When word came down that T.J. Grant had not sufficiently recovered from his concussion injury sustained several weeks ago, the MMA circle began to buzz with possible replacements for Anthony Pettis' first lightweight title defense. We didn't have to wait too long though, as Josh Thomson was named as the replacement fighter.
Thomson, on his second term of employment in the UFC, is over the moon about this golden opportunity, and feels that this will be his only chance to seize the brass ring. With his 35th birthday approaching this coming weekend, and the lightweight division positively bursting at the seams with talent, he may be right about that. When an opportunity this big knocks on your door, you take it immediately and ask questions later, or not at all.
I spoke with Josh last night to get his initial reaction to the announcement, how he feels about training for a title against a guy not named Gilbert Melendez for the first time in more than six years, what he feels made the UFC brass choose him over guys on hot streaks like Rafael dos Anjos and how he forged a great friendship with his one time opponent, Pat Healy. Here's what he had to say:
It's crazy, and it hasn't really sunk in yet. It's been a zoo since yesterday. It hasn't even been 24 hours, but I've received so many calls and texts from my family and friends. I told Javi [Javier Mendez], 'Let me just relax tonight and spend some time to think about the situation.'Then I woke up at 530 this morning, and I couldn't go back to sleep. I was just thinking about the fight.
I went out for a run, came back, made some breakfast, and just gameplanned in my mind how I want to prepare and get ready for a healthy training camp. It's just all been so surreal. Everyone keeps calling to congratulate me, but I don't think congratulations are really in order because I haven't won anything yet. It makes me feel good that I've already got this much love and support, but I haven't achieved anything yet; I haven't won yet.
The Belt Is The Precious
Every fighter dreams of winning that UFC strap and taking it home and laying in bed with it next to you, or whatever. I remember what it felt like to win the Strikeforce title. The feeling that I had then, it would just be magnified 100 times over, to be able to bring the UFC belt home, and you know, setting it on my couch, watching TV with it [laughs]. Maybe I'll even wear it while I'm watching TV.
Those are the things that go through your head. If you get to bring that belt home, you have to think of a spot in the house where you'll put it. I'd carry it downstairs, and I'd put it on the couch next to me while I watch TV. When I go for a jog, I might put it in a carrying case. I might even get one of those carrying cases to attach to my mountain bike that you carry on the back like when you have a kid [laughs].
Obviously, I'm thinking in advance, but the best part is, it really is just one of those things where I remember what it was like to win that Strikeforce belt. What happened to me in 2004 with the UFC, and what happened to the division, it kind of left me with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. It made me feel overlooked, and the fact that it's finally here, you can bet your ass I'm not gonna let it slip away.
Going From Mr. Glass To Being Unbreakable
When you're over-trained like I was -- I was training three hard sessions a day, six days a week -- you don't have room for improvement, because you're so tired, you can't even do the things that you just learned. That's how injuries happen. I was just doing too much.
When I won my title fighting Gil, I thought to myself, 'Now that I have the title, I've got to train even harder.' My camp for that first fight with Gil was perfect. It was probably the best camp I've ever had. I felt like I had to add this or add that afterwards, though, and in reality, I didn't need to add anything. I just needed to keep doing what I was doing, and I missed the golden years of my career being stupid with my training.
Overtraining, changing things constantly, pushing myself past the normal limits ... it ruined me. Honestly, I'm like the greatest fighter that never was. It kind of rubs me wrong and eats me up inside that I wasted the best moments of my career, from 29-32, injured. I think I only had like two fights in that whole time span. It sucks.
I learned a lot from all that, and I made some tweaks in my routine and schedule. It was in it's starting stages with the Noons fight. My cardio wasn't up to speed then, but by the time I fought Gil, even with that knee injury, I had it pretty much fine tuned. When I fought Diaz, it had all finally come together.
I'm A Big Pat Healy Fan
Ya know, I'd never met him and I don't think we ever really talked before we fought, but when we stepped up the day before the fight to do the weigh-ins, he had that big smile on his face, and I could just tell that he loves being a fighter. He doesn't care who he's fighting or what the situation is, and it's a pleasure when you get to fight somebody like that. Just knowing that there's no egos involved, it's you versus me, we both love being fighters, and one of us has to lose.
He was such a tough fight for me. Stylistically and the fact that he's so big and strong, it was a battle. Anyway, after that fight, BJ Penn called me and wanted me to come out and help him train for Rory MacDonald. So I went out there for a couple weeks -- this was before Rory got hurt the first time -- and Pat was already out there helping BJ, too. It was me, Pat and another buddy staying in one of BJ's houses out there.
We lived out there together for two weeks, and Pat's just a happy go lucky kind of guy. It was cool and I had a great time. When the fight was back on after Rory healed up, BJ called again and asked me to come back out. I get out there, and Pat's out there again, because he was training to fight Gilbert Melendez. They're both training for different type fighters, and it was funny, because after I would help BJ, I'd go over an help Pat train for five hard rounds [laughs].
I was the guy that could sort of mimic Gilbert's style, but I wasn't in fighting shape. I was maybe 170, and Pat's this massive 190 pounder, and he was putting it on me [laughs]. Five rounds of that dude going hard in training is just miserable. Even if I had been in shape it would have been miserable.
We ended up developing a great friendship because of it. I'm a big Pat Healy fan. I don't say that about too many people, but he's just great, both as a person and as a fighter. After watching him fight Jim Miller ... I'm a Pat Healy fan, I really am.
Training For A Title Fight Against A Guy Not Named Gilbert Melendez
[Laughs] That's gonna be nice. I really feel that Gilbert and I advanced our careers and have become as good as we are because we had each other. If we hadn't, I don't think we'd be the fighters we are today. I'm a Gilbert Melendez fan, too. If he hadn't been in Strikeforce, we probably would have just gotten lost in the mix, and we wouldn't be as good as we are today. He learned a lot from his loss to me, and I learned a lot from my losses to him. It's put us in the situation that we're in now.
He's in the UFC making good money. He had his opportunity at that world title, and I'm sure he'll have another one, but for me, this is it. I'll be 35 this weekend, and it's one of those things where I don't know if the opportunity will come up again. Everything rides on this for me. It's the moment I've been waiting for since 2004.
The Real Punk Difference
I don't want to take anything away from a guy like dos Anjos. He's on a big win streak and everything, and he's doing very well. I think it's coming down to the fact that I beat a Diaz in a fashion that no other person has done before. Not only that, but I did it in impressive fashion. I walked out of there with nothing wrong with me except a sore shin.
A lot of people overlooked me in the third Gilbert Melendez fight, and when it came down to it, so many people thought I won that fight. From several media sources to regular fans, a lot of people felt I won. That may have had something to do with it, but honestly, I think having that big win over Nate was what set me apart and got me this shot.
Had I gone out there and taken Nate down and just laid on him, I wouldn't be getting this call right now. I got the finish, which is something that nobody has ever done, and that got the UFC's attention. Those are the kind of things that make them want to have you back in there, and make them want to push and promote you. I just have to thank the UFC for giving me this opportunity.
You can follow Josh via his Twitter account, @THEREALPUNK