In the early days of the UFC, there was a cesspool of different styles of martial arts that ended up being conquered by the young grappler Royce Gracie. From 1997 until 2008, the wrestler with big power and heart is what ruled the UFC’s Octagon. That was before karate made its way in the cage when former Light Heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida started making waves. Nowadays, new breeds of karate fighters are making their way in, and they are led by a young Welterweight.
That young Welterweight is Stephen Thompson. Better known as “Wonderboy,” Thompson has a history of highlight reel KO’s. His last fight in the octagon was a headliner for TUF 21 Finale against Jake Ellenberger. In the first round, Wonderboy hit two spinning heel kicks with the second finishing his opponent for the night and earning Thompson $50,000. I had a chance to speak with Wonderboy after his next fight against Johny Hendricks was announced for UFC 196.
Vinny Craig: Let’s go through the timeline a little bit. You started out with Neil Magny at UFC 195. After Matt Brown pulled out of his bout with Kelvin Gastelum in November, Magny replaced him and left you without an opponent. You called out Tyron Woodley for UFC 195, but now you get a fight with Johny Hendricks at UFC 196. What was all that like from your perspective?
Stephen Thompson: When I got the Magny call, I was a little disappointed because I was ranked eight and I wanted someone higher than myself. I said ‘it is what it is’ because the rest of the top 7 already had opponents or they were injured. Then he got called for a fight with Gastelum to replace Matt Brown, and this was my chance to fight someone higher up. We tried to get Woodley, but he was promised that next title shot and the only guy left was Johny Hendricks. He’s a former champion and ranked number three and I’m here to go for the gold and get that belt by facing off with anybody who’s in front of me. I was fairly nervous at first because he’s been knocking dudes out and he’s the best wrestler I’ve ever faced. At the same time, I’m very excited for this opportunity and I’m going to be ready February 6th.
VC: You’re fighting a heavy wrestling style in Johny Hendricks. Will you go to LAW and get help from Chris Weidman more for this camp because of that?
ST: Definitely, most of the time when I have a camp I bring Chris and some other guys in to my camp. I usually stay home and bring guys to me. It all depends on how Chris is feeling later on and closer to fight time we’ll bring him in to get some last minute sparing. My wrestling has improved tremendously with my coach and teammates and I’m feeling really confident. Like I said, he’s definitely the best wrestler I’ve faced so far. My goal is to keep it standing and make him swing and miss. If he does take me down, which I believe will happen, I’ll be ready to get back up.
VC: You went and trained with Weidman for the Rockhold fight, this one being the first time he’s lost. Was it any different in camp leading up to this fight?
ST: We’ve done the same things that we have always done. I go up there the last few weeks, get some last minute sparring in. It’s my job to be fast like Rockhold, but things happen. It didn’t turn out in Chris’s favor, but he’s such a tough fighter and good guy that he will bounce back. I feel bad for the next guy who faces him.
VC: It’s your job to emulate Luke or any other opponent he might have. We saw Rockhold throw a lot of question mark kicks in the lead up and in the fight. Is that something you worked on with Weidman?
ST: Oh yes! I threw a ton of those every sparring session we had so he could get used to it. I would throw it with my back leg because Luke stands with his right leg forward. Occasionally he’ll do a step-step and throw it with his front leg. Everything he threw, Chris was ready for. It was Luke’s night and Chris has definitely learned from it.
VC: If Chris didn’t throw that spinning heel kick, do you think the fight would have ended differently?
ST: I know they were both really gassed in the third and I think Chris was looking for one of those game-changer kicks and it just didn’t turn out the way that he thought it would. When he threw it and got taken down, it took a lot out of him. I don’t think he really knows why he threw it.
VC: This will be your second straight main/co-main event slot. Do you enjoy being in important roles on a card?
ST: It gives you a little more exposure, for my last fight I didn’t realize what I was getting into until I got to Las Vegas. I saw my face EVERYWHERE at the MGM Grand and I realized this is the real deal. There is some added pressure, but I’m going to train for this fight like I do every other one and I’m going to go out there and face off with him like I have every time. Being the co-main event is still fighting three five-minute rounds and I’m going to go out there and whatever happens. If there is a KO, hopefully I’m the one knocking him out. Definitely some added pressure, but I don’t think about it too much.
VC: We’ve seen him have some issues with making weight on several occasions including almost not making weight in a title fight at UFC 171 and not making it to the fight against Woodley at UFC 192. He’s taken that next step and hired a good nutritionist. What do you do to help yourself make weight safely?
ST: I walk around at a lighter weight (than most Welterweights). I’m really not a big 170 like guys like Hendricks who walk around over 200 pounds. I tried that before I fought Matt Brown and the weight cut was too hard and it drained me during the fight. I walk around lighter because of that and each time I cut weight it gets easier and easier. I walk around between 185 and 190 and I hear Hendricks is walking around at that as well. I think he’s ready to go and he’ll be ready on February 6th… and so will I.
VC: Hendricks nutritionist doesn’t believe in cutting weight and ideally wants Johny at 170 on weigh in day with no weight cut. Will this factor into what you do if he has to cut weight despite what his nutritionist wants?
ST: It depends on how disciplined he is. He hasn’t been that disciplined in the past on his weight cut and we’ll see what he does with someone in charge. I think he’ll be 100% when he gets in there with me.
VC: What is your wish for the Hendricks fight?
ST: To go out there and have a spectacular win over Johny Hendricks. Hopefully that showing gets me a title shot.
VC: You did our top ten series for the best knockouts by breaking them down. What was that like?
ST: We had a blast. My brother, my dad and I did it and it was just a fun way to relax. We did it right in our school and going over the KO’s and goofing off with my family is what it’s all about. Having fun and hoping others enjoy it as well.
VC: We did not get to see you do one of your own KO’s. What KO of your own would you want to do?
ST: I would want to do that Ellenberger hook kick. There was really no thinking behind what was involved. I just listened to my dad and he said spin. I know exactly what to do when I hear him say that and I didn’t expect to see hit him with it. Sometimes your corner can see things you can’t see inside the cage, and he ended up seeing the hook kick. I actually hit him with it twice.
VC: 2015 saw only one fight for you, that spectacular spinning hook kick KO of Jake Ellenberger. What are your goals for 2016?
ST: I want to get out there more, of course. Things happen, especially injuries. I bruised my heel in the Ellenberger fight, but I wanted to fight in January. Depending on how fights go, you always want to get back out there. In my last fight, I thought I broke my heel with the kick I landed to end the fight. Ended up tearing meniscus in my left knee and had to have surgery again. I don’t even get injuries during training or a fight, it’s outside of fighting and it’s so frustrating. You got to deal with it in this profession.
VC: You have consistently fought two times a year in the UFC. How do you up that output in 2016?
ST: I have to be careful in training, that’s when most injuries happen. Have to be healthy and eat the right things. Put the right stuff in your body and make sure you’re training with the right guys so you can fight more throughout the year.
Brad Pickett, “I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much”
As Saturday looms closer, a new championship belt lies in waiting. Not just a new title, the first title bestowed from a young and growing promotion. Rise of Champions hosts its fifth event Saturday, in which new amateur and pro champions will be crowned.
Saturday is a great opportunity for the young promotion. Co-owner and former UFC veteran, Brad Pickett doesn’t look to compete with the bigger promotions like Cage Warriors or ACB, let alone the UFC. To his luck, Rise of Champions 5, doesn’t have to. While the UFC does have an event scheduled for the upcoming weekend, it happens to be the somewhat rare occurrence of a Sunday night show. Though, it does make sense, with the North American market free from the anaconda like stranglehold the NFL (American football) maintains for nearly 5 months of the year. Nonetheless, the Sunday night cards are strewn from the norm. Which is essentially what ROC looks to provide.
The regional circuit in Europe holds a good portion of quality promotions and Pickett wants to add ROC to that list. “I just want it to be a really recognizable name. Like for (people to say), ‘Oh, that’s a good show’. You hear that name and go, ‘that’s a really well worked, a really good show’.” It seems for the retired UK MMA legend, he couldn’t be happier. In describing what it meant to run a promotion, he said, “I just feel great to be a part of it. I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much, and I just like to put back what I’ve learned over the years with my coaching but then also later, run a promotion, give guys a good platform to grow and showcase their skills. For me, in a way, I feel it’s my duty to do something like this and stay within the sport”.
The other co-owner, Mickey Papas and he began the promotion together, while Pickett still competed in 2015. Papas and Pickett have a long-standing relationship stemming from early in the former Bantamweights career. “My relationship with Mickey started off like this; I remember when I was fighting in Cage Rage back in the day, I knew nothing on the floor really. I was just like a stand up fighter. I knew a little bit but I was unversed, and then I remember going to do some Jiu Jitsu and then also bumping into Mickey. Mickey was more Pankration, which I thought back then, the wrestling side of MMA was more important than just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the gi… he’s been one of my coaches ever since, even when I (went) out to America, I trained in America for a lot but also I’d come back in and train here. I had two teams, I had ATT and Team Titan.”
Upon further discussion of his promotion, Pickett revealed an aspect of his promotion which separates ROC from the rest of the popular regional promotions. “I like the fact when I have a pro main card of 4-5 fights and the rest of my card is amateur fights. Where shows like Bamma and Cage Warriors are predominantly only pro fights.” He continued, “I want to keep to my emphasis of young talent. And also in my pro fights people like Mike Ekundayo (an undefeated fighter coached by Pickett at Team Titan) who is the main event… I’m still trying to promote younger, unbeaten talent to help build themselves”.
Through his MMA journey, the retired fighter took many personal experiences while competing and coaching under a litany of promotions. He depicted one odd story in which, “I remember one of my fighters fighting on the show getting quite a bad cut on his eye. I remember seeing it backstage where I had other guys fighting on the show, later on the card, (guys) that I’m cornering. He’s just sitting back there and I said, ‘What’s going on, are you going to get stitched? The doctor going to see you to get you stitched up?’ He goes,
‘No, no, they gave me these steri strips’.
‘What do you mean they gave you steri strips?’,
‘They gave me steri strips to do it myself’. And I’m like,
‘You’re taking a piss’…
I went and complained, and they said, ‘Oh no, there’s one doctor, he’s by the cage side. He can’t come back and do the stitches. There’s a hospital just down the road why don’t you leave and go there?’ and I’m like you’re expecting one of my fighters to leave your show looking like he does with a massive gash on his face? It’s just like loads of things like that, it always happens.”
Having experience in the regional circuit, at the time that he did, Pickett was exposed to a lot. When asked about the preliminary conception of Rise of Champions, he explained it as so, “I’ve been to a of lot good shows in my career and I’ve been to a lot of bad shows. I’ve been to the best shows in the world as well. So for me, I knew that I have a very good insight on how a show should run, in front of the camera and more importantly behind the camera, because you get a lot of promoters who know how it should look for the camera but don’t know how to treat the fighters backstage or how things should run. Me (having) competed at the highest organization for many years, I know what that means.”
Pickett continued, “And it’s not a case of always about having money, it’s about proper organization, doing things well and at the end of the day knowing that, the fighters are the stars of the show. Where at some shows, they’re treating the fighters like cattle. (They treat them) like, go in fight and see you later, who’s next? For me, I am very much against that. Also, I felt the emphasis of my shows is to try and help grow and nurture, young developing talent… when I was doing it, it wasn’t really a career path for anyone, but now it’s a legitimate career path for young and aspiring athletes to be able to go out there and earn life changing money.”
As a self-critical person, Pickett believes ROC’s first four events turned out well, although he sees room for improvement. “I do believe they always can get better. One thing I can’t complain with, is the fights. The fights have always been really good, and at the end of the day that is what matters. There is no point of having this glitz and glamour, and spending thousands and thousands of pounds on lights, cameras, and just having complete dud fights.” Without much of a pause, he continued, “I do all the matchmaking myself. I do believe I know what are good fights and I put on some really good fights on my show. That’s what I am happy with. If the show keeps growing, then I can add a bit more glitz and glamour. A bit more on the production and things.”
One aspect he wishes translated better to the broadcast, is the ROC fighter ceremonies. “I do like a Pride thing, where there’s a ceremony before the start of the show where all the fighters come out in front of the audience, (all the fighters) on the under card. Then midway through the whole event, there’s a pause, a break and then we have another ceremony for the main card fighters.” In this certain structure, he believes the ceremonies not only add to the spectacle of the event but excite audiences for the fights to come. “It gives the (fighters) a bit more time in front of the crowd. And where, you may go (to) see Joe Blocks fight, but then you just see these two other guys come out and think, ‘Man, these two guys look like they’re gonna have a great scrap. I wanna watch that fight as well’… if you can get people interested in other fights on the card, it’s a win. That’s why I’m trying not to just make a good fight, I’m trying to make a good event where people go, ‘this is good, I would love to come to this show next time no matter who’s fighting’.”
While ROC does not occupy all his time, the hectic nature balancing multiple jobs earned Picketts attention as soon as he retired. He claimed, “Its weird, I’ll be honest with you, it was so much easier when I was a professional fighter. All I had to do is concentrate on myself, get up in the morning, train for a couple (of) hours, relax, (then) train a couple of hours in the evening and that’s it. It was so much easier. Also, I earned great money when I was fighting towards the end of my career. But now, I have to go back to the hustle… it’s not always about being financially rewarding but that obviously is important, I have a kid. I’ve got a house, a mortgage to pay. So that is important but, it also is to try to do what I like doing as well”.
It is evident, even from afar, that retirement hasn’t worn out the rugged mentality training and fighting gave him. Besides co-owning a promotion with his friend and business partner, Mickey Papas, Pickett hosts a weekly podcast (The One Punch Podcast), has a beautiful family (with an adorable son you can catch on his Instagram account), coaches fighters, trains average citizens, and travels for seminars. Yet, he finds time for all of it.
I imagine it would be hard to find another human like Brad Pickett. His youthful exuberance, tough mentality, and pragmatic nature make him an impossible character to clone. Speaking to him and feeling those qualities, only magnified the respect and admiration I had for the man. The MMA community is lucky to have Brad Pickett, and even luckier to keep him inside of it.
Rise of Champions 5, takes place this Saturday, February 16th at the Brentwood Leisure Centre, in Brentwood, England.
Jonas Magard, “This is all I do. I don’t have anything else”
In the late hours of this upcoming Saturday night in the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, a new Bantamweight champion will earn his crown. A little over 300 feet from the A12 in Brentwood, England, inside the Brentwood Centre, is where it will all happen. The medium sized venue will host Brad Pickett and his Rise of Champions promotion, for their fifth event and second with the venue.
An important event, ROC 5, represents something greater to a few different people involved with Saturdays show. For the promotions co-owner Pickett, it represents an opportunity to capture American audiences on a UFC-less Saturday while being broadcast exclusively on the world-leader’s streaming service, UFC Fight Pass. Although the former UFC contender has a lot riding on the success of his shows, ROC 5 may mean less to the owner than to both his main event fighters. Currently, the ROC 5 main event is set to determine the promotions first ever champion when Denmark’s Jonas Magard takes on London’s own, Mike Ekundayo.
Both young, talented, and riding unbeaten streaks, this main event represents a major stepping stone in their careers. In the case of Jonas Magard, “It’s just a new opportunity to do something, to put my mark on things. With or without the title I just want to fight. He’s in my way to something bigger”. His words echoed his demeanor. While the Danish Amateur MMA Champion, wanted to behave excited for the opportunity, fighting under the ROC banner, his attitude simply would not allow him. “I can’t wait to see how they put on the show and stuff, I think it’s going to be fun. But again it’s just me and him, it’s not about the show… I have not been training to fight at that event. I’ve been training to fight that guy and if it’s that’s event or if it’s in the backyard, it’s the same for me”.
Not only was the young Danish fighters’ mentality impressive but his record as well. At 8-3, Magard owns 7 stoppages, 6 by Japanese neck tie. The same submission he defeated Michail Chrisopoulus, with a little less than half of the opening round remaining, in his most recent appearance at ACB 75. And the same submission in which he holds the record for most finishes.
His journey to this point could not be described by the meager word, easy. After training for a year and two amateur fights in his home of Jutland, Denmark, Magard decided to make a change. “I went to Copenhagen to try to train there, in one of the bigger gyms and they just opened their arms and welcomed me. So, I thought why not move? I was 19 at the time. I didn’t really know anybody in Copenhagen”. He continued, “the first couple of times I was over there, I would live with some of the guys from the gym. I would have an amateur fight coming up, so I’d stay there for a month… I would still have my address and live back in Jutland, but I would just go over there do my training and my training camps”.
Magard travels quite a bit for his MMA training. In his current situation, Magard splits time between Rumble Sport in Copenhagen, Denmark and All Powers gym in Manchester, England. “I think a lot of fighters, they get too comfortable in their own little circle of fighters and in their own gym, where I like to just go out, get the best training work whether it is in Denmark or wherever. I don’t care about traveling or getting pushed as much as I can”.
He’s made a routine of being uncomfortable, something he does not think can be said of his opponent, “I think he hasn’t been battle tested, the same way as I have. Yeah, he’s a good opponent, he’s a guy I have to beat. He’s undefeated… but you know, I don’t think he’s been battled tested as he’s going to be now, with me (in) this fight, it’s just different”.
“I’ve seen his opponents and his opponents are okay but, they didn’t have a lot of fights either like he don’t. Not even as an amateur. As an amateur, I fought the guy who just fought for the Cage Warriors title, Alexander Jacobsen, he had like 125 boxing matches… I fought the guy who is going to fight for the Cage Warriors flyweight championship, Sam (Creasey)… I had the hard fights as an amateur, I don’t think he had the hard fights, that’s the difference about over here in Scandinavia. We get battle tested,” he continued to elaborate, “in amateur, people don’t get built up, people are getting hard fights. I had two fights the same day, for the Danish MMA amateur championship… I’ve been facing guys who I know come there to win, who’s just not there to be food… this is all I do, I don’t have anything else, I don’t have a day job I’m going to everyday and that’s the difference. I’m a professional, I live off this, I live for this, this is all I do. He has not met anybody like me before, who has the experiences I have.”
Magard believes the experience he earned through his MMA journey is what separates himself from his opponent. Outside of MMA, the Dane fought two shoot-fighting matches and one professional boxing bout. “He is a good fighter, he is a good strong fighter but I know the guys over here, there stronger side is not the ground. The wrestling in England, people want to punch each other in the face they don’t want to wrestle. I come from a place where people like to wrestle. And during this fight camp, I’ve been training with the (Danish) Greco Roman Olympic silver medalist [Mark Madsen]. I’ve been training with Martin Kammpman the former Danish UFC fighter… I eat I sleep I breathe MMA every day and I don’t want anything else. That’s going to be the difference in this fight one hundred percent”.
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