Josh Thomson was talking to fans at the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas earlier this month when he realized just how much of his life's work -- his Strikeforce lightweight championship, his memorable trilogy with Gilbert Melendez, even his first stint in the UFC -- had gone unnoticed.
The American Kickboxing Academy fighter was told time after time by fans at the Mandalay Bay Events Center that they loved his finish of Nate Diaz at UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose on April 20 -- and that it was the first time they had seen him fight.
"I was saying that when I was in Strikeforce, no one really cared what you did or who you were or whatever," Thomson said. "I would tell people, no matter how many times I fought Gilbert, and how many other guys I fought in Strikeforce, I had fans come up to me at the UFC Fan Expo, and everyone was like, ‘hey man, I loved the Nate Diaz fight, it was a great fight, that was the first time I've seen you fight.' And I'm like, ‘I've been fighting in the UFC, I've fought in all the greatest organizations in the world over the years.'"
The lightweight contender turns 35 in September and has 25 fights to his credit. But there's no spotlight in MMA than the one which shines on the UFC and its fighters, which is something he learned last month when he made headlines for controversial remarks on gay marriage.
The UFC declined to punish "The Punk" for his words, since, unlike others who have been reprimanded for controversial statements, Thomson neither used slurs nor language which disrespected a specific person. But Thomson said the incident taught him a few lessons about the forum in which he's using his words.
"People have their opinion," Thomson said. "It is what it is, that's what great about living in America. People can say what they want and they believe in what they want, and do what they want, that's all within the guidelines of the law and that's what's great for me. I wasn't trying to show disrespect to anyone else, I just want to bring up topics of conversation and motivate people to talk about issues. They'll never get worked out if people don't talk about them.
"People think it's a cardinal sin to talk about it," Thomson said. "I could care less who does what and who gets married to who, it doesn't bother me at all. it doesn't affect my life at all. People feel sometimes when you bring it up, you're automatically against it, it is what it is, I don't bring this type of stuff up. It is what it is."
Still, Thomson hinted that he feels the brushback was in part because of the stance he took.
"Everyone is all for their right of freedom of speech until someone actually uses it to say something other than what they believe," he said.
With that incident all but behind him, Thomson is refocused on his career. Shoulder surgery following his spectacular victory over Diaz has held Thomson out of action for the time being. But he knows the clock is ticking, and the way Thomson sees it, the only fights which makes sense for him at this phase of his career are ones against top-notch opponents which get him closer to a title shot.
"I think everyone starts feeling it around 34, 35," Thomson said. "Before my next fight I'll be 35. I've been fighting for 15 years now, 14 years, and I've always been considered one of the best fighters, a guy other guys don't want to fight. Now that I'm here back in the UFC, back in the biggest promotion right now, I'm basically ranked 3-4 depending on what rankings you're looking at. If I was 27, I wouldn't care. But now I'm 34, I just want to fight the best, just fight whoever, whatever gets me the quickest way to the title. When someone's this close you can't let it slip away."
"I've managed to be successful my whole career," Thomson continued. "I've had three fights with Gil, they've made us better, we're in the UFC and it's right there. I'm prepared for this moment of being in the UFC. I'm right there for a title shot. I don't want any favors, I want to fight the best guys for the title and that's it."
As for who fits the bill? Thomson, who says he can be ready to fight again by October or November, was talked about as potentially fighting Anthony Pettis before Pettis got T.J. Grant's spot against UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson at UFC 164. So the way Thomson sees it, if Grant recovers from the injury which forced him out of the Henderson fight in a timely manner, the stars could align for a contender's fight between the two.
"If T.J. Grant is available, I'd love to fight T.J. and the winner gets a title shot," Thomson said. "I feel like I'm right there. I'd like to fight a top five guy and go from there."