Stephen Thompson cites B.J. Penn as example for why he doesn’t want to hang around for too long

Stephen Thompson hopes to avoid heading down the same prickly path that has left some of MMA’s best bloody and broken down.

The two-time welterweight title contender has his next fight booked for Dec. 16, when he meets the undefeated Shavkat Rakhmonov at UFC 296 in Las Vegas. It’s a matchup that seems designed to propel Rakhmonov closer to a title shot and possibly leave Thompson with another recent loss on his record.

Though Thompson is coming off of a thrilling fourth-round TKO of Kevin Holland, he turned 40 this past February and he’s aware that the clock is ticking on his career. A lifelong martial artist that has been in his fair share of octagon wars, Thompson has no interest in seeing his legacy diminished by hanging on to his gloves too long.

“That definitely has gone through my head,” Thompson said on The MMA Hour when asked if he’s affected by others discussing his potential retirement. “It’s nothing that I’ve actually talked about out loud, I don’t like to say it out loud, but I’ve thought it. I don’t want to be that guy that people are like, ‘Why is he even out there right now? Just taking too much punishment.’ When Tony Ferguson fought, it might have been [against] Gaethje, and he stood there, he’s bloody and bashed, and he just shakes his head, trying to wake himself up it almost looked like. I was like, ‘Man, stop the fight,’ but the fight kept going. At that point in my head, I was like, I don’t like to see guys who have been at the top of the game, who have been legends of the game, take punishment.

B.J. Penn was one of them. He was at the pinnacle. Every fight that he took after that that he lost, it made him lesser of a legend, I think. If he would have stopped at the top when he first did, he didn’t have to come back. … The way they go out there, [like Fedor Emelianenko] he’s getting knocked out left and right, you know what that does to people later on. That’s permanent damage right there. It might be slowly bits at a time, but I don’t like to see people take that kind of punishment and then be able to see that later on even after their career how it has affected them.”

Penn is a former two-division champion, having held titles at lightweight and welterweight, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented athletes ever to compete in MMA. Near unstoppable in his prime, Penn went on a precipitous decline in the ‘10s, going winless in his last eight fights.

Thompson hasn’t quite reached Penn’s heights, but he twice dueled Tyron Woodley for UFC gold. He’s looking for one more crack at the No. 1 spot, which is why he welcomed a fight with the dangerous Rakhmonov after previously being unfamiliar with him.

“This is it for me,” Thompson said. “I’ve got a small run for that title and possibly the last one. I know everybody’s calling me out because I’m 40, but I feel great. I don’t feel 40 years old. In this game, that’s old. I think it came up in my last fight, I was the oldest guy on the card. I don’t know why that’s a thing, because I know older people who are phenomenal fighters.

“Look at Glover Teixeira. He was, what, 41 or 42 when he got it and still crushing it. It was awesome. So I’m here for the veterans. Us veterans can still go out there and break it down.”

In his recent fights, Thompson has shown he can still foil high-level competition as he downed Holland and top 15-ranked fighters Geoff Neal and Vicente Luque. However, among those wins were two one-sided decision losses to Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns. He is just 4-4 since his second fight with Woodley in 2017.

A win over Rakhmonov would revitalize Thompson’s career overnight, while a loss will only amplify calls for “Wonderboy” to retire. In the end, the one voice that Thompson cares the most about is that of his father and trainer Ray.

“At this point, no,” Thompson said about having a specific age at which he’ll stop competing. “As long as I’m healthy and I’m not taking too much punishment, I’m going to do this as long as my body will let me. Or I’ve mentioned before, when my dad says I’m done. At this point he knows me better than I know myself.

“Us fighters, we want to continue to fight until the day we die and sometimes you see fighters out there who don’t have that person to tell them the truth: ‘You don’t need to do it.’ We’ve seen guys out there who just need to hang it up, but there’s nobody to tell them that. When my dad says I’m done, he knows me better than I know myself, I’ll hang it up.”

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