Please excuse James Thompson if he is sensing the creeping touch of déjà vu lately, but this is all starting to feel a little too familiar. Of course there is the obvious, the rematch of giants between he and part-time brick wall Bobby Lashley. That booking took three tries to stay intact, and even now, a few days before Bellator 145, Thompson can't help but admit the small part of him waiting for the other shoe to drop — for Lashley to become the next casualty of the sauna, or that pesky injury bug to lob a last-minute muscle tear into the minutia of fight week.
But provided the big Englishman's paranoia stays just that, it is the after part of this whole exercise that feels so strangely like home. Almost like Thompson has played this part before.
The worst kept secret in Bellator is that he and Lashley's collision course is really just a play-in game of sorts, a precursor to the main event, with the winner landing a golden ticket to the Kimbo Slice sweepstakes at Bellator's Feb. 19 tentpole event.
With Slice comes big exposure and big ratings, a stupidly vast media blitz that brings out the Red Panty Night paydays. That's how it has always been, and somehow even in 2015, a decade removed from the heyday of backyard YouTube brawls, that's how it remains. And all of those trimmings are nice. If Thompson were to land among them, he certainly wouldn't complain. But the chance to right a few wrongs, wrongs which have been gnawing at the heavyweight for longer than he would like to admit — that is what Thompson craves the most.
"Bellator hasn't said much to me about it, but I don't think they really need to," Thompson says. "I'm very confident the fight is going to happen. Not to be a mole or anything, but I just kind of know it's going to happen. It can't not happen. It absolutely can't not happen. It's got to come full circle."
Full circle can be a tricky business. Thompson is 36 these days, a long way removed from the bull in a china shop who wrecked a trail of circus behemoths in Pride, and seven years removed from the night 6.51 million people watched Slice explode Thompson's right ear in a shower of gore and cauliflower goo. The retch suffered by all of those poor souls tuned to CBS that night was nothing compared to the queasiness felt by Thompson in those post-primetime hours.
He allowed himself to play the pawn in Jared Shaw and EliteXC's miserable game. An unwitting and sacrificial name upon which the legend of The Streetbrawler could be legitimized. Something like that doesn't just go away overnight. "I'm a truthful person, "Thompson says. "I'm not swallowed by my own ego, like a lot of people are in MMA. I can see things for what they are.
"That's something, it does still sit with me. It does still bother me...Gary [Shaw] announcing me going to the hospital at the press conference while I'm standing there looking at his son [try] to coerce me into an ambulance. There were a lot of things which, afterwards, you do go, ‘Jesus Christ, it is all against me.' It's quite to easy to fall into a pit of feeling sorry for yourself. And I did."
Thompson is in a better place now, though it took him long while. His embarrassment at the hands of Slice sent him deeper into an already downward career slide, one which sunk a respectable 12-2 record to a near-losing mark of 15-14 within just four years.
Things reached a head in 2011, when Polish organization KSW expressed an interest in pitting Thompson against its next big star, five-time World's Strongest Man winner Mariusz Pudzianowski. Thompson was brought in ostensibly to lose. Kimbo Slice all over again, and enough was enough. "Throughout my career, this is what happens," Thompson says. "This is what happens to me.
"I lost a lot of fights. I was doing a lot of things that a professional fighter shouldn't. Now because of all that, people would look at me as, ‘you know what, he's got a bit of a name, he looks the part, but he's also beatable.' So I always get put in as the guy to test the guy. I did with Mariusz Pudzianowski. I've got a bit of a name, but they see me as beatable. Same with Kimbo, I've got a bit of a name, but beatable."
Whatever festivities were planned that frigid night in Gdnask were put on hold once Thompson snaked his arm around Pudzianowski's throat and scored his biggest win since the Pride era. The end came in a little over six minutes, and with it awoke a sense of self-worth in Thompson that hasn't extinguished since. His 5-0 run can attest to that, as can his 2012 party spoiling victory over the same pro wrestler he expects to meet on Friday.
Thompson is a changed man these days. It was inevitable if he wanted to make the most of whatever time he has left. "The Colossus" is a father of one who sees his window fast closing, and after watching 41-year-old Slice slog his way to an uninspired win over 51-year-old Ken Shamrock — shattering Bellator ratings records in the process — he knows a more perfect moment will never exist to cleanse the demons that once haunted him, and sometimes still do.
"I wasn't impressed at all. I don't think many people could or would be," Thompson says of Slice.
"He looked to me like he [declined] as a fighter. He's been around a long time. He's done very well, he hung on to a good gimmick, he made a lot of money, and he's still making a lot of money. He's still a name people recognize. But believe me, I have a lot more in me. I believe it means a lot more to me after what happened to me after the Kimbo fight (in 2008), how I took the loss and being treated how I was treated. People treat you a certain way, but how you react to it is up to you. I reacted very badly and I went off the rails. So for me, it means a lot more to me than it does to Kimbo. And when I get my chance, you're going to see that. You really will see that."