The numbers are something out of a video game or a movie or someone's imagination. In amateur kickboxing, Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson was 37-0. As a pro kickboxer, 20-0. As a professional mixed martial artist, he's 5-0 so far. That's 62 straight fights without a loss.
But it's no facade, and his record is no product of fishy matchmaking. In fact, despite his newness on the MMA scene, he's already wowed some of this sports' brightest minds.Georges St-Pierre's trainer Firas Zahabi recently called Thompson "definitely the best karate guy, the best striker I've ever seen, all around in any sport."
The welterweight brings his exceptional record to this weekend's UFC 143, where he faces fellow octagon rookie Daniel Stittgen, hoping to extend his ridiculous streak.
The remarkable run is the result of a lifetime spent in the martial arts. Ask him about the last time he lost a fight in competition and he has to scan his memory, traveling more than a decade back into the 1990s, when he was a 12-year-old on the karate tournament circuit.
"Honestly, I did hundreds and hundreds of them, and I probably lost every one of them," he said. "I maybe won one time. I would get my butt tore up. I remember that like it was yesterday. So I learned as a young kid to keep my chin up and keep training hard. I know what losing feels like and I don't want to do it again. That's what pushes me now."
His experiences as a youth didn't just supply the drive for his current success, they also provided his "Wonderboy" moniker. Given his resume, you might guess that it stems from his remarkable success as a fighter, but you would be wrong. Instead, he got pegged with the name back in elementary school, when he was known for singing and dancing, and got tagged by his sister's boyfriend as "Stevie Wonder," later altered to "Wonderboy."
Regardless of the origins, the label proved prophetic. As Thompson's record suggests, he's been a phenom on the combat sports scene for years.
Now 28 years old, Thompson aims to prove he is much more than a standup artist. He has a black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu, trains Brazilian jiu-jitsu under his brother-in-law, eighth-degree black belt Carlos Machado, and says his wrestling is his second strongest skill behind his striking.
"I've had many fights, but this is the biggest stage I've ever fought in," he said. "The UFC is the best. They're it. I'm glad to have the privilege to come in and fight there. Nerves will play a big part, but if you're not nervous going into a fight, you shouldn't be out there."
Thompson started in the martial arts at three years old, training under his father, Ray, who owns a karate studio in Simpsonville, South Carolina. But it wasn't always a love affair. By around the age of 10 or 11, the flame had burned out. While his friends were playing baseball and football, Thompson found himself constantly stuck at the dojo.
He trained there. He ate there. He did his homework there.
"As I got to that age, doing it all the time was like work," he said. "It wasn't fun anymore. But one day, the light bulb clicked in my head, and I got it."
Thompson was around 12 at that time, working out in adult classes. By the time he was 15, he was making his amateur debut, inspired in part by his older sister Lindsay, who he often watched compete and aimed to emulate.
He did her proud, defeating an unbeaten 26-year-old en route to 37 straight victories. His biggest personal highlight came in 2005, when he captured a World Association of Kickboxing Organizations championship at a tournament held in Szeged, Hungary, becoming the first American to win a gold in the tournament since 1983.
But even as Thompson succeeded -- 46 of his 57 career wins were by KO -- he was hit by the nagging feeling that kickboxing wasn't really going anywhere. Coupled with his own personal aspirations, he knew a move to MMA was in his future.
"My goal was always to be the best fighter, and in order to do that, I was going to have to switch to MMA and use these skills that I've been working on ever since I was younger but never got to use in competition," he said.
Thompson's move was delayed by a devastating knee injury in 2007 that saw him tear the ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee. Later on, he suffered another setback, hurting the same knee after trying to do too much, too soon.
Upon returning, Thompson began training with some of the world's best MMA minds, including St-Pierre. Years prior, GSP had been in the corner of a Thompson opponent, only to watch "Wonderboy" KO his friend. The camps stayed in contact and GSP has since called on Thompson several times to assist in his camp.
"It does give you a lot of confidence going into fights," he said. "When you're up there and going toe-to-toe with the world's best -- and I know I still have a long way to get to where he is when it comes to wrestling and jiu-jitsu -- but it definitely gives me a mental advantage going into fights."
In his octagon debut, he faces Stittgen (7-1), another UFC newcomer who has earned five of his wins by submission. Thompson said that he expects his opponents to want no part of his standup and look to take the fight to the mat at the first available opportunity. But he trusts his wrestling to keep him upright, saying that it's always been a point of emphasis in training as a way to keep himself in an advantageous position.
And more than that, he trust his fight instincts. Thompson's record doesn't just suggest he is a winner, it proves it beyond any doubt. The streak may be in jeopardy every time he fights, but like most winners, "Wonderboy" doesn't spend much time thinking about what he has already done. Every fight is a new experience, providing a new lesson.
"People always ask me what will happen if I lose, and I never really thought about it until they asked me," he said. "If I do lose, it will just give me a stronger drive to train harder. I know guys are out here to rip my head off and trip me up. But coming from my background almost gives me an advantage because I know guys are going to want to take me down. Everyone out there can look for an exciting fight, and it's going to be another knockout.
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