Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title contender, looks and behaves more like the athletes who are seated front-row at fashion shows than the weaponized men and women who have earned mixed martial arts a reputation as “glorified street fighting.” Thompson is a humbler, leaner, more clean-cut representative of the multidisciplinary combat sport also referred to as the fastest-growing sport in the world—one who does not advocate loud materialism and smiles instead of scowls as he approaches the Octagon (as the UFC refers to its eight-sided fighting cage).
In fact, the 34-year-old continues to work as head children’s instructor at Upstate Karate, his father Ray Thompson’s martial arts school in his hometown of Simpsonville, South Carolina. He schedules his training around teaching classes and a routine that includes driving a bus for their after-school program and answering phones at the front desk (to the astonishment of fans). “I’ve got 600 kids back home who watch every move that I make. I try to be a good role model,” he says. “You have the badass, the Conor McGregor, who talks a lot of crap, who uses different tactics to hype the fight up. I’ve always been a humble and respectful guy and I think what the UFC wants is a good role model for kids. And if the UFC wants to get even bigger, that’s who you have to market to.”
Mixed martial arts (which is the name of the sport) and the UFC (which is a company that promotes the sport) just closed an eventful and highly visible year. The UFC announced its sale to sports and entertainment conglomerate William Morris Endeavor-International Management Group for .2 billion; UFC president Dana White spoke in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention; mainstream celebrity and former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey returned to competition and then suffered a jaw-dropping (and much-talked-about) defeat; and New York became the last state to legalize professional MMA after an almost 20-year prohibition—an occasion marked by much fanfare at the UFC’s first-ever event in New York City at Madison Square Garden. All of this was before Meryl Streep brought MMA to the center of public consciousness during her lifetime achievement award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
If one were to design a star to further normalize the sport, you couldn’t do much better than Thompson. He would have a hard time attempting brutishness if he tried. Grizzly facial hair is not an option (“I don’t think I can even grow a full beard”) and he has zero tattoos (“It’s actually in my contract that I can’t have tattoos until after my fighting career because I reach a different audience”). Even his highly precise sparring style—that can be like watching a luxury timepiece fight—challenges preconceived notions about the sport. When he feels the stirrings of thuggish emotionality, he uses it against itself. “I’ve never gone to a place where I feel like I really have to hurt this guy. But I know a lot of fighters who have to hype themselves up or hate their opponent in order to step out there and fight,” he says. “And that’s my game plan, to get you emotional when you’re in the cage so you start doing things that you wouldn’t usually do.”
“Even today in the UFC, you see guys duke it out like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, taking a lot of damage. For me, that’s not the way to do it. If you want to have a long career at this, you can’t be taking a whole lot of beatings,” he explains. “Watching Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones Jr., Floyd Mayweather, they fought with a beauty, a finesse. I kind of fight like that. Martial arts is about putting the damage on your opponent without getting hit back. It’s beautiful to watch. That’s the kind of fighter I want to be and be remembered as. Not just a Neanderthal who walks out there and takes hits and hits the other guy. I want to be beautiful when I’m out there. It’s an art.”
Thompson began learning martial arts when he was three years old, began sparring when he was five, and full-contact training when he was 12. His first kickboxing fight was at 15 when his father put him up against an undefeated 26-year-old. Thompson ended up “beating the brakes off the guy.” “After the fight, my opponent said something like, ‘I wonder why I stepped in the ring with this boy.’ And the announcer called me Wonderboy and it’s stuck with me ever since.” Thompson turned pro at 21, amassing a 56–0 record before transitioning to mixed martial arts in 2010 and debuting in the UFC in 2012. “I ended up knocking the guy out in the first round with a head kick and getting the knockout of the night. And then I’ve just been along for the ride and enjoying every minute of it.”
The rising popularity of mixed martial arts owes much to its scrappy toughness. It can appeal to men who find the constraints of post-industrial masculinity frustrating and who compensate with experiences that project a hyperrealized image of self-sufficiency and manual labor. “What people really understand is fighting,” Thompson says. “If you know how to fight you’re a tough guy. It all comes down to hunting and gathering back in the day. Fighting has been part of our culture for thousands of years. The gladiators were sex symbols. Even in Japan, sumo wrestlers are sex symbols. Everybody wants to be a fighter.”
Thompson is now training for his much-anticipated late-winter rematch with welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, whom he battled to a majority draw (which means Woodley retained the title) at the Madison Square Garden event. “We have unfinished business,” Thompson says. “When we step out there, we’re going to put on a show.”END
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createdAt:Fri, 14 Apr 2017 20:19:40 +0000