I’ve always been a very competitive person and I just want to test myself and in twenty to thirty years, be able to look back and say that I fought the best people in the entire world – not many other people can say that. I do it for the honour, the glory and the money is just a bonus for me’.
If there was ever a time that motivation was needed then it was over the last six months for ‘Wonderboy’; after suffering injuries to both his thumbs in a unanimous decision victory against Jorge Masvidal, it was a frustrating spell on the sidelines. Thankfully though, Thompson is fully healed and ready to get back to business once again – ‘I ended up breaking both my thumbs and also tearing a ligament in my right thumb during the second round of the Masvidal fight and it took a little bit longer than I thought for them to heal up, but they’re feeling pretty good right now’ he said.
When speaking on the experience itself, he explained that it was the worst injury he had suffered mid-fight, while still managing to see it through to the final bell. ‘When you’re out there and then you get injured, you usually don’t feel it until afterwards because of how much your adrenaline is going, but in that second round, I had such excruciating pain in both my left and right thumbs and I just knew something was wrong, but I knew if I showed it then Masvidal would have just picked the pace up or tried to finish me off, so I had to pretend that I was ok. After the second round, I was pushing him as hard as I could despite the feeling in my thumbs, but I couldn’t even close my fist, so every time I threw a punch then I was just jamming my thumbs and man it was just horrible’ he said.
Injuries are a brutal part of the sport, but when a fighter is able to battle through one and still emerge victorious, it can have a real mental boost when heading into later bouts. Thompson is no stranger to facing adversity during a fight and he took the time to look back at some of his most memorable moments during our call. ‘I mean I’ve had fights before when it’s just been like a brawl and most people would give up but I didn’t – if you look back at my fight with Matt Brown, he gave me a butt-whooping for three rounds and I mean I was hanging in there but it not only showed the people watching, but it also showed myself that I could do it and not give up’ he reminisced, and he indicated that this bout helped him mentally when heading into one of the more memorable bouts of his career to date. ‘Then when I fought Tyron for that first fight, he knocked me down twice, I was in that deep guillotine and just knowing that you can keep going, it helped me push through it’.
The second bout between Thompson and Woodley failed to meet the expectations of the audience and Stephen certainly knows that, but I couldn’t help mentioning to him that I feel people are quick to forget what a great fight their first encounter was. He replied, clearly pleased with that I’d stated - ‘I’m glad you said that! People forget about that first fight we had, it was one of the fights of the year. I remember re-watching it and when I pulled my head out of that guillotine, that place erupted. I think we both had different expectations for each other ahead of the second and I thought he’d be more aggressive and that was what I’d planned for. The fans weren’t happy about that one but they have to remember that the first one was epic’.
To get back to Darren Till, Thompson recounted the first time that he had heard the name of the Liverpudlian mentioned – ‘I first heard about Darren Till when somebody just asked if I would fight him. I was in New York City and preparing for the fight with Masvidal. I told them ‘I’m sorry, I don’t actually know who Darren Till is, but sure yeah I’ll fight him’.
Despite the rankings, ‘Wonderboy’ says he’s not taking Till lightly and accepts the comparisons to when he strolled in to Las Vegas as the 8th ranked contender in the division, only to decimate top contender Johny Hendricks; ‘Darren Till is a very hungry and young fighter, with great striking. He’s a big welterweight, so he’s coming out there to put me away and take my spot. I’m gonna let the UFC and the fans know that I’m here to stay. You see some fighters who almost give up, after they lost when fighting for the title, they just aren’t the same fighter anymore, but I’m not that guy. One day I’m gonna have that belt around my waist and this is my chance to show everybody’ he said.
After all, if the rankings were to be taken at face value then it would be Thompson fighting for an interim title next, and not the 2nd and 3rd placed contenders. Responding to the news of the title being fought for at UFC225, he said ‘Tyron is saying that he’s gonna be ready for August, so I don’t know if it’s just a ruse by the UFC to try and get Tyron back into training, but it’s definitely a strange situation’.
‘A lot of fans are saying to me, ‘you’re gonna go out there and crush this dude’, but I’m preparing myself more for this fight than ever before. Anybody in the UFC has the potential to put you away and the guys that you least expect are usually the ones to do it’ he said when delving back into the rankings situation. The UFC have taken a bold move in pitting Till against Thompson, so it’s down to the latter to prove that he’s still the man to beat. Stephen understands how the business works and knows that the powers that be are hoping for a new star to emerge from this side of the pond – ‘I understand that Bisping is on the way out and they need a new guy to promote from the UK – Darren Till is definitely that. He has the gift of the gab, he’s a good looking kid and a good fighter’ he explained.
So far, the furthest that Thompson has travelled for a fight is Canada, where he defeated Rory MacDonald, but he insists there was no hesitation when the opportunity to travel to Liverpool was presented – ‘I hadn’t really thought about it until the UFC came to me and I told them ‘Heck yeah, I’ll fight in Liverpool’, I’ve never been to Liverpool and so that was just another thing tugging at me to say, you really need to take this fight. It’s an experience, I think it’ll be cool, I’m coming into this guy’s hometown and I’m actually gonna stay a few days after to do a little bit of sightseeing’.
I then mentioned the fact that it’s a three day weekend in England when the fight takes place, so despite it being a Sunday, Thompson shouldn’t expect the crowd to be any tamer. The Scouse fans will have been in the Mersey bars from Friday at 5pm, through the Champions League final on Saturday (where Liverpool will face Real Madrid) and likely right through to the main event on Sunday evening. ‘It’s gonna be pretty interesting, I hear the fans are really passionate about their fighters and the sport of MMA, I know they’re gonna be really rowdy and I just can’t wait for the experience’ he said, before adding ‘I’ve been in enemy territory before, when I fought Rory in Canada, but I understand that Liverpool is probably gonna be on another level’. He’s absolutely right.
Above the sightseeing, the chance to derail a prospect and the new deal etc, probably the most exciting thing for Thompson is that he won’t be facing a wrestler in his next bout. He’ll have the chance to demonstrate his fabled striking techniques and remind the fans what ‘Wonderboy’ has to offer. ‘It is refreshing and that’s another reason that I’m so excited for this fight. I fought Robert Whittaker which was a stand-up affair, but from then on it’s pretty much been wrestlers – Jake Ellenberger, Johnny Hendricks, Rory Macdonald, and Tyron Woodley. Even Masvidal tried to take me down. I’m excited for this one’ he said.
It’s a great time to be a part of the welterweight division and Thompson understands that a win here leads to yet another exciting match-up. Breaking down the division, he said ‘I would say it’s the most stacked division in the UFC to be honest with you. You’ve got Tyron Woodley as the Champion, Colby Covington, RDA, Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, Kamaru Usman, Ponzinibbio, Darren Till, Gunnar Nelson – you’ve got all these guys that could genuinely be champions right now’.
Before thinking about any of the other aforementioned names though, Thompson has business to take care of in Liverpool. The light at the end of the tunnel is the golden Welterweight strap but that could all come crashing down here if he doesn’t live up to expectation. ‘Wonderboy’ has always been one to do his talking inside of the octagon and so it was brilliant to have an insight into the mindset of a man that ultimately keeps himself contained until questioned. Thompson still has plenty more to give at 35 years old and as much as he doesn’t think he fits the casting – he’ll hope to be the bad guy on May 27th.
Stephen Thompson vs. Darren Till takes place on Sunday 27th May at the Echo Arena in Liverpool. UK Coverage will be featured on BT Sport.