On Monday morning, Nick Thompson
was at his desk at O'Flaherty, Heim, Egan and Birnbaum, a Wisconsin law firm in which he specializes in criminal and personal injury law. Less than 36 hours earlier, Thompson was in a cage, fighting the former Olympic wrestler and current Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren
. Upon losing a unanimous decision, Thompson, a 29-year-old who once held a place among MMA's top 10 welterweights, retired from competition.
For a fighter who had competed in nearly every top organization including the UFC, Strikeforce, EliteXC and Sengoku, it was a surprising decision, but one that was a long time coming.
Thompson says the beginning of the end came in July 2008, when he fought for a championship and passed the Minnesota bar exam in a one-week span. At the time, he had just just turned 27 years old and was in the best stretch of his career, winning 20 of his last 21 fights. He had just completed the best training camp he'd ever experienced as a pro, had cracked the top 10, and took that wave of momentum into an EliteXC championship match with Jake Shields
. Everything suggested he was in the prime of his career and would give Shields a run. But when the fight came, Thompson was overwhelmed, and tapped out to a guillotine choke in just 64 seconds.
In the aftermath of the loss, Thompson faced the reality of what happened.
"Up until I lost to Shields, I thought I could be the best fighter in the world," he told MMA Fighting. "I still knew I was very good and that I belonged in the top 10, maybe the top five. But the slow realization came to me that there is a big difference between No. 1 and No. 3."
That was further emphasized just a few days later, in one of Thompson's first days back in the gym after losing to Shields. It was a quiet moment that most fighters might not have had a second thought about, but to Thompson's analytic mind, it crystalized what he was missing. After a practice, he was sitting around talking to teammate and former UFC lightweight champ Sean Sherk
. As they spoke, a fly buzzed around them, and Sherk, without turning his attention from the conversation, snatched the fly out of mid-air. Awed by Sherk's reflexes and speed, it led to a truth he could no longer deny.
"It sounds crazy, but that's the moment I realized I couldn't be champ," Thompson said. "These guys who get there, they have something extra I don't have. No matter how hard I work, there's just something I don't have."
Yet Thompson accomplished some great things in a career that began in the spring of 2003. Despite beginning his career by losing three of his first four fights, he finished with a record of 38-14-1. Among the fighters he defeated include big names like Josh Neer, Chris Wilson, Paul Daley and Eddie Alvarez
The last was among the more memorable of his fight experiences. Competing in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thompson became the first man to defeat Alvarez, who had before then knocked out seven opponents in a row. The win also gave him his only career title, the Bodog Fight welterweight championship. Among those in the crowd at the Ice Palace were then-Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italian prime minster Silvio Berlusconi. Impressed with Thompson's win, the pair invited him back to a dinner party at a nearby presidential home. Thompson stayed to corner his friend Derrick Noble, then tried to make it to the dinner. After the fight, he scrambled to get to the dinner but took the wrong bus and missed his chance.
"At first I was a little bummed, but then I thought, 'A lot of people get to meet the president, but how many people blow off not one but two world leaders?'" he said.
Thompson also treasures his opportunity to fight in the UFC. He fought for the organization twice, winning his debut fight over friend Keith Wisniewski in Nov. 2005 before losing to Karo Parisyan in April 2006. Though he never got another crack at the promotion, his later streak saw him reach the top 10 and fight around the world.
Thompson's interest in the law came through family ties. His stepfather is a judge and his mother is an attorney. He fought most of his career while matriculating through college, working through law school, and then into his practice. Amazingly, he passed the Minnesota bar exam just a week after his pivotal loss to Shields. In some ways, the timing ended up being perfect as he transitioned competitive environments from the cage to the court room.
Thompson is candid in explaining that after losing to Shields, he was "unwilling" to do some of the extra work necessary to win, and that he realized at times he was fighting "not to lose" instead of trying to win.
The fight against Askren was his last stand. During a three-month camp, he ramped up his workouts, getting to the gym at 5:30 am, getting in a second workout at lunch, and then another after work. His conditioning and fight game seemed to be as sharp as ever, but when he got in the cage, he found himself unable to push the gas pedal on his aggressiveness, afraid to overcommit and find himself in a bad position. Even knowing he was trailing going into the final round, the switch he tried to flip was non-responsive. In the midst of the fight, he knew he was done.
"It kind of crept in," he said. "Once you start going places and people know who you are and expect you to win, that's something I really struggled with. I know a lot of champions that do just fine, but other champions, when they reach the top level, they struggle. For me, it was something I struggled with. I think the underdog role is something that really motivated me. When I wasn't the underdog, when I was supposed to win, you start worrying about how well you're doing and putting yourself in bad spots rather than just fighting."
As the struggles grew, so did an unwillingness to sacrifice time from his wife Molly and two-year-old daughter Claire. Prior to the Askren fight, he decided the bout would tell him all he needed to know about his future. A win might reignite his career, a defeat would mean the end.
Immediately upon losing, Thompson knew the law would be his sole career focus. He says there's "no chance" he'll make a comeback, though he admits, "I don't think wanting to do it will ever go away." He'll continue to stay involved in the fight game, managing fighters including Bellator star Dan Hornbuckle and former UFC fighter Kenny Robertson.
Despite stepping aside at such a young age, Thompson is comfortable with his decision. After years of wear and tear, the prospect of a 9-to-5 day at work, followed by picking up his daughter at day care and taking her for an ice cream cone sounds pretty good. There may be regrets, or dreams that were never realized, but there was also a lot of success.
"I did the best I could've done," he said. "I'm not very athletic. You watch me run, you watch me lift weights, and you'll see I'm weak as anything. I don't hit particularly hard, my jiu-jitsu's not all that great. But I was just willing to out-work my competition. I think I took my skill-set further than most people could have."
Now the competitive arena changes, but Nick Thompson will still be fighting for something.