Westin Wilson Talks MMA Career, Training With UFC’s Wonderboy, and Raising Warrior Women

Westin Wilson – pro fighter, martial arts instructor, software professional, and proud father of three – leads by example when it comes to balancing life obligations, though it’s far from easy. An MMA pro with a longstanding grappling pedigree and owner of several brutal submission wins, Wilson nonetheless finds himself frequently at the mercy of his equally ferocious pack of young daughters – whom he fondly describes as his “little Amazons.”

All three attend the kids’ program at Upstate Karate – home of the UFC’s karate and kickboxing phenom, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. “As I got more involved in the team, we started enrolling each girl in karate,” Wilson tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “My three-year-old is going to start in the fall, but she’s been around forever – during the day when nobody’s here, and I’m doing my pad work with Coach T, she runs the mats.” He smiles. “And my eight-year-old, she absolutely loves it! She loves jiu-jitsu, she loves karate, she does it all. It’s been awesome, and definitely helps our father-daughter relationship.”

Wilson’s middle daughter is the most reluctant of the three. “She’s probably my most athletic, but she hates it.” He laughs. “She did it for a little bit, and she does not like it – she’s like, ‘This is a boy sport, I don’t want to do a boy sport!’”

“She’ll always talk trash to Stephen [Thompson],” her father shares, unable to contain his mirth. “She’ll be like, ‘This is dumb, karate’s stupid!’ And he laughs so hard – we all laugh so hard. And Scarlett, my oldest, she loves Stephen, Stephen’s her teacher – and she’ll be like, ‘No, he’s not stupid, you’re stupid!’ And it’s so funny, because some nights, I’ll take the girls to the gym with me, and as I’m working out, and as everyone else on the mats is working out – everyone knows my kids – I’ll put them in the cage, and I’ll lock the cage. And I’l be like, ‘Alright, guys, you entertain yourselves, I got to train, Stephen’s got to train the pro team, we’ve all got to train.’

“And we’ll look over, and they’re straight up fist fighting each other!” exclaims Wilson. “I’ll throw some of the dodgeballs and pool noodles in there. And the three-year-old will be screaming and whacking both of the other girls with the pool noodles. They’ll be doing like, flying kicks on each other – they’ve all done karate, but my youngest is the most savage out of all of them.”

Once upon a time, Wilson thought he was meant to raise boys. “I always wondered why I had daughters – like I had always wanted a son,” he admits. “Because I grew up in a house of all boys, with five brothers and only one sister. But it dawned on me one day, watching my daughter on the mat – because the karate program here involves a lot of grappling, and my daughter’s super good with the grappling – I don’t want to be like, ‘Aw yeah, my daughter’s beating everyone up!’ but she’s going with all the bigger kids on the mat, and it gets to the point where none of the kids in her age group or belt level want to grapple with her. And she’s really tiny for her age too!

“But I had this thought where I was like, ‘I think I had girls, so that I could help them set an example of strong womanhood.’ I think that’s what the world needs today. I think we really need strong women. So I’m glad that [my daughters] have taken to martial arts, because I think it’s the easiest way for a woman to get that empowerment – and the right kind of empowerment. I think being in martial arts at a young age gives my daughters that confidence and that empowerment that they need in order to be strong in bad situations.”

Raising a martial arts family is a calling that Wilson’s team at Upstate Karate knows well. Although Wonderboy may be the most famous of the Thompsons, every member of the Thompson family has grown up thoroughly versed in martial arts since childhood – and the culture at Upstate Karate reflects that. “One time, Chase Hooper was down here, and we were working out together – and my three-year-old grabbed one of the bo staffs, so I took it from her, and I spun it around, and accidentally hit her in the face with it. So she’s bawling, and Coach T picks her up, and she’s bawling into Coach T’s shoulder. We were doing mitts, so he’s holding my daughter Georgia in one hand, and holding the pads in the other, and Chase Hooper and I are kicking the pad back and forth – and that’s just the environment.

“It’s super great, because I’m getting the best training ever, and I’m able to also have such a great family environment – my kids get to be a part of it, they get to be on the mats. And that’s how the Thompsons were as well – every single Thompson kid was involved in karate and martial arts from age three until now. They’re still teaching, they’re still doing karate and jiu-jitsu and everything. It’s a fun time – we just have a lot of fun with it.”

Upstate Karate’s famous kickboxing pedigree has also paid dividends for Wilson’s standup game in the cage. In particular, Wilson credits Wonderboy’s brother, Tony “Sweet T” Thompson with helping Wilson develop as a striker. “Everyone loves Wonderboy, but I’m gonna give a lot of love to Coach T,” he says with a laugh. “He has a coaching style that I really needed. It’s been a great synergy ever since [I moved to Upstate Karate].”

Like the Thompson children, Wilson himself also grew up in martial arts. “I actually got started when I was a kid,” he explains. “My dad worked for the DEA when I was growing up, and when I was a kid, I was living in Oklahoma. I was probably in the fifth grade, and I’d go to my dad’s office in the summertime. There was a guy there who would be like, ‘Oh, you guys should watch this!’ and it was early UFC [fights]. So that was my first introduction [to martial arts], and I thought it was really cool that these guys were athletes, and that they were fighting in a cage – so after that, I got into wrestling. That was like 2000 or so. And then my freshman year of high school, The Ultimate Fighter came out, and I was obsessed with that first season – and every season since then. I would stay up until like eleven or twelve o’ clock – because I was living in Virginia at the time – and then have to wake up at five AM.”

Wilson, full of teenage confidence, proudly told his high school wrestling teammates that he too would be an MMA fighter one day. “I started doing like YouTube jiu-jitsu videos,” he recalls, a bit sheepishly. “And then after my junior year, my dad was like, ‘Hey we’re going to move to Brazil – and there’s no wrestling.’”

Cue record scratch. Wilson’s entire career plan had hinged on wrestling – he’d been attending a Top 20 high school for wrestling, which was a major feeder to D1 college wrestling teams. Wilson had nursed big dreams of wrestling in college, and using that as a starting point for his fight career.

Brazil, though, wasn’t exactly the worst place to be for a young aspiring combat athlete. Wilson’s father encouraged him to jump directly into MMA classes – which was how Wilson found his way to Brazilian Top Team São Paulo, where he began formal training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “I was the only American in there,” remembers Wilson. “I had a wrestling background, and it was funny, because I remember my very first time doing jiu-jitsu with guys who actually did jiu-jitsu, and you’d think I’d want to play top game, and be afraid of playing off my back, but I remember purposely going to my back – and the first submission I ever landed in Brazil was a triangle choke!”

He grins. “For me, jiu-jitsu, and being on my back, was just very natural. I wasn’t the wrestler who cared about being on top, or being afraid of my shoulders touching the mat. I had a great leg ride, and I could leg ride people and take the back that way – but if I rolled to my back, I was like, ‘Okay, great, time to use my legs in other ways to choke and sweep and find butterfly hooks.’ So I really developed a love for fighting off my back.”

Which isn’t to say that life at Brazilian Top Team was easy – particularly for a young American teenager in a foreign country. “I was primarily a grappler – it took me a really long time to get used to striking,” says Wilson. “I remember that I would just get pieced up and beat up by all the adults in the gym.” He laughs. “But then, after like seven or eight months of just coming in and getting beat up all the time, I started to do a lot better, and started finding my range and finding my rhythm.”

Overcoming the local language barrier also helped: “I also started to understand Portuguese a little better, so I kind of understood what they were yelling at me about!” He grins. “I just had no idea what they were saying [before], so I was developing all these really bad habits based on my poor Portuguese.”

Though he suffered a knockout loss in his most recent professional fight on the XMMA stage at the end of July, Wilson is determined to let the sting fuel him for a comeback. “Coach T made me watch the fight again, and looked at the tape like, ‘Oh, there’s a missed opportunity here, a missed opportunity there’ – but really, it’s invigorating. I’m not losing any confidence. What happened has happened, whatever. Records aside, I know how good I am, we get top-level guys coming in all the time, and I know what I do in the practice room – it’s just translating it come fight night.

“It’s almost a relief,” he confesses. “Like okay, I got knocked out. There’s nothing else worse that could happen. So what? Now you no longer have that mystery hanging over you. I feel almost free – like I know what the experience of ‘the worst’ is like, so now I can just go in, and have fun, and not worry about it anymore. And I think that’s what’s really going to set me apart in my next several fights – that I can just be more free, and that I don’t have to fight so timidly.”

Recent loss aside, Wilson’s fight record nonetheless boasts an impressive array of opportunistic submission victories, including six first-round submissions on the pro circuit. “I’m not somebody who’s seeking out the sub, or seeking out the knockout,” explains Wilson. “It’s just that whatever happens happens. I’m also no longer such an offensive wrestler – when I was a kid, I would shoot and just do doubles and singles and try to get to the mat because I didn’t want my butt kicked by these big juiced-up Brazilians. So I’d shoot a lot, but now I hardly shoot at all in my fights – I’ll let them shoot on me. My style of fighting is more just anti-wrestling. I’ll stop the shot with a choke, or a kimura.”

“Where my jiu-jitsu really went to the next level was when I went out to California for work a few years ago, and I started working with Giva Santana – you know, the arm collector.” He smiles. “He was like the godfather of fighting off your back in MMA. So I got really comfortable just fighting [from that position] – like if you take me down, I’m like, ‘Cool, I actually don’t mind at all, I’ll stay here for a round’ – and then after that round, I’m going to get up and start working if I don’t stop you.”

Wilson believes there are several common misconceptions regarding the use of jiu-jitsu guard work in MMA. “I think people often think, ‘Oh, well, the wrestler did his job taking the guy down, so from that point on, it should just be the wrestler who gets all the points.’ But in my opinion, if they can’t get out of your guard – and if you look at the ruleset of effective grappling – if I as a person am holding you in guard, and making a situation where you can’t implement an offense, then I should be winning, because I have the more effective grappling. I’m the one who’s dictating the grappling now.”

“I think it’s just a lack of education in grappling that [some of these] judges have,” Wilson adds. “Like, everyone gets in sport jiu-jitsu that if I pull guard, then I’m the one who initiated guard – and if I am controlling your posture, and controlling your pace, and the one who’s angling off and throwing up armbars or guillotines or kimuras, I’m the one who’s winning even though I’m on my back. But everyone else sees it as ‘Oh, I’m on my back, I must be losing the fight.’”

What about when striking gets involved? “With ground and pound, often you see more effective [striking] from the guy on bottom than the guy on top,” says Wilson. “It’ll look like the guy on top is doing more damage, but often times, his elbow’s just hitting your arm or your shoulder, but it’s not doing any damage to the face – whereas cuts will happen from the guy on bottom throwing an up elbow and cutting the guy on top. But that’s not scored – that’s still seen as me being defensive, unless I’m on my back, and you’re stuck in my triangle for four minutes.” He laughs. “In which case I should win the round!”

Wilson remains grateful for where his path has led him – unusual as it is. Having come from an average, middle class American background, he wasn’t encouraged to become a professional athlete; instead, he was expected to attend college, get a 9-to-5 white-collar job with a pension and a 401(k), and start a family. “Not only did I do all that – what I was expected to do in society – I also said, ‘You know what, I’m also going to be a fighter,’” says Wilson. “So I did what everybody told me I had to do, and then some. And it’s funny, because now that I’m a little bit more established in my career, I get recruiters from companies who will say, ‘Hey, you did everything and you’re also a fighter? That’s amazing! Once you’re done fighting, we want you to work for our company.’ So right now, my career outside of fighting is set in stone – I could do whatever I want, whenever I want. But you only have a certain window where you can fight, so that’s what I’m doing right now.”

Up next, Wilson’s looking at potential comeback fights in the autumn. “I really have to shout out XMMA – they’re a great promotion, and they called me after [my loss] to basically say, ‘Hey, we’re still in your corner, we still love you as a fighter and a person, and we’re behind you as a person,’” says Wilson. “It’s really nice to have that, because I’ve fought for a lot of promotions, and I’ve fought for a lot of big promotions. With a lot of these promotions, I just felt like a piece of meat to them – whereas to XMMA, I’m a fighter, I’m a human being, I’m somebody whose story they love, where they want to get behind me and my brand.”

XMMA, where Wilson has now fought three times, is hoping to add him to their next fight card in October, but has also offered to help him find another fight before then. “As an organization and as a promotion, what they’re doing for us fighters is amazing – and it’s not being seen in the regional scene right now,” Wilson emphasizes.

What are his long-term goals in the sport? “For me, it’s not really about the money,” says Wilson. “I want to get to the UFC, I want to win and prove to myself and to everybody else that I can do it, and build a legacy that my kids can look at, and say, ‘Hey, Dad was just an average guy who made it to the UFC – not remarkably athletically gifted, or anything else, just someone who worked hard.’ That’s the end game. I want people – and myself – to know that I did it.”

To keep up with the latest in Westin Wilson’s MMA career, follow him on Instagram.


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