More than a UFC return, Josh Thomson's legacy may be judged by Nate Diaz fight

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

For more than a decade, Josh "The Punk" Thomson has argued that he's among the best lightweight fighters in the world. But during most of that period, fighting outside the UFC, he's found himself outside the top ten. When he returns to the UFC against Nate Diaz on April 20 on FOX, he can not only establish himself in the top ten with a win, but also give credibility to years of what he's claimed.

For years, when Josh Thomson and his former sometimes training partner, turned greatest career rival, Gilbert Melendez, were tearing things up on the Strikeforce scene, he had always felt that he never quite got his due on the international basis.

Thomson has been convinced for a decade that he's among the top tier of lightweights in the world, but he's rarely had his name listed in the top ten. Currently, Thomson (19-5, 1 no contest), who makes his first UFC appearance in nearly nine years, is not rated in UFC's top ten nor most any major top ten.

From a UFC standpoint, the argument is that he hasn't fought in the organization in years. Then again, neither has Melendez, who is currently ranked as the No. 1 contender, and is making his UFC debut, on the April 20 FOX card at the HP Pavilion in San Jose in a championship match with Benson Henderson. That same night and also airing on FOX, Thomson returns to the UFC to face No. 4 contender Nate Diaz, who is coming off losing to Henderson in his most recent fight.

Almost universally these days, Henderson is ranked first and Melendez second or third.

"People have ranked Gil No. 1 in the world for years and I think I beat him the last time we fought," said Thomson.
Generally, Melendez has hovered for years in the top two or three, and certainly has been the leading non-UFC lightweight for the past few years, as well as been on many pound-for-pound top ten listings.

Thomson's last fight was a heartbreaking split decision loss to Melendez on May 19, 2012 at the same HP Pavilion. While Thomson will use the term robbed, the word people tell him when the fight is regularly brought up to him, it was a close fight that was one of last year's best. It could have gone either way. However, most of the reaction to the fight over the next few days indicated the majority viewpoint was Thomson won three of the five rounds.

Either way, after three fights and 15 rounds of action, Thomson has been every bit the equal of the No. 2 lightweight in the world. In the last seven years, Thomson has only lost three times, twice to Melendez and once to Tatsuya Kawajiri, who outwrestled him for three rounds on a Japanese New Year's Eve show at the end of 2010.

After nearly a year out of action amidst the canceling of shows and closing down of Strikeforce, Thomson has a chance to make the ultimate statement on where he belongs on the totem poll when he battles Diaz (16-8) in what will be his tenth career fight at the HP Pavilion.

His other argument regarding where he really stands has to do with training partner Gray Maynard, the current No. 3 contender, who he goes at it with regularly. He said those training sessions have removed all doubt that he can hang with anyone in the world today and that he wasn't just a big fish in a smaller pond for much of his career.

There are several unique factors in this fight, some of which, Thomson concedes, favor his opponent. For one, Diaz helped train Melendez for all three Thomson fights, and at times mimicked his style. His training partner, Melendez, has spent not only the 15 rounds in three classic fights in the cage with Thomson, but hours in the gym before the two became rivals. His camp has been strategizing against Thomson for years. His training partner has more personal experience fighting him than any man on the planet.

Thomson also concedes it's almost impossible to get a training partner who can mimic Diaz. You can get tall guys with the length, but not with the punching output, let alone having anywhere near the caliber of jiu-jitsu. Instead, he's been heavily studying tapes of three recent fights to come up with ideas for a game plan: Nate's loss to Benson Henderson and older brother Nick's losses to Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre.

"He can fight the fight of his life and still lose to me," said Thomson, who said he believed he has the edge in the kicking game and the wrestling, and can hold his own in the boxing and the jiu-jitsu.

Thomson, being 34 and more than six years older than Diaz, feels that's also his advantage.

"I think the experience will play a big factor," he said when being interviewed on UFC's Countdown to the Octagon. "There are times he's fought fights where he could have fought smarter, where he could have won, but he didn't."
In many ways, Melendez and Thomson's fights will not only determine both men's future at the UFC championship level, but are even more important from a legacy standpoint.

If both Melendez and Thomson win, and both are going into their fights as significant underdogs, it will change greatly how both men's careers are viewed historically.

Their three previous fights, arguably the most exciting in-ring trilogy in modern major promotion MMA, will be viewed in a different light. So, from the same standpoint, will the credibility of the Strikeforce lightweight title that Thomson and Melendez held for all but three months of the seven-year history of the promotion.

Oddsmakers have spoken about where the Strikeforce title history stands in the big picture, and it's not a positive. Thomson is currently a 9-to-5 underdog. Melendez is considered even more of an underdog at 7-to-2.

While Melendez had a part of him sorry to see Strikeforce close up earlier this year, there had also been frustration in him for years about not being able to fight the people who could make him considered No. 1 in the world. Thomson, on the other hand, was sorry to see the organization close its doors.

"I was there from the first show," he said. "Cung (Le), Frank (Shamrock), me and Gil built the company. He poured our blood and sweat into it. That would be like asking Dana White if UFC went away what he would think."

Thomson's nearly one year out of action is his third long layoff in recent year. Unlike the other layoffs, caused by one injury after another, this layoff came as Strikeforce wheels were coming apart, and shows were being canceled.

He had just about finished a training camp for a fight with Caros Fodor on a show scheduled for Sept. 29 in Sacramento. Only a few days before fight time, the show was canceled due to Melendez suffering a shoulder injury.

"I can't complain about it because UFC took care of me (financially), and they didn't have to do that," he said.

But in the past after long layoffs, he'd conceded ring rust is real. And while this is not his first UFC fight, when he last fought in the organization nearly nine years ago, it was a different era. Still, he doesn't see Octagon jitters, or being on FOX, having an effect on him.

"I've fought before 20,000 people," he said. "I've headlined before 10,000 people. I'll be fine fighting before 15,000 people."

Thomson was considered one of the world's best lightweights, dating back to a 2002 win over "Razor" Rob McCullough in a division that hardly had the kind of depth today it now has. He had gone 7-0 until fighting Yves Edwards in 2004, who was generally seen as UFC's best at the time, in a division it had no champion in. Edwards stopped Thomson with a flying kick to the head, among the most spectacular finishes in UFC history.

Then, the UFC made the decision to drop lightweights.

"Listen, it's the entertainment business," he said. "At the time, if the lightweights couldn't make them money, then they weren't going to use them."

Fortunately for Thomson, Strikeforce was opening up in San Jose.

Thomson, who grew up in the city and was among the best lightweights at the time, was immediately tabbed as one of the company's top stars. He was there from the first night in 2006, and eventually beat Melendez in their first meeting on June 27, 2008, via a clear decision, to capture the Strikeforce lightweight title, and handed Melendez what ended up being his only loss in the organization. While Thomson was on his best career roll inside the cage at that point, the next few years were based around frustration. It became a seemingly never-ending battle with injuries, starting with a broken ankle suffered in training that was aggravated several times over. It seemed that almost every time people would bump into Thomson, he had crutches or a cast and it became almost a running joke with him answering the same questions about his latest calamity.

He was out 15 months, and then lost to Melendez. He had a second run where a series of injuries cost him another 14 months, missing the entire year of 2011.

In a battle of trial and error, he cut way back on his training, feeling it was the overtraining that was breaking his body down. He got his hand raised when he fought K.J. Noons on March 3, 2012, but the fight was boring and he was apologizing to the crowd when it was over, as he realized as soon as the fight started that is cutting back on training had hurt his conditioning. When he discusses the Noons win, even though he clearly took the decision using his wrestling to keep the fight on the ground for three rounds in a fight he needed to win, he talks about it as if it was a negative moment in his career.

He subsequently suffered a PCL tear prior to the most recent Melendez fight.

"I was worried about kicking, about checking kicks, and if it would hold up wrestling," he said.

But if anything, even though he was hurt and lost, it was among the best performances of his career. The loss was controversial to the point immediately people were talking about a fourth match between the two. Had the judges gone in his favor, it is possible it would be Thomson facing Henderson for the title.

During his recent time off, largely waiting to be able to legally start in UFC and for Strikeforce to close up, Thomson took on a new job, that came literally out of nowhere.

Starting the first of the year, he spent six weeks in China playing the lead role in a Roger Corman movie, "Fists of the Dragon," The movie is a remake of "Moving Target," a Don "The Dragon" Wilson movie from 2000. It's currently in post-production.

He'd looked at acting for years. Thomson read for parts many times, but it went nowhere. His lack of getting anywhere saw him come to the conclusion that door wasn't going to open and had mentally moved away from that direction. In late December, he was offered the role, and that he'd start in a few days. So he had to make an immediate decision. The work wasn't easy.

"They told me it would be long days," he said. "We started every day at 6 a.m. We usually finished at midnight, and sometimes, as late as 3 a.m. In six weeks, I had two days off."

Then he returned to camp, where he said he's healthier and more injury-free than he has been in years.

Looking at records, Thomson vs. Diaz looks likely to be a fast-paced three-round contest. Both are known for speed, conditioning, exciting fights and durability. Diaz has also only been finished once in his career, back in 2006, when he was a 21-year-old going against a prime Hermes Franca.

The Edwards fight remains the only time Thomson has been finished in a fight. It's also the only time he's lost in a striking battle, as the fighters who have given him the most trouble are stronger wrestlers, something Diaz is not. But Diaz brings a stand-up style that Thomson has never faced before.

"I'm thankful the UFC gave me the shot at proving myself right away," he said, recognizing that probably more than any fight in his career, the upside of a win and the downside of a loss have never been greater.

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