As Josh Thomson prepares for the highest-profile fight of his career, he’s taking a moment to stop and smell the roses.
There was a time, during an era when the UFC didn’t recognize a lightweight champion, when the San Jose, Calif.-based contender was undefeated and considered by some the world’s best at 155 pounds.
Nearly a decade later, he’ll finally have a chance to prove he belongs in the conversation, as he meets Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on FOX 10 Saturday at Chicago’s United Center.
While he didn’t expect his journey to the top of a major UFC event to take this long, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion appreciates how he got to this point.
“Look, I’ve gotten to go all over the world doing this,” said Thomson (20-5, 1 no-contest). "I’ve gone from being a UFC prospect, to fighting in Japan in PRIDE and Dream, to fighting in my backyard on a regular basis in Strikeforce and winning a title there. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, there’s no guarantees in this business and you can’t do this forever. So to have things come back around like this at this stage in my career, yeah, you have to savor it while it lasts.”
It’s good for Thomson’s sake that he understands there are no guarantees, because the last several months have served as an example of such. Fresh off his impressive head-kick knockout finish of Nate Diaz in April, Thomson was awarded a shot at new lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in December.
Soon thereafter, though, Pettis had to pull out of the fight due to knee surgery. The UFC asked him to instead take the bout with Henderson, the man Pettis defeated to win the title. Henderson (22-3) has not lost a fight to someone other than Pettis in seven years.
“That’s the business, it happens and you roll with it,” Thomson said. “I think the thing a lot of the casual fans don’t understand, when they hear about a change in fight plans, is that it’s not as simple as it sounds. You go from preparing for someone like Anthony, with his kicks, and then you have to turn on a dime and fight someone like Benson, who is one of the toughest fighters in the world to figure out stylistically.”
Not to mention, by pushing the fight date back six weeks, Thomson has been in training for a seriously long time. And while the standard in MMA is for a fighter to claim they’re having the best camp in their life leading up to the fight, then talk about everything that went wrong in camp afterwards, Thomson doesn’t sugarcoat that his training camp for this fight has been less than ideal.
“Basically I’ve been in camp for three months now,” Thomson said. “I took a week off [when the Pettis fight was dropped] and was back at it. I had a nasty case of the flu for about six days, and I still got my road work in. It was the holidays, so no one was around the gym.”
After all this time in the business, though, a fighter learns to adapt.
“You push through it,” Thomson says. “You make it work. My first fight with Gilbert Melendez [a 2008 bout in which Thomson defeated Melendez for the Strikeforce belt], I had one of my worst camps ever, and I went out and had one of the best fights of my career. You draw on that experience when you’re grinding your way through at the gym.”
Speaking of the gym, Thomson’s home team is San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy, one of the nation’s most successful MMA camps, featuring the likes of UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and light heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier. Another AKA fighter who has been in the news recently is a fellow lightweight, undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. The UFC has had trouble finding opponents for the Russian standout – Diaz and Melendez both reportedly turned the fight down – and Thomson, a training partner of Nurmagomedov, understands why.
“The kid’s a beast,” said Thomson. “He’s getting better and better. I’m not saying he unbeatable, because everyone has their weaknesses, but there’s a reason they can’t get someone to fight him. He’s only beginning to reach his potential and when he gets one of those name guys, he’s going to show why.”
Nurmagomedov’s time is a little bit down the road. Thomson’s time is now. He left the UFC after an upset loss to Yves Edwards in 2004, his first career defeat, in what was consider a fight for "uncrowned champion" status. Back then, he couldn’t have imagined it would take him nearly a decade to return to prominence.
But after all this time, Thomson has his chance. A victory over Henderson in front of a network television audience of millions would cement his spot as the top contender to Pettis’ crown. Even if Thomson is reluctant to say so.
“I mean, if I win this fight, if I can defeat a fighter the caliber of Ben, I would say I deserve the title shot,” Thomson said. “But I’ve been around this business too long, I know nothing is promised. So I won’t say the title shot is mine. All I can do is go out there and take care of business.”
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA