As one of the last of his generation, Josh Thomson primes for biggest battle

USA TODAY Sports

Josh Thomson, who headlines Saturday's FOX card against Benson Henderson, looks back on how everything has changed since he was one of the original MMA fighters long before anyone outside of San Jose had heard of the AKA Gym.

Josh Thomson probably doesn't like thinking about his age as an MMA fighter. But he's being hit daily with constant reminders that he's had a long career in the sport, just days before what can be argued is his biggest fight.

Thomson, who has been through different generations and evolutions of the sport, headlines Saturday night's UFC on FOX card against Benson Henderson, with a possible UFC lightweight title shot at stake.

A main event on the FOX network is a long way from the days when the sport wasn't on television, and he had to leave his home state, where the sport was banned, just to get fights.

On Wednesday, while being interviewed on UFC Tonight by Kenny Florian, who has been retired for a couple of years, Florian noted long before he was on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), he remembered watching Josh Thomson fight in the UFC.

It really hit Thomson (20-5, 1 no contest), who has garnered a lot of attention over the last week by saying what virtually no fighter will ever say: that he had the worst training camp of his life. It wasn't that he's not in shape, but a guy used to having some of the best training partners near his size in the world at the AKA camp, was substituting a lot of live sparring for practicing hitting mits because nobody was around.

The original crew he started with at the gym when the sport was in its infancy, like Frank Shamrock and B.J. Penn, are long gone. For the second phase of his career, he had Mike Swick, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck as regular training partners. And now they're all gone as well, with Swick living in Thailand having opened up a gym, Fitch having moved to Syracuse, N.Y., and Koscheck having opened a gym in Fresno, Calif. after leaving over a falling out with coach Javier Mendez.

"I was one of the original guys," noted Thomson, who grew up in San Jose and has lived there his entire life. "Then Swick came right after me. Then Fitch. Then Kos. And that group is gone. It's just me and a new generation of guys. It's not the same at all."

It's not that AKA is depleted of quality talent, but a unique series of circumstances happened all at the same time. Gray Maynard was knocked out by Nate Diaz on Nov. 30, and has taken time off. Tyson Griffin is out with neck surgery. And with the holidays, a lot of his regular partners who came from all parts of the world, went back to those parts. Khabib Nurmagomedov returned to Russia, Noad Lahat went back to Israel, and Thomas Diagne to France.

It was so long ago, that few remember Thomson and Yves Edwards as the UFC's two big lightweight stars before the company dropped the division for several years. By the time they brought it back, Thomson was under contract to Strikeforce and became one of that group's biggest stars through its entire run. To most, he was the guy who had the three great fights with Gilbert Melendez, the last two on Showtime, in trading back-and-forth that company's lightweight title.

For years, he felt that he and Melendez never got their due, as he was almost never ranked in the top ten. This even led to a remark Henderson has brought up in motivation for this bout, when Thomson thought it was ridiculous that Henderson, a star in World Extreme Cagefighting, was ranked ahead of some of the top Strikeforce lightweights.

"That was so many years ago," Thomson said. "It wasn't even that I thought he wasn't top ten. I don't think I ever meant that. I just didn't understand how he, at the time, was ranked above J.Z. (Cavalcante). This was when MMA was big in Japan. Japan had (Shinya) Aoki, (Tatsuya) Kawajiri and Eddie Alvarez, and J.Z. fought all of them and beat some of them. How could you have Benson in WEC ranked ahead of J.Z. at the time? Plus, I was with another promotion and I was trying to help the promotion. At the time, I wanted to prove that me, Gilbert and J.Z. were the best and that's what fighters do."

It wasn't until Strikeforce closed up in late 2012 that Thomson ever got the vindication for what he had been saying for a half dozen years, when Melendez walked into UFC and fought Henderson for the lightweight title, losing a decision that could have gone the other way. Since he and Melendez's three fight series was as close to even as it could possibly be, he saw that as proof he and Melendez had been among the best the entire time.

Just before that fight, Thomson became the first and still the only fighter ever to finish Nate Diaz, who was coming directly off a title match. Thomson had always said, since he trained daily with top ranked UFC fighters, that he knew he could hang with the best in the division.

"I watched it (Melendez vs. Henderson), and it was a fight that could have gone either way," he said. "When I beat Nate right after Nate fought for the title, people have now seen that I was speaking the truth."

Thomson said the biggest difference in going from Strikeforce to UFC isn't the competition, but the promotional work.

"The biggest difference is the P.R.," he said. "UFC is such a powerhouse promotion. It's huge. I can't even put into words how big it is. I have a lot of respect for Strikeforce, but I'd have never been shown on the NFC championship game, and shown five or six times in the game, in Strikeforce. Their ability to promote fights is unbelievable."

Fighting this week in the frigid weather in Chicago wasn't the original plan. He was first booked to face champion Anthony Pettis on Dec. 14 in Sacramento, Calif., a title shot close to home turf. The fight was canceled when Pettis opted for surgery due to a torn meniscus. Thomson immediately noted he had the same injury just before his third fight with Melendez, fought, and lost a razor-close split decision.

Thomson said he always had a premonition that fight wasn't going to happen.

"I actually kind of expected it," he said. "He (Pettis) was injured and pulled out of the Aldo fight. Then he got healthy enough to fight Benson for the title in Milwaukee, his home town. Then he won the title. I think he jumped back into training so fast that I kind of expected it. I wasn't going to believe the fight was really happening until fight week and I made weight. I never got my hopes up. I found out when they called me in Las Vegas when I was watching the GSP vs. Hendricks fight and asked me, `Do you want to fight Benson Henderson?' I said, `Sure, I'll fight him.' He's a former champion and he's probably the toughest guy in the weight class right now. People said I was risking a title shot. Well, if I can't beat him, I didn't deserve the title shot."

That meant a complete change in what he was working on, and in strategy. His trainer, Javier Mendez, noted right away even though Pettis beat Henderson (19-3) to win the title, he believed Henderson would be a more difficult opponent because of the lack of holes in his game.

"They both kick a lot," noted Thomson. "Benson puts a lot more emphasis on wrestling. Pettis tries to stay long. Benson jumps in with punches and kicks. Pettis tries to stay on the outside with kicks to make it hard to reach him. It's a way different fight. Eventually, you have to fight both of them anyway. After I beat Benson, I plan on fighting Pettis. Benson wrestles more. I'm expecting him to try to wrestle me to death."

On paper, the fight looks to have a good chance of going the distance, and will almost surely be fast-paced. Thomson, an 11-to-4 underdog, has only been stopped once in his career, taking a flying kick to the back of the head from Edwards in 2004 that is still among the most spectacular finishes in UFC history. Henderson has only been stopped twice, a submission loss in 2007 when he was just getting started, and the armbar loss to Pettis on Aug. 31. Both have exceptional cardio, are good in every facet of the game, and have been in all-out five round battles, Thomson with Melendez and Clay Guida, Henderson with Pettis (in their first fight), Donald Cerrone, Melendez and twice with Frankie Edgar.

"The fight is going to be fought everywhere," Thomson said. "I think he's going to try and wrestle me a lot. I have to keep the distance and push the pace, get right in his grill, get in the range where I can land my stuff and take him down as well."

But the date became a problem. Thomson's peaking cycle was all out of whack. And worse, he noted, this is the time of year that nobody really wants to fight.

"With the holidays, there's a lot going on in life," he said. "Fighters really don't like to take fights right after the holidays. It's hard to get guys to train with. There's Christmas shopping, relatives coming, visiting relatives, fighters who spend the whole year in the gym are pretty much gone."

It really hit him Sunday, as he watched the hometown San Francisco 49ers lose in the NFC championship game to the Seattle Seahawks.

"I hadn't thought about it, but watching the game, it really put it into perspective," he said. "I started training for Pettis in October, right after the football season started. Now I'm fighting, and it's a week before the Super Bowl. I trained the whole NFL season, sometimes three times a day, at least twice every day. That's a lot."

Because he trained to peak in mid-December, he's gone through ups and downs of late.

"I felt good, then I started feeling flat," he said. "Then I didn't feel strong. My weight was staying off. Sometimes when I was done with training, I was around 162-164 pounds. My diet's been clean. Usually it's an eight-to-ten week camp, and you peak at the end from eating clean the whole time. This camp was long, and I didn't feel as strong at the end because I was eating so clean and training so hard for so long. One night I went to bed and I was 174, and woke up at 166. I'm fighting to keep weight on."

In addition, he just opened a new business, a San Jose gym called Dash Cardio Studios, three weeks ago. The opening was supposed to be timed right after his fight.

"It's not a fighting gym, it's a straight cardio fitness gym for all fitness levels," he said.

Instead of athletes looking to peak, his clientele includes women who are pregnant, women trying to lose weight after pregnancy, and he's got someone trying to regain his fitness after battling cancer.

His opponent had his own distractions, though, since Henderson got married to his longtime girlfriend a few weeks ago.

But even as he's outlived his contemporaries when it comes to still being a leading contender, and he knows what's at stake, he's not feeling the pressure.

"I don't feel a sense of urgency," he said. "But if I lose this fight, I don't think they'll be giving me a title shot, even if I win my next one or two fights. I really need to win this fight."

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