Stephen Thompson Advocates Smart Sparring: ‘Once You Lose That Chin, You Can’t Get It Back’

By Tristen Critchfield Feb 9, 2016

Johny Hendricks was never given a stationary target against Stephen Thompson during their brief encounter at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas this past Saturday night.

“Wonderboy,” meanwhile, had little trouble finding the mark with his versatile, karate-based arsenal as he completely overwhelmed Hendricks en route to a surprisingly easy first-round technical knockout victory. At the post-fight press conference, a perplexed Hendricks longed for the days when he and Robbie Lawler would throw caution to the wind and trade blows in the pocket.

“Robbie is sort of the way that I like to fight,” Hendricks said. “You’re gonna bite down on the mouthpiece, you’re gonna throw, and you’re gonna throw some more, and you’re gonna throw some more...As soon as I felt like I landed something he [Thompson] was like, ‘Screw that, I’m back out.’ If he plays that game [against Lawler] he could do that.”

Of course, the pair of memorable Hendricks-Lawler welterweight title tilts took place all the way back in the Dark Ages of 2014, but the man who ensured “Bigg Rigg” would not be getting back to another championship bout in the near future embodies a different mindset. Thompson didn’t take offense to what could have been perceived as a backhanded compliment.

“I didn’t take them disrespectfully. You’ve got to be stupid to actually stand there and trade blows with somebody as powerful as those guys,” Thompson said during a recent appearance on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “Who likes to get hit? Those guys seem like they love to get hit.

“I want to have my head and my mind sharp after my fighting career. To go out there and bang with somebody like that is just too much of a risk. That’s just not my style. That’s not what I like to do. I love the point game and being able to hit you without getting hit back. Just to see you break from that and frustrate you, that’s my game.”

It’s a style that has paid off for Thompson, who at six straight victories boasts the longest active winning streak in the welterweight division. The South Carolinian has gradually risen to prominence after a loss to Matt Brown in his sophomore Octagon outing slowed the Lyoto Machida karateka comparisons.

While it seems as though Thompson is an emerging prospect, he turns 33 on Thursday, which explains why he has been so adamant in calling for a title shot following the signature triumph of his professional career. However, that request is not because Thompson feels that Father Time is gaining on him. In fact, “Wonderboy” feels relatively young, something that he credits to a lifetime of smart sparring and fighting.

“I’m gonna do [MMA] as long as my body’s gonna let me. I’ve had a few knee surgeries, but my knees are feeling great and each camp I’m getting better and better. I’m just improving,” he said. “As of right now, it’s feeling great. I don’t feel 33; I feel like I’m 21. I think it’s just a mindset, to be honest with you. I train smart. I’ve got good guys to spar with, guys that are gonna push you but are also not going to try something stupid out there to injure you.”

Thompson cannot relate to the prevalent philosophy of some camps, where consistent full-contact sparring fosters a kill-or-be-killed attitude in practice.

“That’s a lot of these gyms where they go out there and try to beat the crap out of each other. I’ve been to some gyms where they’re wearing the UFC MMA gloves going all out knocking each other out, and that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “It’s why a lot of these guys are young and they don’t have any chins anymore. They’re career is gone because they’ve beaten the crap out of each other. You cannot condition the brain.”

Thompson hasn’t been knocked out in 13 professional MMA bouts, and in eight UFC appearances, has never absorbed more significant strikes than his opponent. The heady approach to training was instilled in “Wonderboy” long before his first cagefighting foray. Under the guidance of his father, Ray Thompson, at Team Upstate Karate, erring on the side of caution has always been the norm, even as the younger Thompson compiled a 57-0 kickboxing ledger.

“It’s something that we’ve always done in our gym. We’ve always trained smart. My dad’s been training kickboxers since as long as long as I can remember -- and world champions, really good guys... Whenever you spar, you want to push each other. You can hit hard to the body but keep it light to the head. Once you lose that jaw, that chin, it’s almost impossible to get that back,” he said. “You can’t get that back. That’s something that’s kind of stuck with us until now. “

Those that aren’t on board with that philosophy are quickly shown the door.

“ Some people listen and some people don’t. Those guys that don’t, they’re not welcome in the gym. We don’t want people getting hurt. We don’t want to be that gym where you feel like you have to fend for your life every time you step on that mat,” Thompson said. “...You’ve got guys coming in late in the game, maybe they were the man in another sport, they come in and they feel like they have something to prove every time they step out on the mat. That’s not what being a martial artist is all about.

“It’s definitely worked so far. All our fighters have moved on and nobody has left our gym with any head trauma. If you want to keep fighting, that’s what you have to do. “

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