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Exclusive interview with Ray Thompson, famed trainer and father of UFC welterweight Stephen Thompson

After speaking with both Ray Thompson and his son Stephen Thompson (unbeaten UFC welterweight) aka “Wonderboy,” it’s easy to see that the apple did not fall very far from the tree. In this case that’s a very good thing as Mr. Thompson comes off as a man with very strong convictions, but at the center of it all he is a very supportive, loving and dedicated father. Ray wears two hats when it comes to Stephen’s career. First and foremost he will always be dad, but just as importantly he is also his son’s head coach and has been very instrumental in molding him into the man he has become both inside and outside of the cage.

Ray likes to keep things simple; there is no need to reinvent the wheel as far as he’s concerned. He has been a hard worker all of his life and is a strong believer in making things happen for yourself. He can certainly appreciate just how special his 28-year-old son has become as a person and a fighter. A young man with manners and a penchant for going the extra mile, “Wonderboy” has been fortunate enough to have learned many important life lessons from Ray. It was a little over 37 years ago that dad wound up in a small karate studio in the heart of South Carolina. A lot has transpired since then, but the man behind the man is still the same.

“In March of 1974 I was in military school in a little town called Bamberg, South Carolina,” said Thompson to FindMMAGym. “That’s where I started my martial arts training and I’ve been there ever since. I graduated high school and decided to give the martial arts a try.”

Many trainers can point to a certain date and time or a specific fight when asked if there was a particular moment when they realized the fighter they were training had that something special. For Mr. Thompson he can recall that moment fondly and recount it like it just happened yesterday.

“I started all my kids training in martial arts when they were 3 ½ years old,” explained Mr. Thompson. “Stephen was training karate for many years and when he was around 13 or 14 I had him training with the adults who were in my school. He was getting his butt kicked a little bit, but it certainly toughened him up. When he was around 15 he started taking it to some of the guys who were 25 years old and giving them a little pay back. That’s when I realized he could be something special.”

There are a lot of extremely talented people in all walks of life who shine when they are at a young age but never seem to break through and carry that talent over when they become an adult. Sometimes the other talents catch up to them, they may lose interest in what they are doing or they were a really big fish swimming in a small pond. The athletes who continue to grow and enhance their talents are really few and far between, but when you find that special person the success they have isn’t all that unexpected.

“It took me a few years to realize how special he was,” said the elder Thompson. “I knew he had the talent, but it took him awhile to match that talent with the necessary work ethic. He had a good work ethic for recreational martial arts, but it took him a few years to acquire the work ethic for competitive martial arts. Once he developed that mentality it was easy to see that there was no one in my school who put in the work that Stephen did.”

It’s one thing to watch one of your students become successful and fulfill their destiny, but it’s a whole different ballgame when that student is also your son. A coach will always have a great sense of pride watching one of their students perform well, but that feeling is much greater when it’s one of your children and all that you have taught him is being used in the right way.

“I’d be lying if I said that my head and heart doesn’t swell when he’s out there doing his thing,” an emotional Ray Thompson explained. “I’m extremely proud and extremely ecstatic that he is living up to his potential thus far. I definitely feel he can compete on the highest plain; it’s just a matter of time and development. He has the work ethic, I have no doubt about that, he doesn’t mind getting his butt kicked. He’s a humble kid and he gets in there and he trains harder than anyone else.”

Juggling both jobs as a father and an instructor could be a bit difficult to handle if your head and heart aren’t in the right place. Thankfully the relationship between Stephen and Ray is very strong and there is an understanding between the two of them that they are both looking out for his best interests and will do whatever is necessary to help him achieve his dreams.

“I have no problems with Stephen at all,” offered Mr. Thompson. “He has been so very good about being my son and my student. It’s not all me, I know I can handle it, but he handles it quite well also. He allows me to be his instructor and coach outside of being his dad. He has never looked for any favors and everyone in my school knows that I’m harder on my own kids than I am on anyone else. I don’t want anyone saying they have what they have because of who their parents are. There are absolutely no privileges to being my son in my school.”

“Wonderboy” certainly made a name for himself at UFC 143 as he nearly knocked Dan Stittgen’s head into the stands with a combination known as “The Moneymaker.” The ending saw Thompson land a vicious head kick that had his opponent out before he hit the mat. It was enough to earn him the “Knockout of the Night” bonus along with some high praise from UFC President Dana White. The feeling of watching his son connect with that head kick must have been extraordinary for Ray the father as well as Ray the instructor.

“You’re not going to believe this, but about four minutes into the round my wrestling coach who was directly to my left decided to start scooping up the buckets and get ready to go into the cage,” Thompson said. “Out of the peripheral of my left eye I caught this so I decided to help him get the stuff together and as soon as I took my eyes off of the fight I heard a pop and Stittgen was out. The first time I got to see the kick land was on the replay on the big screen, I could not believe it. After the fight was over I was so very proud and felt so fortunate that he wasn’t injured. It was awesome!”

After discussing all the attributes that make Stephen a great martial artist and a wonderful student it was time to find out what Ray thought his biggest strength was outside of his physical talents. Was it his good nature or southern style and manners? The possibilities are endless because Stephen seems to have a huge heart and is a down to earth human being who has not let any of this success get to his head.

“Stephen has the ability to make everyone around him feel good,” a very proud Ray Thompson said. “He is such a sweet and humble guy. As a fan speaking he is so genuine and he is nice to everyone. Remember this is not his dad talking, he is just a really good guy and he makes it a pleasure to be around him at all times.”

By: Bryan Levick

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