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Like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson doesn’t see himself fighting without father in corner

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Even with his 10th year as a pro MMA fighter in the books, Stephen Thompson rarely speaks of retirement. But there’s one clear scenario in which “Wonderboy” sees himself hanging up the gloves.

During an interview on What the Heck, Thompson spoke about the close relationship he has with his father Ray, who has been his head coach and cornerman since the earliest days of his martial arts journey. Ray was a professional kickboxer himself, and Stephen followed in his footsteps, starting his competitive kickboxing career as a teenager.

“Wonderboy” competed once in 2020, returning from a long injury layoff to score a convincing unanimous decision win over up-and-coming welterweight Geoff Neal in the main event of UFC Vegas 17. It was an emotional experience for Stephen Thompson, one of many that he’s shared with his father throughout the years.

Evoking the recent retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who said his decision to walk away from fighting was based on both the recent passing of his father and a promise he made to his mother, Thompson put into context just how important his bond with his father is.

“I don’t see myself doing it without him, just like Khabib,” Thompson said. “I kind of understand, I felt for him when his dad passed, rest in peace. My condolences to him. For him not to be there, I understood that. Because my dad’s been here since the beginning. He’s been in my corner for every fight. He’s never missed one. So when it gets to the point where my dad’s not able to do it, I think that’s gonna be the end of it. I don’t want to be out there without him in the corner because he’s been for every fight. To be able to do that and experience that with your dad, not a whole lot of people can say they can do that. To be able to look on that and smile is just amazing.

“Because my dad always told me his dad passed way too soon. His dad would always tell him, ‘Listen, spend as much time with me as possible because I won’t always be here.’ And he regrets it. He regrets not doing the things his dad wanted him to do with him. Take that fishing trip, take that little vacay with pops. Now I can say that I consider myself an observant person and I take that to heart because I train with him, we travel the world together, we know how to separate the training and the father aspect, but just to be able to experience that with him is just awesome and I know it makes him happy.”

Thompson, who turns 38, is currently on a two-fight winning streak with both of his wins coming against fast-risers at 170 that were aiming to leapfrog over Thompson into a top-10 ranking. Vicente Luque won six straight fights before being defeated by Thompson and Geoff Neal was 5-0 in the UFC before Thompson snapped his streak.

Since debuting with the UFC in 2012, Thompson has experienced long winning streaks, slumps, two cracks at a world title, and bouts with several of the biggest stars in the company. Somehow, it still surprises him when others refer to him as an MMA veteran.

“I’m looking around like, ‘Hey dad, am I a veteran in the sport,’” Thompson said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah man, you’ve been in the UFC for eight years.’ Time flies. It’s amazing that I’ve been in there for that long, which is I don’t think a long time. Am I a veteran? Am I really?”

“Look at Jose Aldo,” Thompson continued. “He’s 34, he’s younger than I am and I consider him a veteran. I guess I am. I’m a veteran.”

Thompson prefers to use the term “experienced,” but the fact remains that he’s stuck around the top of the welterweight division for years now. A knockout loss to Anthony Pettis in March 2019—the first time Thompson had ever been knocked out—raised some concerns about Thompson’s durability, concerns that he scoffs at.

If anything, he feels he proved in the Neal fight that he can still take a hard shot, another gift that he’s grateful to his father for.

“At the time, I felt like Geoff Neal was getting a little tired,” Thompson said of the later stages of his most recent fight. “His strikes weren’t as powerful as they were in the first or second. It was funny—this actually went through my head—I’m gonna stand here and duke it out with this guy and we’re gonna win Fight of the Night [Note: Thompson would later win a Performance of the Night bonus, not Fight of the Night]. We’re gonna win this bonus. So I grit my teeth and had to stand there and duke it out with one of the best in the biz. Good boxing this guy had, obviously.

“I felt really good, I took some shots and kept on going, which I knew I haven’t lost my chin. I’ve got a hard head. ‘Thank you, dad,’ I was blessed with that, thanks to him.”