As the days went by following the announcement that Bellator 172 would be held in San Jose, Josh Thomson started getting antsy.
The card was scheduled for HP Pavilion, and if you’re a NorCal guy with American Kickboxing Academy ties like Thomson, the venue is as close to a home game as anyone in this sport is going to experience.
It’s where he’s had the two most memorable victories of his career: His 2008 win over Gilbert Melendez to claim the Strikeforce lightweight title, and his head-kick knockout of Nate Diaz to finish a thrilling two-round brawl on a 2013 UFC on FOX card.
So when the days turned to weeks and the phone never rang, the veteran Thomson, who missed all of 2016 due to various injuries, started to wonder what was up.
“I kind of gave up hope after awhile,” said Thomson. “I knew I wanted to be on the card because I’d never pass up an opportunity to fight in San Jose, but I never heard anything so I stopped training hard because I figured too much time had passed.”
Finally, Thomson’s phone rang with a call from Bellator CEO Scott Coker. It was less than six weeks out from the card, but he told “The Punk” to be ready.
“They called and said they had a fight in mind,” Thomson told MMA Fighting. “Then they called again and asked if I’d fight [lightweight champ] Michael Chandler. I was in and I was stoked and I didn’t care if it would be tough to get ready to fight five rounds, I was ready to go.”
But there was one last twist left before Thomson, whose last fight was in Dec. 2015, would get the green light -- according to Thomson, Chandler turned the fight down.
“For about a day there I was going on the idea I’d be fighting for the title, but Chandler wouldn’t take the fight,” Thomson said. “He didn’t want it. Scott asked if I’d fight Pitbull instead and I told him I don’t back away from fights, I’d take it.”
So Thomson, now 38, finds himself in the co-feature bout of Bellator 172 against Patricky Freire as the second bill to the Fedor Emelianenko-Matt Mitrione heavyweight matchup, and as far as he’s concerned, the fact the fight was announced with just four weeks to spare doesn’t matter.
“I’m back,” Thomson said. “I’m fighting in my home arena and I’ve got a fight that matters on a big card. That’s exactly why I came over to Bellator in the first place. I can’t ask for a better opportunity than this.”
Thomson’s always been known as an opinionated sort -- as anyone who has tuned into his podcast with Bay Area DJ Mike Placencia can attest -- but he’s actually finding he’s had a bit of trouble defining where he wants to take things as his career hits the backstretch.
Some fighters talk about making one last run at a championship. Thomson wouldn’t mind adding a Bellator belt to a career resume that includes Strikeforce gold.
“That all depends on the guy with the gold right now,” said Thomson, who was scheduled to meet Chandler at Bellator 154 last May, but had to withdraw due to injury. “Mike apparently doesn’t want to fight me. All I can do is win this fight in front of me and state my case. Chandler knows where to find me.”
Some veterans talk about redeeming past losses. The potential opportunity for that is there, too, as Benson Henderson looms. Thomson lost a highly controversial split decision to Henderson in the main event of 2014 UFC on FOX card
“That’s up to Ben, whether he wants that or not,” Thomson said. “What I know is that I fought that fight with a broken hand and I’ll go to my grave thinking that I won it. Sure I want that rematch, but if it doesn’t happen, I believe in my heart I won that fight and I can live with it.”
The overriding theme here is that while Thomson knows he has opportunities for big, attention-getting fights in Bellator’s fast-heating lightweight division, he also knows there are a lot of things out of his control.
Perhaps that’s why the Thomson we’ve seen in the leadup to Bellator 172 has been more the carefree “Punk” of old and less the guy he admits had turned into a grouch in recent years.
“There are days you don’t want to do this anymore,” Thomson said. “Days you don’t want to go through the grind. You go through one too many long training camps and you just feel like having a beer instead of doing weight cuts. But then you get to the other side of it, and you’re happy you’re still able to do what you do. I want the fans to remember me as a guy who fought hard win or lose, and I’m just glad I still have the opportunity to prove it.”