The Wonderboy

The Wonderboy

UFC champion Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson flexes his fighter roots.

UFC champion Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson flexes his fighter roots.

Photography: Bruce Weber

Styling: Paul Cavaco

Text: William Norwich

This article appears in the pages of V110, pre-order your copy here

"Does it hurt?”

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, the martial artist extraordinaire, laughs. “And how about when you go home after a fight with butterfly stitches and black eyes,” I ask. “Aren’t there mothers, aunts, nieces, nephews, sweethearts, people at church—not to mention your students at your family’s martial arts school where you teach—that it just breaks their hearts to see you looking that way?”

After one recent fight, Thompson was left with a big cut over his nose and two full-on black eyes. Everybody back home in Simpsonville, South Carolina knew it. They had been up late watching the fight. When he got to Upstate Karate, his family’s martial arts school in Simpsonville, the parents had drawn black eyes on the kids. “So I wouldn’t feel too embarrassed. It was the sweetest thing you could have seen,” he says. And, yes, it hurts.

“When you’re out there in the octagon and you’ve got thousands of people, millions across the world, either cheering for you to win or cheering for you to get knocked out, the adrenaline is going, so it doesn’t hurt while you’re out there,” Thompson explains. “Now fast forward to about an hour and a half to two hours after the fight? Oh yes. It’s pretty painful.”

For the uninitiated, Thompson is one of the stars of the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s a mixed martial artist ranked number 2 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings. He has been awarded “Performance of the Night” three times, as well as “Fight of the Night” and “Knockout of the Night” once each. Prior to the UFC, Thompson fought as a professional full-contact kickboxer and was never defeated in 94 matches with 40 wins by knockout. His career professional MMA record is 13 wins, two losses, one draw. 

One of five children, all raised and trained in the martial arts, he comes to his profession thanks to his father, Ray Thompson, who opened Upstate Karate for toddler-age children and older in 1983. Stephen is a full-time teacher there, helping students develop not just the physical strengths that the martial arts offer, but also the benefits of their philosophy and mental discipline. “Modesty, courtesy, self-control, integrity, perseverance, that indomitable spirit that’s not being taught much these days,” he says. The United Martial Arts Association ranks the school among the top 10 martial arts schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain.

“My dad grew up in a little place near Charleston called Moncks Corner,” he recounts. “He was a huge fan of Elvis. Elvis was a seventh-degree black belt in karate. My dad knew that he couldn’t dance like Elvis or sing like him, but he thought maybe he could try karate, and he fell in love with it. He ended up moving to Simpsonville where he and my mom, who also competed, had the five of us.” In 1983, the martial arts were not the respected discipline that they are today. With five kids to feed, there were some lean and humble years before the school was successful. “In addition to the school, my dad was working three jobs. I remember driving around in a little one-bed Westin truck with the entire family in it. My sister and I were down on the floorboard of the truck one day when my dad got pulled over. He looked at the police officer and said, ‘Hey man, this is all I got,’ and I guess the police officer felt sorry for him and let him go.”

When the siblings argued, their father would say, “Okay, you kids want to fight? Alright, then fight.” The coffee table in the living room would be moved aside. Closed fists were forbidden so that no one got cut, but everything else was permitted. Stephen’s older sister, Lindsay, an exceptional fighter and competitor, had always dominated her brother until one night, with his now famous leg kick that seems to have the wing span of a Boeing 747-8, he literally “knocked the spaghetti supper out of her.” Shocking? Stephen says that you probably need to be a martial arts family to fully appreciate the sportsmanship in this story. Ray recognized young Stephen’s desire to succeed at the sport. Coached by his father to this day, Stephen’s full-contact training began when he was 12 years old. At age 15, he had his first professional fight, earning him his “Wonderboy” nickname. “People ask me when I’m going to change it to ‘Wonderman’ because I’m 34 now. When I was 15, I fought a guy who was 26 and he was 20-0, undefeated. It was a way for my dad to show me that I was better than I thought. I ended up beating the brakes off this 26-year-old guy. After the fight, the announcer asked my opponent how it felt. He answered, ‘I wonder why I stepped in the ring with that boy.’” The announcer jumped on this, and nicknamed Stephen “Wonderboy.”

UFC mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world today. Its competitors, such as Conor McGregor, currently the UFC Lightweight champion, have become stars and fashion darlings. Or rather, fashion heavyweights? “Conor has taken the UFC to a whole new level,” Thompson says, offering his highest praise for McGregor. “It’s his whole demeanor that appeals to me. He’s a fighter, he’s a Viking, and on top of that, he’s got the gift of gab. He’s got everything, and now he’s got the style. He’s got a three-piece suit on—Versace, Tom Ford—and everywhere he goes, he’s looking good.”

Six feet tall and handsome as apple pie, Thompson has all the makings of a fashion celebrity, too. He’s tenderhearted, humorous and friendly, and he’s an eternal optimist who practices that optimism with daily prayer and mediation and church on Sundays. I ask him if fashion fame might disrupt his faith. “When this story comes out and you look gorgeous, photographed by Bruce Weber, you will officially be one of America’s new sex symbols—are you prepared? You’ll be worshipped by women and by more than just a few guys. Is this okay?” He smiles. “Yes, it is okay. To be out there in the light, that’s what I like to call it—the light—that’s what I want. To set a good example and be a positive influence for any of the people who will look up to me, like you said, the women and also the men. Yes, I think I’m prepared.”

COAT WOOLRICH SHORTS AND GLOVES STEPHEN'S OWN

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