Jack Black, frontman of the band Tenacious D, asked the question first in his song “Wonderboy,” and the man who owns that nickname – Stephen Thompson – uses Black’s song to enter the Octagon on fight night. So it’s a typical query, right?
“Wonderboy, what is the secret of your power?”
“I get that a lot,” Thompson laughs before revealing that secret.
“It is a definitely a lifetime supply of Dragon Ball Z episodes, and Hot Pockets.”
This is Thompson a little over a week out from the most important fight of his career, a five-round main event against former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks. The Las Vegas headlining bout pits the South Carolina native against a wrestling terror with knockout power in his fists, and at stake is a place in a crowded welterweight title picture. Yet Thompson is quick with a smile and a joke, and that smile extends to his choice of entrance music.
“I’ve been fighting and kickboxing for many years, and I’m a huge Tenacious D fan,” Thompson said. “My brothers Evan and Tony always told me to walk out to ‘Wonderboy,’ but I was like, ‘It’s kind of slow, it’s nothing that was gonna hype me up.’ I’ve always been a positive guy, always smiling, and after one of my early fights in the UFC, I asked my Twitter followers what I should walk out to. And everybody was blowing me up with ‘Wonderboy’ by Tenacious D, and I had to walk out to it and I loved it. It definitely put a smile on my face to get me in the mood before I step into the cage, so I’m gonna stick with it.”
Thompson, 32, has always been unique in the world of mixed martial arts, and while that usually refers to his striking style, it could more accurately describe his demeanor before, during and after combat. In the most stressful situations in sports, he finds a way to smile.
“I started fighting when I was 15, and of course then, I was scared stiff stepping out there,” he said. “And back in those days, it was more winning by trapping a dog into a corner. I was just kind of going crazy and wasn’t really sure how I felt. But as the years went on, I just feel better when I’m not angry, when I’m just myself, and that’s how I’ve always been. I don’t let the emotions get to me because, a lot of times, emotions can affect how you perform in the cage. If you’re angry or too afraid or frustrated, it can definitely affect you. You’re not thinking straight. So I’m always in the mood, it’s always as if I’m going out there for a sparring practice, and I’ve always got a smile on my face. And sometimes, it affects your opponent. ‘Why is this dude smiling right now? He must know something I don’t.’”
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He’s right. Nothing can be more intimidating than fighting someone who is smiling while he punches and kicks you in the face. And while Thompson’s MMA opponents have realized that it’s pointless to pick a fight with one of the nicest guys in the game, that wasn’t necessarily the case back in his kickboxing days.
“There were a few guys who were talking a lot of crap about me in kickboxing,” Thompson said. “Nobody in the UFC or MMA has done that yet. And, of course, then I was young, so I let the anger get to me a little bit and let them affect me. But as I got older and more mature, it just doesn’t bother me anymore. I know what they’re trying to do; I just don’t let it happen and I think it’s funny. I’ve never been really good at talking crap to people. (Laughs) I let my hands and my feet do the talking in the cage.”
Entering Saturday’s bout, Thompson has won five straight, three by knockout over Chris Clements, Robert Whittaker and Jake Ellenberger. Last July’s win over Ellenberger was particularly impressive and devastating, rightfully earning him Performance of the Night honors. More notably though, it showed Thompson’s evolution from kickboxer to mixed martial artist, a transition many doubted he would be able to make when he debuted in the UFC in 2012. Even Thompson wondered if, after five pro MMA fights, it was too much too soon.
“I look back to when I had my first fight in the UFC, and I was scared stiff because I felt I wasn’t ready when I got the call,” he said. “I just had five fights, and I was learning and trying to soak up everything I could, and I was still fairly green. I remember sitting in the gym with my dad and he was like ‘I know you’re nervous and I know you feel like you’re not ready, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to fight for the biggest fight organization in the world. They may never call you again.’ I said ‘Let’s go for it. What is there to lose? I get beaten.’ And through that, I’ve learned so much.”
Thompson knocked Dan Stittgen out with a head kick in the first round of that UFC debut in Las Vegas, and a little over three years later, he is back in the fight capital of the world facing a former UFC champion. And Thompson’s not doubting himself anymore. This time, he knows he’s ready.
“How well I go out there and perform against Johny Hendricks will determine whether or not I get that next title shot,” he said. “So for me, yeah, it’s that time. I’ve got to go out there and I’ve got to perform the way I know I can perform. And I know I can beat him. Of course that’s the mindset of every fighter. If you don’t have that mindset, you shouldn’t be out there. You have to have that confidence.”
Thompson has it. And hey, if he gets a title shot, maybe he can be like another confident young title challenger – Conor McGregor – and have a world famous celebrity sing him into the Octagon.
“Me and my brothers and my teammates talk about it all the time, getting Jack Black to sing the song as I step out there,” Wonderboy said. “That would be so cool.”