LAS VEGAS – Din Thomas was cast as a fighter in his first significant acting role, a none-too-surprising decision by director Chris Fuller since Thomas is one of the world's elite mixed martial artists.
Thomas, who recently earned his jiu-jitsu black belt, has 20 MMA wins and five in the UFC. He has defeated notable opponents such as UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra, Clay Guida and former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver.
And though Thomas says he doesn't want to be typecast as a fighter in his acting career, he also doesn't want to be typecast as a guy who's good, but not good enough in MMA.
"I've always thought I've been a good fighter and I've done some good things," said Thomas, who will take on Kenny Florian on Wednesday at the Palms in Las Vegas in a key lightweight battle on The Ultimate Fight Night on Spike TV, a prelude to the debut of Season 6 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
"I haven't quite gotten there yet, but I believe I still can. I'm a much smarter fighter now than I was and I'm more aware of things, like how to prepare and how to train better."
Part of Thomas' understanding of preparation came from his acting debut in the independent feature film, "Loren Cass," in which he played the role of a St. Petersburg, Fla., high school student known as The Fight Kid.
The film, and Thomas' work in it, has gotten positive reviews. And while it's whetted his appetite for more, it also taught him the appreciation of preparation.
Thomas said he found the work as mentally and physically draining as anything he'd done in the fight game. He had to, he said, rehearse the same scenes for what seemed like a million times.
"Extremely, extremely hard work," Thomas said, before quickly adding, "Extremely, extremely rewarding, too."
Thomas said he had no preconceived notions when he began the project, but said he soon realized why top actors earn so much money.
An extraordinary amount of attention to detail was paid to every scene and Fuller made certain everyone had a complete understanding of the subtleties of their roles.
"I'll be honest: It was a tremendous amount of hard work," Thomas said of the film. "You can't believe how much you have to prepare for one 10-second scene. You're out there over and over and over and over just to get that one little scene correct.
"It's really draining, mentally as well as physically. In the way that you have to prepare, it's kind of like fighting, because you know there are so many things that could come up that you have to be ready for."
Though Joe Stevenson is the clubhouse leader to get the shot opposite B.J. Penn to fight for the vacant lightweight title at UFC 78 on Nov. 17 in Newark, N.J., (if champion Sean Sherk fails on his appeal of a steroid charge next month before the California Athletic Commission), the winner of the Thomas-Florian fight is going to be a major player in the not-too-distant future.
UFC president Dana White raved about Thomas' talent, but said he needs to finally clear that last hurdle. He was on the verge of something big in 2001, after winning 10 of his first 11 fights, including one over Pulver, but he was stopped by B.J. Penn at UFC 32.
He fought his way up to the cusp of title contention again in the next year, but lost to Caol Uno at UFC 39.
"Din's been in the mix for years," White said. "He's one of those kids who's always on the verge of something, but he has choked when he's gotten the big fights. A win over Kenny Florian would be huge for him."
Thomas is well aware of the challenge he faces. Florian stretched Sherk to the limit at UFC 64 in a fight for the then-vacant lightweight title. Sherk's only losses in 33 pro fights were to Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes, both of whom are welterweights. Florian pushed Sherk like no one has at 155.
Florian has since steamrolled Doko Mishima and Alvin Robinson.
Thomas and Florian are fighting in the main event, which is simply going to add one more problem to the equation for the emotional Thomas. He builds himself into a frenzy prior to his bouts and would far rather be fighting on the first bout on the card.
"This is a huge fight for me, but it doesn't matter who I'm fighting," Thomas said. "I could be fighting Justin Timberlake and I'd get the same way. The emotions are overwhelming sometimes. That's why you see such a big release when the fight is over.
"But there's nothing worse than sitting backstage and hearing the crowd and seeing the other fighters go and you're sitting there. It's really, really hard to sit and watch and have to wait."
He vows he won't wait once he gets a chance to go after Florian. Thomas believes his best chance to gain what could be a life-altering victory will be to get in Florian's face and push the action.
That, Thomas said, is generally not Florian's fight.
"Kenny is a technician, but he's not a real aggressive fighter," Thomas said. "He's a technician who will get aggressive if the opportunity presents itself, but he's a technician who likes to pick his shots and whittle away.
"I have to get on him and pressure him and not allow him to set up and not allow him to get off his shots the way he wants."
And if he can do that, Thomas would go a long way toward making certain he's not typecast forever as a guy who was not quite good enough to go all the way.
"When you're at this level, all of the fights are important, but obviously, a win over Kenny Florian makes a statement and will take me a long way," Thomas said. "The thing I like about this situation is that it's there in front of me and it's up to me to do it."
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