Never let it be said Josh Thomson isn't a company man. When he was with the UFC a few years back, Thomson was selected along with four other fighters to appear on the syndicated dating show "Blind Date." It was a hilariously awkward performance, as Thomson shied away from any physical contact and told the young lady 'I don't kiss a girl on the first date.' If that doesn't sound like a fighter who's nicknamed "the Punk" there's good reason - there was more going on.
"They (the UFC) came to me and said 'Hey we want you to be on the show' and I had a girlfriend at the time," Thomson remembers. "So I was kind of like 'No, I don't want to do it.' But they were kind of insinuating, hey, you need to do this...I had a blast but I had a girlfriend at the time. There was nothing I could do."
Six years later, Thomson is still doing what he needs to do to help his promotion. In today's MMA world, a world replete with fighters and managers looking to make their own matches and carefully select their opponents, Thomson is a throwback. When Scott Coker calls him to fight, he's straps on his wrestling boots, starts cutting back on his beloved ice cream, and goes to work. Other fighters might have blanched at the thought of fighting JZ Cavalcante on national television in the tough but unknown fighter's Strikeforce debut. Not Thomson.
"I want to fight and that's the guy they put in front of me. That's the guy you fight," Thomson said. "If you go to the UFC and (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva says 'You're going to fight this guy' you don't tell Joe Silva 'No, I'd rather fight this guy.' It doesn't happen. When your number is called to fight and they say 'What do you think about this opponent?' I say 'Line it up.' That's what fighters are supposed to do. You don't get to handpick your sh*t. That's the problem with a lot of the new fighters coming into the game."
At 32, Thomson sounds like a grizzled veteran. And in a way he is. Generationally, fighters like Thomson who predate The Ultimate Fighter can appreciate what they have. They remember times when things weren't so great. How can Thomson complain about money and matchups when he once fought one of the world's best fighters, Japanese sensation Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, in Hawaii for just $1000 as a last minute fill in for training partner Phil Perez?
"I didn't know anything about the guy. I knew he was a decent wrestler, but I didn't know he had the potential to be an Olympian. There were a whole lot of details that were left out when that fight happened," Thomson said with a laugh. "...All I heard was that it was in Hawaii and I said 'Hell yeah.' I jumped all over the deal. There was no way in hell I was going to miss that fight."
Once he was in the cage, there may have been some second thoughts. Yamamoto looked like the bantamweight that he was, but even fighting at 155 pounds he packed a wallop.
"He was so fast and he was southpaw and he was super strong. That was something I was unprepared for. I knew he had punching power, but once he hit me a couple of times I knew there wasn't anything to worry about," Thomson said, remembering the 2001 fight like it was yesterday. "He caught me with a couple of good shots and I was like 'Alright, he can't knock me out.' I was real tense the first two minutes, then he hit me with a good right hook. From then on I relaxed and just let things go. You notice I picked it up at the end of the first and into the second round."
Just when it started to look like a barnburner, things came crashing to a halt. Yamamoto took a hard shot to the crown jewels and the fight was declared a no contest. Had it gone to decision, "Kid" would have likely been declared the winner. But the real decision maker in the audience that night was new UFC President Dana White."It was a really sloppy fight, but Dana saw something that he really liked. I really built my career from there," Thomson said.
Eventually, with a little more seasoning, the UFC would offer Thomson a home. The timing, unfortunately, just wasn't right. At 155 pounds, Thomson was one of the best. The UFC decided to cut that division, but weren't quite ready to say goodbye to Thomson. His career was at a cross roads.
"They never really told me that they weren't going to have my division anymore. Instead Joe said 'You can fight at 170.' No, I'm walking around at 166 (pounds). Why the hell would I want to fight at 170," Thomson said. "Have you seen the guys at 170? That's what my thought was. Last time I checked Matt Hughes was 195. There's no freaking way. I think my career would be over if I'd taken that chance. If you look at it, I think it wore a lot on Rich Clementi. Not saying he's done or over the hill, but he took some losses that he shouldn't have taken just to fight at 170...I'm actually glad I didn't do it."
After a cup of coffee in Pride, Thomson found Scott Coker and Strikeforce. What started as a couple of kickboxing matchups before Strikeforce turned to MMA full time has blossomed into a partnership that has lasted five years. Of course, that doesn't mean Thomson didn't think twice before choosing the upstart MMA promotion over the industry leader.
"When Scott Coker was thinking about making Strikeforce an MMA show, I was one of the first guys he sat down. He said 'Hey, I'm going to build this promotion and do you want to be on board?' I took it real seriously," Thomson said. "I said 'Let's talk money, let's talk figures, let's talk how you're going to do it and I'll make the decision from there.' That's what any logical manager, agent, or fighter would do. Are you just going to try to keep it low profile or are you going to try in the first year to get it on TV? Those are things that fighters want to know. I want to know where my career was going to go. There was an opportunity for me to jump back in and fight in the UFC and I was close to taking it. But after a couple of meetings with Scott, I decided it was a great place for me to stay. Most of the fights would be here in San Jose and I love fighting here. So why not?"
More from Josh Thomson including how Strikeforce Lightweights matchup with their UFC counterparts after the break.
In Strikeforce, Thomson has become a world champion and competed with some of the world's best. His fights with another local favorite, current Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez, are among the best bouts of the last three years. Thomson believes with himself, Melendez, and now Cavalcante, Strikeforce has three lightweights that can match up well with anyone the UFC can bring to the cage.
"Oh gosh, I can't even tell you," Thomson said, his voice reflecting his enthusiasm. "I've trained with Frankie Edgar. I've trained with B.J. Penn. I can tell you right now, I'm right there in that mix. So is JZ. So is Gilbert. Obviously styles make fights and different fighters will be more difficult for certain people. Like Frankie is going to have a hard time with Gray (Maynard). A harder time than he had with B.J.. But I think B.J. has an easier time with Gray. It's just one of those things. I'll tell you right now. Us three (Strikeforce) lightweights? We're definitely top ten for sure. If not top 5. But the media...styles make matches. It doesn't matter where the media puts us. I really don't care. It doesn't bug me. I just laugh...I think a lot of fighters laugh at the MMA version of mainstream media. They're really just fans of the sport who think they know more than the fighters and that makes me laugh."
After battling injuries for the last two years, Thomson is ready to batlle Cavalcante. And while he's not looking past the tough Brazilian, a third fight with Gilbert Melendez is looming in the back of his mind.
"People see me on the street and they say 'When are you fighting?' And I say this weekend against JZ," Thomson said. "And they say 'That's cool. When are you fighting Gilbert?' People don't seem to care that I'm fighting JZ. They want to know when I'm fighting Gilbert. That's all they care about. And I keep having to remind them, if I don't get past JZ, there won't be a fight with Gilbert."
Josh would like to thank his sponsors at Cage Hero. Strikeforce returns home to San Jose with the Grudge Match you've been waiting for. Rockstar Energy Drink and Strikeforce present Diaz vs. Noons II - Live at HP Pavilion at San Jose on Saturday, October 9. In a rematch 3 years in the making, this epic night of world-class mixed martial arts features Strikeforce's World Welterweight Champion and the bad boy of M-M-A, Nick Diaz, when he seeks to avenge his last loss against one of the most prolific strikers in the business and the last man to defeat him, K.J. Noons!
Also on the card, Sarah Kaufman puts her Strikeforce Women's World Welterweight title on the line against the dangerous Marloes Coenen and former lightweight Champion and local favorite Josh Thomson (17-3) will meet world-ranked Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante (15-3-1) of Brazil in an important lightweight battle.