UFC’s Stephen Thompson witnesses healing in Charleston, sees it as example for the nation

Stephen Thompson, left, connects with a left against Tyron Woodley during their welterweight title fight at UFC 205.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The weekend after the fatal church shootings of nine black parishioners in 2015 by a young white man in Charleston, S.C., UFC fighter Stephen Thompson was in town to teach a martial arts seminar.

During one of the breaks in the seminar, Thompson strolled outside onto the downtown streets and happened upon a sizable gathering of grieving community members. Amid the anguish Thompson, witnessed a scene of bonding he wishes the entire country could’ve watched.

“It was horrible what happened in that church. Tragic. But seeing everybody come together was just so beautiful, everyone so supportive of people they’d never even met before,” said Thompson, who resides in Simpsonville, S.C., about a three-hour drive from Charleston.


“The people who were killed were black, killed by a white man. But to see the black community welcoming in white people, and people from all races, to come help them get through that tragic time … that’s what moved me the most.”

Thompson (13-1-1) mentioned how deeply meaningful the afternoon in Charleston was a few weeks ago after politely sitting next to his Saturday night opponent, UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, who was raised in another American city scarred by a fatal incident: Ferguson, Mo. The fight will be the main event of the pay-per-view UFC 209 card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Instead of engaging in the typical trash talk between opponents that routinely prevents joint appearances at events, Thompson and Woodley developed a mutual respect after their majority draw at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last November.

“There’s a lot of guys out there who like to be mad and get angry at their opponent, but that’s not me,” Thompson said. “I do this for the honor and the glory, and it doesn’t matter who I face, I’m going to show them respect. I understand when we go out there, it’s going to be a sporting event. It doesn’t have to be personal.

“You can talk about me all you want. … I’ve always been a positive guy. I teach at a school. We have 750 students and most of them are kids, and those 600 kids are watching every move I make, so I want to be a good example to them.”

Even though the Confederate flag flew at the South Carolina capitol until 2015, Thompson said he grew up accepting of all people, no matter their skin color.

“Coming up in school, you don’t see each other any different. … I had a lot of black friends,” he said. “That’s the misperception about the South. Many of my close friends are black. When people get older, it might get different for some, but it’s all in how you’re brought up.

“Growing up for me was about respecting everybody. We’re all a part of one race — the human race — with everybody equal under God. We have the same color blood. And even though some people are different in how they are, in what they wear, you always have to respect them for how they are as a person.”

White supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted in federal court of multiple murders and hate crimes and sentenced in January to death for his attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Instead of a reaction mirroring Roof’s rage, the response that Thompson witnessed is an example that he said can be used to unify the country in the face of racial hostilities.

“It seems to me the country’s been going the wrong way in decisions being made — by the president, by police officers, by media putting negative things out there, by rioting, tearing your own city apart,” Thompson said. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to get your point across, a more intelligent way to do things.

“Everybody’s got to come together. You’ve got to love each other. There’s a lot of angry people out there and there are different reasons for that — how they grew up, maybe someone was murdered in their family. You never know. Be willing to listen, be supportive, show the right way to do things. That’s the only way I can see [unity] happening.”

UFC 209

Who: Tyron Woodley (16-3-1) vs. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (13-1-1), for Woodley’s welterweight title

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

Television: Pay-per-view, $59.95

Undercard: No. 1-rated Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0) vs. No. 2 Tony Ferguson (23-3), for interim lightweight belt; No. 3 Alistair Overeem (41-15) vs. No. 8 Mark Hunt (12-11-1), heavyweights; Rashad Evans (24-5-1) vs. Daniel Kelly (12-1), middleweights; Lando Vannata (9-1) vs. David Teymur (5-1), lightweights.