"It wasn’t like this. It wasn’t like this, I can tell you that, man."
Josh Thomson is sitting with Yahoo Sports! inside Chicago's United Center on Thursday afternoon. In a few short days, Thomson will square up against former champion Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on Fox 10 here in the home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks.
Minutes ago, Thomson was surrounded by a small mob of local, national and international media members. Everyone wanted to know what's on Thomson's mind, how his camp went (he said it was the worst of his career) and how he believes Saturday's fight will play out.
This is Thomson's second go-around with the UFC. Back in 2003 and 2004, he was a young up-and-coming fighter in the organization.
Then, he and the rest of the UFC's lightweights were cast aside as the entire division was put on hiatus for years. Even before that, however, UFC fight weeks were quite a different scene than what he's experiencing now.
"We didn’t have, like, a press conference before hand," he remembers.
"We were in Vegas the week of, doing our pictures, photos and that was it. Did I ever think it would get to this point? I thought it would get big but I never thought it would get to this point, this fast. That was the reality of it. Once they got rid of my division, I was really nervous. Like, maybe it will never come back, you know?"
The sport has changed but so has Thomson's approach to it. Asked if the 35 year-old's approach to fighting is the same it was back in his early UFC days as "The Punk," Thomson provides a quick answer.
"No, not at all. Everything’s different. As you get older, you mature. You start realizing that all the little things in life are more important than all the other crap," he says.
Thomson explains that things like his charitable work and taking care of family and friends is far more important to him than professional glory, these days.
"I love fighting but my life really has come a long way to where the more important thing to is to try and make a difference in a kid’s life, try and be there for people who need help," he says.
We wonder out loud to Thomson, then, if he possesses the same hunger that he did a decade ago to become the world's best. He pauses, thinks and gives a surprising answer.
"I haven’t really looked at it that way. That’s a good point. No," he says plainly.
It isn't that Thomson doesn't train hard to beat the best in the world - this camp may have been his longest and most grueling ever - or that he doesn't believe that he can indeed become the UFC champion, however. It's just that Thomson is focused on the fight itself, not the recognition that comes with it.
"I just know that my age and my experience and all the things that I do really well mean that I can compete with the best of them, still. It’s shown," he says.
"I mean, it’s been years I’ve been doing this so it’s just a matter of me going out there and implementing my game plan and focusing on what I need to do to get the win. That’s it.
Up until his return to the UFC last spring, Thomson mostly toiled in the now defunct Strikeforce organization. There, Thomson fought some of the very best in the world like Clay Guida and Gilbert Melendez (with whom he had a classic trilogy) but none of them ever credit for being so because they weren't in the UFC.
Looking back, Thomson says that it never bothered him that he and fighters like rival Gilbert Melendez didn't get the credit they deserved as top lightweights.
"No. Naw, because, I mean, no. I wasn’t. The two of us made each other better," he says.
"Gilbert and I made each other better. If anything, he had someone to work towards in the beginning. Then, I had someone to work towards. I’ve said this before, it was more motivation to have him side by side with me in Strikeforce because I knew that I always had to get to that level and I think that he felt the same way. We always knew that we’d be back at the title. It was the two of us. It didn’t matter who they brought in, we’d always find our way there."
Mixed martial arts and Josh Thomson have both finally found themselves in the big time. On Saturday night, Thomson will fight in front of a live crowd of over twenty thousand people with millions more watching on television.
The stage will be exactly as large as the fighter believes he and the sport of MMA deserve. Just don't expect Thomson to be impressed by any of it.
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