Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson fired up by critics, says his best is yet to come

Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson emphasizes the word "ever," wanting to add extra emphasis to his point. He feels, he said, better than he ever has heading into a fight. He's 39 and when most professional athletes hit that age, the inevitable questions about retirement arise. It's especially true of someone like Thompson, who was 8-1 in his first nine UFC fights but just 3-5-1 in the next nine.

The legendary American writer Mark Twain wrote that there are three types of lies: "Lies, damned lies and statistics." And while Thompson isn't about to call that 3-5-1 mark a lie or a damned lie, the UFC welterweight says there is a story behind the statistic that at this stage has come to define his career.

He fights Kevin Holland on Saturday in the main event of UFC Orlando on ESPN+ hoping to break a two-fight losing streak and prove that he's far from finished even though he hasn't won since Dec. 19, 2020, when he defeated Geoff Neal.

"A win over a guy like Kevin Holland is significant, man," the perpetually upbeat Thompson said.

It's been a long time between wins, and he's spent considerable time on his back in losses to Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad. That's not where Thompson is going to win his fights. He needs to be on his feet, using his kicks and his movement and at least he can be reasonably sure he's not going to wind up on his back because of a double leg.

Holland is coming off a quick submission loss to Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 279 in September, and insisted he's coming to throw hands with Thompson.

"I promise you, I'm not coming to wrestle him," Holland said.

That's good news for Thompson, because it will allow him to showcase his skills. But he's also eager to prove a point: He's far from done or ready for the senior citizen's home.

"It fires me up," he said of both his critics and his losing streak. "I've had some injuries that kind of prevented me from competing as much as I wanted to. But I'll be honest, it does make me hungry. I really want to go out there and put on a show. But the thing is, I don't feel stressed about it. I don't have to do anything."

He's been at or near the top of his profession for more than a decade and he's built a great career as a martial arts instructor. So anything that comes in MMA is just an additional bonus at this stage.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 18: Stephen Thompson prepares to fight Belal Muhammad in their welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson said he's motivated by talk that he's at the end of the line in his career. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

That allows him to be loose and free, and usually fighters who are that relaxed and in the kind of shape Thompson says he's in perform at a high level.

"I'm already doing what I love, which is teaching martial arts," Thompson said. "What I like about the fight game is that it allows me to try to be the best person and the best martial artist that I can be. That's why I love to go out there and compete. I could see [that the critics had a point] if I didn't go out there and give 110 percent. But as long as I go out there and give it my all, I'm happy."

Thompson is closing in on his 11th anniversary as a UFC fighter in February, and he's been a pro in MMA since 2010. He was a kickboxer for a decade before that, so he's been around the game a long time.

The UFC has evolved dramatically in his time, Thompson said, and that's why a win now is valued so greatly. There are more elite fighters in the UFC than there ever have been, he said.

"I'm not fighting slouches. I'm going out there against the best guys in the world who are also extremely determined and have their own goals and dreams that they're working toward fulfilling," he said. "But there is no doubt the sport has evolved. I came up in an era when there were specialists. You have striking specialists, grappling specialists, wrestlers, etc. Guys now come into the UFC and they're well-rounded and they are good in all areas. So you have to grow with them or you'll be left behind."

He wants to defeat Holland simply because he's a competitor and he fights to win. But Leon Edwards' victory over Kamaru Usman in August for the welterweight title — a head-kick KO in the waning seconds of a fight he was losing — has fired him up.

He said that shows what's possible for him. And if he can get past a guy like Holland, whom he continually praised effusively for his striking skills, he can mount yet another title charge.

"Leon Edwards showed that if you keep working and don't give up that it can happen for you," Thompson said. "So now, here I am fighting a quality guy like Kevin and I know if I win, first I'm back in the win bracket where I want to be. But if I win in impressive fashion, make a statement, that pushes me up where I'm going to get some fights with the guys I need to face to get to the top."