Cliff Thompson: Wrestling towards opportunity

THOMASVILLE —Cliff Thompson isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. 

For the better part of two decades, Thompson, 38, has forged a wrestling career based on the principles of hard work, dedication and determination. His desire to always stand tall in the face of adversity has taken the Randleman native to the pinnacle of the wrestling world. 

“Wrestling came natural to me,” Thompson said.  “It was something I always could do. I believe in life that everyone has something special about them.  There isn’t a sport out there that can make you better at every other sport except wrestling. It teaches so much about being mentally tough and about life in general. Wrestling changed my life and I want to give that back.”

Thompson recently opened Eyes on the Prize, 703 Lexington Ave. Suite C, in an effort to pass on what he has learned from a wrestling career that has seen him cross paths with some of the sport’s legendary figures. Thompson started teaching at a wrestling club in Asheboro in January, but decided to start his own club in Davidson County after realizing the vast potential the area had for producing quality wrestlers.  

“I wanted to have a Thomasville school because Davidson County has a half a dozen schools or so and there is no club for wrestling,” said Thompson. “I thought it was a great opportunity to build wrestling here in Davidson County. I opened a club in Asheboro for the same reason. Both areas are blue collar kids from blue collar families who are hard workers. I want to give them a chance to come wrestle.”

Thompson demonstrating a defensive move to his students. 

Thompson demonstrating a defensive move to his students. 

Wrestling wasn’t Thompson’s first choice of sports. He wrestled for the first time as a high school freshman, trying to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Lorenzo, who Thompson considers his first real role model. 

“I grew up in a single-mother household situation and was really blessed to have a mature older brother,” Thompson said. “[Lorenzo] was mature for his age and I really looked up to him. You need to have role models you see every day and I got to share a room with my role model. I got beat up by my role model. He’s the reason I got into wrestling. He was a high school state champion. I never knew how good I could be. I just did it because he did it. My first love was football.”

Thompson quickly showed the NCHSAA that he was a force to be reckoned with in the wrestling ranks. He finished his sophomore season ranked third in the state, went undefeated his junior year and rebounded from a torn ACL as a senior to end his career second in the state. 

But once his high school days came to an end, Thompson, who struggled with learning disabilities, found himself with no real plans for the future. College never seemed like a viable option so Thompson never bothered to even take the SAT. That all changed when a friend’s father passed his name onto coaches from Upper Iowa, a Division III school with a prestigious wrestling program.  

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Thompson. “I guess I would just go get a factory job. My biggest thing was I had learning disabilities growing up. I dealt with them all my life and still deal with them now. College was never in my mindset. I struggled through school because of my disabilities and I didn’t talk about it. My life could’ve gone a different way. I’m blessed that I had an opportunity offered to me and I jumped on it.”

Once Thompson decided to give a move to Iowa a chance, he knew failure was not an option. 

“I was terrified about moving from Randleman to Iowa,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know if I could make it. The only thing that kept me going was that I knew I couldn’t come back home a failure. Too many people knew me, I was the local high school stud and I didn’t want to go out for the semester and come home. It was rough at first.”

Thompson’s first attempt at writing a college term paper nearly had him second-guessing his decision from the start. 

“The professor ripped it apart,” said Thompson. “You would’ve thought I wrote the paper in red. I don’t remember what he wrote but it was not positive.”

With help from a friend, Thompson’s term papers got better and he slowly acclimated himself to a community far different than the one he left in central North Carolina. He recalls how many of the people his age never had spent any real time with someone from another race. As it turned out, the Fayette, Iowa, community wasn’t much different than Randleman. 

“It was a culture shock,” Thompson said. “Our school was in a small town. When school was in, there were a lot of people around. When school wasn’t in, there’s not. The next biggest city was an hour away. Some of the kids had never interacted with anyone from another race until they were 18 in college. They saw different races on TV but never in real life. They treated me awesome. I was really open to the culture where a lot of kids from down south couldn’t make it because they couldn’t adapt. It was pretty cool.  Iowans are some of the best people you would ever want to meet. Iowa is like my second home.”

As his life off the mat went through an adjustment period, his time on it came much more naturally. Thompson won more matches as a freshman than anyone in school history. While his success may have been a surprise to others, Thompson expected nothing less. 

“My mindset going out there was I’ve never sat the bench,” said Thompson. “Upper Iowa sent me a booklet that had their wrestlers in there. Their 184-pounder, who I thought I was going to compete against, took second in the nation and was coming back for his senior year. I told my friends that I felt sorry for him because he was going to have to sit the bench his senior year. That’s my mentality: I’m not going up there and not starting.”

With his freshman season behind him, Thompson faced another round of adversity when Upper Iowa coach Mike McCready died unexpectedly. His loss was difficult to accept and Thompson considered leaving school in the aftermath. 

“[Coach McCready] was so motivational to me,” Thompson said. “I was the last person he ever wrestled. On that particular day he whipped my tail. He’s a big reason I stayed at Upper Iowa. After he passed I thought of leaving because he meant that much to me. He would’ve wanted me to stay because it was all about getting my education to him.”

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Thompson earned his education, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and wellness in 2003. He finished his collegiate wrestling career as a four-time letter winner and a three-time Division III All-American. As a senior, his runner-up finish helped lead the Peacocks to second place in the NCAA Division III National Championships, the highest finish in school history. Upper Iowa inducted Thompson into its athletics hall of fame in 2012. 

“People willing to take a chance on me drove me harder and harder to make whatever they saw in me come to pass,” said Thompson. 

One match that particularly showcased Thompson as an elite wrestler actually happened in a loss. In 2003, at the Dan Gable Wrestling Classic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Thompson squared off against legendary wrestler Cael Sanderson, who happened to be 159-0 and had won four straight national championships. Thompson would eventually lose the match 23-7, but he is credited with giving the undefeated Sanderson everything he could handle.    

“Getting ready for that match, my mindset was just to show him no respect,” Thompson said.  “I don’t care how good they are; when you get on that mat you take it to them. Your best is your best, and maybe it’s not that day, but never shy away. If he beats me, he beats me, but I’m not going to be some guy who just showed up and he beats my tail. That was my mindset. I went out thinking he was in for a match. It’s about competing. I’m a small town Randleman boy and this is my chance to wrestle the best wrestler in the world. What have I got to lose? Other people would just give in to him and I wanted to show him I wasn’t scared. He knew I was there.”

With his college career over, Thompson returned to North Carolina and started coaching the sport that changed his life. He’s had coaching stints at Randleman, Page and Northeast Guilford. He prides himself on taking over programs that need a complete overhaul.  

“When you take over something that’s already established the biggest battle is remolding them,” said Thompson. “They think they know wrestling already. They’ve been doing it a certain way for years. I really have to explain to kids that I’m not saying their wrestling isn’t good; it’s just that there is a better way of doing it.”

A main part of what he tries to instill through his club is that wrestling is both a physically and mentally demanding sport. Thompson feels the standards in North Carolina are not quite up to par compared to states like Iowa where wrestling is a religion and a way of life for the athletes. He hopes to bring that same mentality to Davidson County. 

“When you come into my practice room or my club, you’re going to do things the way I want them done,” said Thompson. “I have a different way of teaching. Wrestling in Iowa and wrestling in North Carolina are two totally different things. The culture is so different. Wrestling is such a hard sport that a lot of kids don’t want to do it. Wrestling takes dedication, sacrifice and hard work. Kids in Iowa have been wrestling generationally. Learning their mentality was different. I like to break things down into the simplest form I can. Some state champions here may not make a starting lineup in Iowa.” 

“I really want to change the culture of wrestling around here. I want to take kids and help them compete at the next level. A lot of times, in these national tournaments, North Carolina kids aren’t placing. We have to look at that. Do you want to be good in North Carolina or do you want to compete with the top guys?”

Thompson and his students take a break for a group picture.  

Thompson and his students take a break for a group picture.  

As much as Thompson wants to see his kids succeed on the mat, he is far more concerned with developing responsible people who contribute to their community. Thompson believes wrestling is an avenue young people can take to help them throughout their entire lives.  

“I want to teach them about life,” said Thompson. “It’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. There’s nothing in life after you’ve wrestled that you can’t really do. You just have to commit to it. I think there are kids around here who are tough who could make a difference in the wrestling community. I know I’m going to coach state champions, but I want them all to be champions outside of here. Your character and the lessons that you learn from wrestling are more important than a state title. I want to motivate them to reach for their dreams and make a difference. I want them to feel like they can do anything.”

“I tell them you may try and fail at something 41 times, but on that 42nd time, you’re going to get it and have it the rest of your life. If you don’t do it those 41 times, that 42nd time is never going to come. You have to go out there and not be scared to fail. That’s what I try to instill in them; go out there and leave it on the mat and don’t be scared. If you never take that shot you’re never going to know how good you can be.”

For more information about Eyes on the Prize, call Thompson at 612-418-6710. FB@CliffThompsonMMA