Stephen Thompson is one of the most dangerous men on the planet. A mixed martial artist with a foundation in kickboxing and karate, he has fought for the UFC Welterweight Championship Belt twice and is widely considered one of the greatest strikers in UFC history.
His toughness is unquestionable—in his most recent fight, a decisive win over Vicente Luque last November, Thompson broke both his hands.
It would be understandable to assume that achievement in combat sports is Thompson’s singular goal, an all-consuming passion that overshadows all else. It would be understandable, but incorrect.
Son of Ray Thompson, founder of Upstate Karate in Simpsonville, Stephen Thompson was born into a martial arts family—a family that keeps on expanding. Uncle to thirteen nieces and nephews, he jokes that they are “building an army.” Thompson is the head coach of the children’s program at Upstate Karate, where he teaches students from age three to thirteen. “That,” he says, “is my first love.”
Upstate Karate prides itself on instilling values of respect, self-control, perseverance, modesty, and integrity into its students. “When they come see us, the parents learn real quick what we’re about,” Thompson says. It is a way of being that he illustrates on the biggest stage in the sport.
“When our students see me inside of the Octagon, they learn a little bit about who I am and I think that makes an impact. How do you act in a loss; how do you carry yourself in a win? There’s no bragging or showboating. You win in good manner, and you lose in good manner.”
Thompson has had more than one opportunity to demonstrate the sort of grace under pressure that Upstate Karate teaches. In his first fight against then-champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 205 in 2016, the judges declared the contest a draw—although many felt the win should have been awarded to Thompson. A rematch the next year once again saw Woodley retain the title, with the majority of MMA media believing Thompson was once again the rightful winner.
“I learn more about myself in a loss. And I think these kids, these parents, use that as well when things don’t go their way. And to me that is what it is all about. That puts a smile on my face. It makes everything I do worth it.”
While Thompson did not wind up with the UFC Welterweight belt at UFC 205, he did come away with an unexpected bonus from that trip to New York City. After owning the UFC for sixteen years, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta had just sold the promotion for $4 billion to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG.
Spotted by IMG talent agents, Thompson was offered a modeling opportunity. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do with a 35-year-old, but I’ll give it a shot.’”
An elite competitor for more than twenty years now, Thompson’s first experiences in front of the camera kickboxing left him nervous. “Oh, I was terrible,” he says. “But I’ve learned to love it, and I’m very comfortable doing it.”
Thompson’s best shot for the IMG talent agents has resulted in a high-profile campaign for Van Heusen, along with other modeling work. He is featured on the IMG models website and finds himself in front of the camera pretty regularly these days. GQ created a web series featuring Thompson humorously breaking down action sequences in martial arts movies. “It’s fun for me,” he says. “I don’t see it as work.”
In a sport chock-full of brash and brutal personalities, Thompson stands apart. An intellectual fighter, his assessment of his competitors is always a calm and cool analysis. The trash talking and personal insults sometimes used by others in the UFC are markedly absent from his rhetoric, and Thompson is not impacted by the trash talking of others.
“I know what these guys are trying to do—they’re trying to get a rise out of you, they’re trying to beat you mentally before you’re even out there.” But with his firm grounding in the martial arts and his years of experience in competition, Thompson is able to stay anchored in his own process.
“I’ve really honed in on it in the last seven years, fighting in the UFC. I can’t say it’s perfected; it’s something you can’t perfect. But some guys will pace for two hours before a fight. It wears them out and affects them negatively.” As for Thompson, “I know my body. I know I can sleep right before I go out there. I do a little ritual where I pray with my dad and he tells me, ‘No matter what, I’m still going to love you, your family and friends love you, so go out there and have some fun.’ That always calms me down and keeps me level-headed as I step out there.”
When asked if his faith is part of why he is able to maintain that level-headedness, he says simply, “I think so.”
He adds, “Some people ask, ‘How can you be a Christian and go out there and hurt people?’ But it isn’t personal. And there’s just no sense in hating your opponent. I know some guys want to dislike their opponent. They feel they need to get into that headspace. I’ve gone in there and fought my friends. Rory McDonald, Patrick Côté, those guys are my friends, and we went in there and beat the crap out of each other.” (Thompson won both fights.)
Thompson has even gone so far as to apologize to an opponent mid-fight. Besides, “I have 600 some students watching every move that I make.” For Thompson, his first love—teaching—is never far from his mind.
“When our students see me inside of the Octagon, they learn a little bit about who I am, and I think that makes an impact. How do you act in a loss; how do you carry yourself in a win? There’s no bragging or showboating. You win in good manner, and you lose in good manner.”
Although Upstate Karate has changed locations multiple time since its founding in 1983—its current spot is a 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art space in Simpsonville—elite UFC fighter Thompson is still known as “Mr. Stephen.” He laughs as he describes the no-big-deal attitude of the students. “‘Oh, that’s just Mr. Stephen, we’ll see him tomorrow.’ It’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody,” he says.
When Thompson is out and about in Simpsonville or Greenville, he is left largely alone. “As soon as I go to Charlotte, Atlanta, New York, Las Vegas, they recognize you, and when one person asks for an autograph, they’ll all jump in.” Thompson adds, “I don’t mind that at all,” but one gets the feeling he appreciates the peace that his hometown of Simpsonville offers him.
As ever, his focus shifts to students. “I grew up here, and I know what martial arts has done for me. Not just in the sense of being a good fighter, but it gives you something back that a lot of these other sports don’t give you.”
Thompson is clear on his current goals. He would like to retire later rather than sooner, and his eyes are still on that UFC Welterweight Championship Belt. When he does leave the sport, he likes the idea of working as a commentator and pursuing other opportunities his IMG agents send his way.
But one thing is for certain—teaching the children at Upstate Karate will remain his first love.
Photography by Paul Mehaffey. For more on Upstate Karate, go to upstatekarate.com.