In all the talk of breakout stars in 2013, the Irishman Conor McGregor caught the torrent. It was something about the bow tie with the waxy whiskers and skinny jeans that got the ball rolling, but his fighting ability was no small side effect. He went 2-0 in 2013, and might have gone for more if he didn’t shred his ACL. It was a shame to see his momentum cut off just as it got rolling. Boston, which is forever associated with Leprechauns and anything shamrock green, all but shutdown for a McGregor prelim in August when he fought Max Holloway.
And all that just for a prelim.
But in embracing tomorrow’s stars in the present, the one name that perhaps didn’t register with such bombast as McGregor’s but still made good solid ripples was Brandon Thatch -- the mohawked welterweight who in his spare times spins fire. There’s something about that 6-foot-2 stretch of human dystopia that feels pretty true.
Thatch debuted in the UFC that same August month, also as a feature on the prelims, and -- like McGregor -- took home knockout of the night honors. Less than three months later he went to Brazil, where Paulo Thiago has the clout of a national hero as a member of the special forces unit BOPE, and played the role of Krampus at Christmas. He finished Thiago in a little over two minutes after landing a nasty left knee into the hollow of Thiago’s rib cage. The knees, in fact, were being thrown furiously throughout -- it was Ben Saunders crossed with post-apocalyptic Thunderdome.
And that was just what Brandon Thatch being Brandon Thatch. In a dozen fights he has finished off 11 guys in the first round. It’s not just the way he’s doing it, but the speed, the poise, the power, the absolute efficiency. So far he’s made martial combat look a little too easy. And even though Thiago and Justin Edwards are sample-sized glimpses, the question becomes…just how good can Thatch be?
"Guaranteed world champion," Trevor Wittman says. "No doubt in my mind. World champion. He’s just so talented."
Wittman, who runs the Grudge Training Center in Arvada, is unblinking as he’s saying it. He’s biased, of course, because he’s one of the carousel coaches that Thatch uses -- along with Elevation’s Leister Bowling and Christian Allen -- in greater Denver. But there’s real conviction in his voice, proud unstifled steady conviction.
On a sunny day in mid-January, as WSOF’s Justin Gaethje is getting his last hard workout in at Grudge before he’ll win the lightweight belt against Richard Patishnock, Thatch is standing next to Wittman with his arm in a sling shouting encouraging things.
Thatch suffered a torn labrum in the Thiago fight, which will keep him out around six months all told. It appeared as though it might have happened when he squeezed free of the clinch shortly before the knee that did Thiago in. At that moment he looked like one of those double-jointed contortionists who perform tricks with their socketry. He also got a tidy little hematoma that night in Brazil which, if there are knocks to be found, point to over-eagerness on his part.
"Actually, I don’t know how the shoulder injury happened," Thatch says. "I felt it, but I didn’t really feel it until the next day. There was so much adrenalin, all those endorphins, that I was like, screw it -- I had a beer afterwards and felt great."
Thatch will tell you the greatest pressure he faces isn’t necessarily to win rather than to simply put on a memorable fight. But the hunch is strong that Thatch is the future of the 170-pound weight class, even if those types of dream-big comments make him uneasy.
"I think the hardest part for me is not letting people down," he says. "I don’t get nervous about the fighting, I don’t get nervous about the crowds. What I do worry about the most is living up to some of my fans or the people who expect greatness out of me. I want to make sure I come through. I want to make people happy. I think that’s the biggest fear for me…coming up short. I want to come through.
"And, really, that’s really the only fear I have," he says. "If I lose, that’s fine, but I want to make sure that every fight I have that it’s a good fight that people remember. And even if I lose, that people go, ‘man, that was a good fight.’ As long as I have people saying, ‘that was a great fight,’ then I’ll be alright. I want to make sure I live up to those expectations."
You get the sense that the word "expectation" both fuels and worries him -- it’s his muse and the bane of his existence. But it’s out there, and it’ll only get worse the more successful he is (the cruel nature of the fight game). And Gaethje, like everyone in the Rocky Mountain region, joins in the Thatch chorus.
"He’s the guy," the new WSOF lightweight champ says. "He’s one in a million. I want to follow his lead. If I can take the exact path he’s taking…he’s going in there, he got his first shot at the UFC, he went and there and took care of business twice now. And he’s got those knockout bonuses, and that’s what I’m here for. To do that. If I can do exactly what Brandon Thatch is doing, I’m being successful."
Wittman, who’s rarely seen without a smile, doesn’t think many fighters in the UFC will know how to handle his forward offense. He likens Thatch to a one-man blitzkrieg who’s fighting with a curfew.
"The way Brandon fights, he comes out and brings it -- he doesn’t sit back and wait. Those are the things," he says. "When you force the fight, you’re leading the dance. You’ve got to lead the dance, to make someone fight your fight, by going out there and pressuring. It’s hard to think when someone pressures like that."
"One of those things, to me, he’s one of those guys who’s going to step up to the level of his competition," Wittman says. "You see him in the gym, and you see him roll with guys, he’s so incredible in all aspects. He’s young, so keep him busy. I always say keep a young guy like that busy. Like Jon Jones. They kept him so busy, fighting three or four times a year, and you see what he did."
Thatch isn’t oblivious to that type of talk. Who doesn’t like people believing in them? But at just 2-0 in the UFC, he isn’t exactly smiting his chest like Conor McGregor, either. Nor is he comparing himself to Jon Jones. He’s just sort of basking in the glow of "just wait."
Two days later, as he walks around The Gym among body-building women who can distend the veins in their necks to the size of jump rope, Thatch says that the problem with injuries is he’s left to temporarily imagine what might happen in a fight against the likes of Jake Ellenberger and Thiago Alves and Johny Hendricks (and everybody else who can make 170 pounds).
"The UFC’s welterweight division is so stacked," he says. "There’s monsters in our division so I don’t have really one guy [that I want to fight], but I daydream about every single one of them. I watch these guys on TV and stuff and I daydream about them. I have anxiety while I’m driving because I’m daydreaming about keeping my hands up and moving my head while I’m fighting these imaginary fighters."
Not only does he fight these existing real life people in figment form as he drives down Broadway, but he sees himself making mistakes, restarting from that point, going over it again with an alteration, pouring over tendency minutiae to hit upon a revelation, one small opening, and so on until he literally envisions the tide turn in his favor.
You know, basic obsessionism at the red light.
"Before I fight I meditate and I visualize and I manifest," he says. "I make the fight happen in my head and it has gone very well this far and I think a lot of it has to with me being there already. I’ve been in the cage and I’ve fought that fight a million times. I’ve walked down that walkway and I’ve seen the fans, I get in the cage, I take my circle, all the way to until the bells ring and my hand is raised. I’ve been there. I’ve been there a million times."
Not only is it stacked, but the UFC’s welterweight division is, for the first time in half a decade, wide open. Georges St-Pierre walked away from the game in December citing duress, and now Robbie Lawler and Hendricks are fighting for the vacant belt. Rory MacDonald, who was being groomed (by GSP at least) to be the heir apparent, lost to Lawler. Ellenberger is fighting Tarec Saffiedine, and Tyron Woodley is fighting Carlos Condit, and Nick Diaz is still thought to be winking in retirement out there in Stockton.
And then there’s the 28-year-old Thatch, who is probably a couple of fights from drawing on names of that caliber. But, just like Jones as he was becoming Jones, it’s easy to imagine him in that kind of company as he barrels in. There’s a vibe, or a comportment, or a general anticipation about Thatch that tells you he’s not a flash in the pan. He’s confident to the point of almost being leery of being over confident. There’s a restraint. There’s still tension on the bowstring as its being pulled back, and how far he flies when it’s let go is the question.
Maybe he gets it from his upbringing. Thatch grew up more or less in the fight game, and by now it’s second nature to him.
"My father Clarence Thatch is a big name in MMA here in Colorado," he says. "He was a great striking coach for a lot of people. Duane Ludwig was one of his students that originated out of his gym and anyone who’s anyone that’s had good standup in the past 15-20 years has gone through him. The first UFC was in Denver in 1993 and the Gracies were looking for a place to train before the fight. They came here for a few weeks and were training and they came to my Dad’s gym, out at 3D Martial Arts, and that was our first introduction to the ground game."
Clarence, who became his stepfather along the way -- but whom Brandon considers his real father -- taught his son karate and, by extension, the tenants of discipline.
"He was a boxer, and because his father was a professional boxer he grew up boxing," Thatch says. "He was interested in karate for a long time. He was a four-time Sabaki champion and he started training MMA after we saw the Gracies come to town. I was a baby. I watched all his tapes. I watched all the UFC and I remember the first one scared me. I was so young and I was watching these things I was like, holy shit, this is insane, but I just kept watching and now here I am doing it."
The younger Thatch, who began with karate at four years old, got burnt out by the time he was 13. For the next few years he acted up a bit, skipping school and acting like a "knucklehead," as he says, drinking and carousing.
"I was more or less figuring out who I was as a person," he says. "I was out playing with my friends, being on the streets and doing all this stuff. I was seeing all these guys that, when I would go to the gym and train, I would smoke these guys in practice. And then I was see them in the fights and these guys were doing what I was getting in trouble for in the ring, and getting paid and getting praised.
"I was like, well, shit, dude, I can do that! I wanted to do it. And my Dad was like, if you get a camp in, a six-month camp. Because he wanted me to train, he wanted to see if I really wanted it, he wasn’t just going to throw me in there. So he said if you get six months in the gym, I’ll get you a fight. So I trained for about six months and then when I was 17 I had my first kickboxing fight and I was in love."
He beat Ricardo Ponce in his first real fight at Ring of Fire 18, and he was hooked. He’s been beating about everyone ever since (except one fellow named Brandon Magana back at the Playboy Mansion in 2008, whom he lost a decision under the Strikeforce banner -- his only blemish).
And somewhere around the time of Ring of Fire, he began spinning fire like a Polynesian cliff diver. At first as a form of meditation -- not to contemplate future opponents, but to keep his mind clear of such things. To zone out. He got to the point where he became good at it, then exceptional. He became a performance artist, in the art known as "poi," and he’d make money spinning at parties and events. And sometimes in the park or on the streets, like a busker -- only, instead of an old six-string, he twirled hissing flames in the Maori tradition.
"I think when I’m spinning I just get in my groove and just enjoy myself," he says, lamenting his arm-sling that is preventing him from so much as doing even that. "I have a lot of fun just kind of doing my thing. Letting it flow and letting it go.
"I’ve kind of been out of getting parties, with the injury. If they come when I’m healthier I’ll do it all the time. I just got some new wicks, too. Some really cool wicks! They have two wicks on each end so the flames are huge."
By mid-February, Thatch was able to start doing modified training again. At the same time he was having his shoulder fixed, he went ahead and had a lingering ankle problem sorted out too. It might be too soon to say he’s going to wreak complete havoc on the 170-pound division…but then again, the fight game being one of hype and audacity, those closest to him aren’t afraid to be so bold.
Thatch anticipates being back in action by late June or early July. By then he will have been out at least seven months. In the meantime he’s left to think about fighting the entire welterweight class, one-by-one, while driving around Denver, as well as how to improve on the stellarness of what’s already been done.
In that particular form of meditation, he remains as creative as he does ambitious.
"When I won my UFC debut, I was on top of the world," he says. "I was running around having drinks with some of my friends and all of the sudden they told me I got Knockout of the Night honors, too. I got the hefty bonus ($50,000) and I told my lady, ‘you know, babe, I won my UFC debut, and now I got a knockout bonus… the only thing that could make this night better is if you want to bring a girl home.’ She was like, ‘yeaaaaah, nice try.’"
In other words, the future of the UFC’s 170-pound division, as promising as he is, has many goals left to attain.