Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson Talks Us Through His Pre-Fight Routine

By Mick Rouse

How do the world’s top athletes mentally and physically prepare themselves for game day? Find out in our new series “Pregame Ritual,” an up-close-and-personal look inside the minds of champions, game changers, and legends in the making.

Perhaps you already have a preconceived notion of what makes an elite MMA fighter tick. Probably someone brash, right? Maybe a little arrogant? You’d likely be right nine out of 10 times. But then there’s Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who has established himself simultaneously as one of the toughest and chillest fighters in the world. So chill, in fact, that it might be hard to discern how exactly he’s established himself as the No. 1 contender to the welterweight crown. We caught up with the karate king to find out what motivates him to step into the Octagon time and time again.



You’ve fought against Tyron Woodley now twice for the UFC welterweight championship. The first fight ended in a draw. The second fight you were very narrowly defeated. I’m curious, what was tougher to rebound from mentally?

I would say it was losing that second fight. Tyron had that flurry in the second round, but I felt like I had pulled out the win. Even Tyron thought it. Dana White was telling me that I had it. That was bad because I knew it was going to be a while before I got another title fight. But it just fueled me with some sort of fire that makes me want to get back out there again. Most people, when they go for the title and they don’t get it, they kind of fall to the wayside after a while. They just kind of go downhill from there. But I don’t fight just for me. People think MMA is just a one-man sport when it’s really not. I’ve got coaches. I’ve got teammates who sacrifice their bodies and time to help me get there. I do it for them. I told them all I was going to get that title, so I’m going to get it.



When I watch you fight, as you’re stepping into the Octagon, you just come across as so composed. Never too high, never too low. What is actually going through your mind in those seconds before you’re about to square off and fight somebody?

In that moment I’m thinking, I have prepared myself for this fight. I try to put in all the work I can. I learned that from the champions I’ve trained with. Chris Weidman, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans. Those guys always push themselves in the gym to prepare themselves. They leave nothing out or behind. So I’m just telling myself, “I’ve prepared myself. I’m going to go out and do the best that I can.”

There’s one thing my dad always tells me before I step out in the Octagon that always calms me down, too. He’s always like, “Your family is still going to love you. Your students are still going to love you. Just go out there and have some fun.” So I’ll tell myself to have some fun out there. And then everything just goes away. There’s no more thinking. It’s literally like bliss.



Have you always had such a calm demeanor, or is that something you’ve had to work at over the years?

No, I think that’s just who I am. You get a lot of characters out there in the UFC. I mean, look at the Diaz brothers. They’re almost the complete opposite of me. But that’s who they are. They’re not just that for the Octagon, that’s who they are outside the Octagon, as well. They’re just some bad, tough dudes. They’ll show it verbally and physically. But that’s why I like the Diaz brothers. They’re not fake. You get some guys out there who are just trying to be something they’re not. They’re doing a lot of crap talking, pissing a lot of people off, and it gets to a point where everyone knows that you’re trying to be a Conor McGregor and you’re just not. I think if you’re just who you are people respect that, and that’s just how I carry myself.

They always say that you can’t hide who you are in a fight.

Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Just go out there and be who you are. I’m trying to show everybody that you can be in a fight sport and not be a “bad guy.” When you look at me, I don’t look like a tough guy. I really don’t. I walk out and about on the street and if you look at me, you probably think you could kick my butt!



When you’re at the arena and in the locker room before a fight, do you have any rituals or superstitions you have to work through?

I’ve been in the fight game since I was 15 years old and I’ve got over 70-something fights altogether. I like to consider myself a very observant person and I’ve seen so many people in the back get so nervous that they just start moving around. They get so jittery and they can’t sit still and the next thing they know when they step into the Octagon is they’re exhausted after the first round. It’s because they wear themselves out in the back. So when I’m in the back, I sleep. I will literally sleep up until about two or three fights before mine. Then I’ll do a little warm-up and I’m ready to go. I feel like I’m wasting energy if I do too much in the back. I don’t even break a sweat before I step out there. And sleeping helps me with my nerves.



Do you still get nervous before a fight?

I don’t care what people say, when you’re walking out there for a fight, you’re scared. Because you don’t know what to expect. A lot of people say, “Nah, I’m not scared when I go out there.” You’re lying. You are scared. You always have that nervousness.

You mentioned the advice your dad gives you before a fight, but is there one piece of advice that somebody has given you along the road that you’ve learned to live by?

We have a motto at our gym that’s been around since before I was born: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” We look at it like, the more bad situations I put myself in and the harder I push in the gym the better. Because the gym is where you should be making your mistakes. You shouldn’t be making them in the Octagon. That way, when you’re put in those uncomfortable positions where most people aren’t used to being—most people give up when they’re put in those uncomfortable situations. But the harder you grind and the harder you train in the gym, the easier that fight will be. The less you will bleed out there in battle.



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