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 Stephen Thompson poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night ceremonial weigh-in at Amway Center on December 02, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
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Stephen Thompson: How To Achieve Longevity In MMA

Welterweight Stephen Thompson Challenges Michel Pereira At UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje in Salt Lake City, Utah

In December, former welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson showcased arguably the best performance to date in his 11-year UFC career.

Headlining an electric fight night card in Orlando, Florida, Thompson faced Kevin Holland, a fearless competitor who had picked up knockout victories over Santiago Ponzinibbio, Jacare Souza and Joaquin Buckley.

After holding off Holland’s pressure early in the first round, Thompson started to pick up steam and never looked back, separating himself on the scorecards more and more with each passing minute. In the fourth round, Thompson out-struck Holland 48-12 on his way to securing a TKO victory.

Order UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2

“I wanted to show the fans and the UFC that I still have it,” Thompson said. “I was coming off two losses against two good grapplers, and to get someone like Kevin Holland who’s going to put on a show, you have to have a good dancing partner when you’re out there to have a good show and he was definitely the one to do it. Now I found a good partner in Michel Pereira to put a on a good show for the fans at UFC 291.”

It's very difficult to stay on top of a sport like mixed martial arts that evolves so rapidly. With the UFC turning 30 years old this year, faster, stronger and more technical athletes enter the sport every single day, so UFC veterans are forced to adapt if they plan to survive.

Stephen Thompson prepares to fight Kevin Holland in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on December 03, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Stephen Thompson prepares to fight Kevin Holland in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on December 03, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Over a decade has passed since Thompson’s UFC debut – a first round knockout over Dan Stittgen – and yet, the 40-year-old still finds himself as the No. 7 ranked contender in a stacked 170-pound division. To get to the elite level and stay there, every fighter must find their own best way to train to help them be as prepared as possible come fight night.

How To Watch UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2

Take Max Holloway, for example. The former featherweight champion is known for his boxing, yet he doesn’t spar as much as his peers. Other fighters like Sean Strickland, however, spar regularly so they can feel comfortable in the Octagon when it’s time to actually fight.

For longevity, Thompson believes you need to train smart by protecting your physical health as much as you can, and offering your body all the recovery it needs before jumping back into strenuous workouts.

Stephen Thompson punches Kevin Holland in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on December 03, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Stephen Thompson punches Kevin Holland in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on December 03, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

“Smart training,” Thompson said when asked the key to his longevity in mixed martial arts. “You still have guys to this day that train like they did 15 years ago where they would go into the gym and beat the crap out of each other. Every day is a fight [for them]. You can’t have a long-lasting career doing that. You have to be smart in your training.

“My dad and [coaching staff] have been training fighters for a very long time so they know exactly what they’re doing; Keeping it light in the gym, knowing when to push yourself, when to take time off to give your body time to heal up. I spend more time in recovery than anything in my camps now. That’s why I’m still at the top of the game and still getting better.”

Order UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje

While Thompson’s father and coaching staff have provided a safe, yet productive, environment to train in to keep his body in the best shape possible, “Wonderboy” gained insight from former two-division champion Conor McGregor on the best way to mentally approach a training session to get the most out of your time in the gym.

Already in Las Vegas to film a commercial, Thompson ran into McGregor at the UFC Performance Institute during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter Season 31. After discussing their potential futures competing in the UFC, McGregor invited Thompson to join him for one of Team McGregor’s training sessions that was featured on Episode 4.

Stephen Thompson poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night ceremonial weigh-in at Amway Center on December 02, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Stephen Thompson poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night ceremonial weigh-in at Amway Center on December 02, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

“His mindset on things, how he goes into training camp, how he goes into the gym,” Thompson acknowledged as takeaways from his time training with McGregor. “He’s a big presence already, but when he steps out there, he lets everybody know that he means business. There’s a lot of guys at the top of the game that come up with excuses for why they can’t train. Not this guy. That’s one thing I learned from training with a lot of champions; they have no excuses, they’re always in the gym doing something.

“What impressed me the most was how much he cared about his guys. My dad always says when it comes to teaching, ‘People don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care,’ and [McGregor] showed that 100 percent.”

See What Rankings Are On The Line At UFC 291

This Saturday, Thompson steps back into the Octagon for the 20th time in his career at UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2, where he will face Brazil’s Pereira, a dynamic striker who seemingly produces a never-before-seen technique every time he steps in to compete.

Pereira, who did a backflip during the middle of his fight against Niko Price at UFC 264, has collected five consecutive victories dating back to 2020. So, while Pereira is flashy and entertaining, his style is undoubtedly effective.

Stephen Thompson poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on November 30, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Stephen Thompson poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on November 30, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Thompson, who’s similarly known for the unique striking that stems from his karate background, anticipates a more patient approach from his UFC 291 counterpart. Fighting at Delta Arena in Salt Lake City, athletes will need to adapt to the city’s high elevation. Thompson believes this will force Pereira to fight more calculated.

“I think it’s a really cool style,” Thompson said of Pereira. “Stylistically, he comes from a karate background and capoeira background. He hit me up on social media about a year ago and was like, ‘Hey man, I got some karate footage, check it out,’ so it’s cool that we’re fighting. He’s wild and crazy, this guy, which is one of the reasons I liked it. I like going into a fight not quite knowing exactly what my opponent is going to do because I like the game. I like to go out there and adapt and be able to adapt mid-fight.

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“He’s a very well-rounded fighter. He’s a good grappler, he’s got good striking, he does the flips and spins. It’s crazy but I think he’s a little smarter and more intelligent coming into this fight. We’re at higher altitude, so I think he’s going to try and conserve energy by maybe waiting a little bit.”

With title aspirations on his mind, Thompson believes a win against Pereira will earn him a clash with one of the welterweight division’s Top 5 contenders. How does Thompson plan on getting the win? “Wonderboy” isn’t one to make too bold of a prediction but says that he’s prepared for whatever happens inside the Octagon, no matter how long it takes.

“If the knockout happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Thompson said, providing his prediction for the fight. “I always prepare for a three five-minute round war. I think, mentally, you should prepare for that so if it does get difficult, you’ll be ready for it. I always picture my hand being raised after every fight and that’s what I visualize now, my hand being raised.”

UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2 took place live from the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 29, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass