(Thomson after losing his title to Melendez.)
SAN JOSE, Calif. — After a decade in mixed martial arts, Josh “The Punk” Thomson is almost there.
There is a surreal place more visible on highlight reels years later than in the moment—it’s a fighter in their prime. The former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion believes he’s entering his prime this Saturday night versus Pat “Bam Bam” Healy live on Showtime from the HP Pavilion in his native San Jose.
Returning from a 15-month layoff in December 2009, Thomson dropped the belt to the man he captured it from 18 months prior, Gilbert Melendez. He describes his execution in the rematch as sloppy and rushed although it was still enough for a “great fight.” Looking to rebound, Thomson is motivated because he’s a fighter “when he does live up to his potential, could be in the best in the world.”
Despite his 10 years at the American Kickboxing Academy, head trainer Javier Mendez feels Thomson is only now approaching his peak.
“Its like anything, bro, you get on a bike, the more you ride the bike the better you get at it,” said Mendez, noting Thomson’s listening skills have sharpened after ignoring them in the heat of battle with Melendez.
The 33-year-old knows he must be on point against the UFC and IFL veteran.
“I need to come through in this situation or I’m gonna end up with a loss on my record and I can’t afford right now, especially at this stage in my career. I need to get through this opponent,” he said. “Not only do I need to win, but I need to win convincingly to let everybody know that I’m back. Not so much back, but that I’m as good as I think I am.”
Thomson is eager to showcase his skills after injury limited him to three fights in the last two years. Training with more lightweights—Brain Travers, Justin Wilcox and JJ Ambrose—has been easier on his body than the grind of usual UFC welterweight sparring partners Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick. Ready physically, he’s mentally focused on a tough but unheralded Healy.
“I think B.J. [Penn] said it the best: If you can’t fight these guys and beat them, then you need to start thinking about what else you want to do,” he said.
Mendez noted the high stakes.
“Beating a Pat Healy doesn’t really add great appeal to Josh. Losing to a Pat Healy kind of takes everything away in my opinion.,” he said. “He’d have to start from ground zero again. And losing to a Pat Healy is 100% possible because the guy is really that good.”
Since Thomson heard the final bell in a 25-minute war with Melendez, the champ’s recent shut out of DREAM Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki in April solidifies Thomson’s spot among the world’s best in his mind.
Thomson doesn’t mind trilogy buzz with Melendez because Frazier had Ali and Ali had Foreman. Not looking past Healy, he wants K.J. Noons, Gesias Cavalcante or Tatsuya Kawajiri center cage before a third tangle with Melendez. Really, he wants whatever opponent pushes him to test his technique in dire moments—to leave it all behind.
“I fought in the UFC. That was my first goal when I first started fighting. I became a world champion in Strikeforce—that was my second goal. Now that I’ve accomplished those goals, I could retire tomorrow and realize that I’m happy. Now, to me, my next goal is just to fight all the best guys I possibly can and try to leave a legacy now.
That’s really the best thing, and if I work my way back to the title, then I work my way back to the title.”
In January 2004 at UFC 46, Thomson was there. Clipped by a heavy Hermes Franca strike, he recovered long enough to secure victory by firing back during the bout’s closing moments
“I always wondered if I would be like one of these fighters that’s coming up today quitting on the stool. I always wanted to know if I had it in me to fight through it if I got rocked or if I would just roll over and tap to strikes and be a bitch and give up,” he said. “I think I’ve proven I’m not that type of fighter. That’s my biggest moment.”
Without skipping a breath, he corrected himself: “Of course, my other biggest moment is when I won the title.”
A rise and fall in the UFC, failing to become the inaugural Stirkeforce Lightweight Champion against a then-unknown Clay Guida, then seizing and conceding the belt to Melendez has taught Thomson to savor the moments. When he felt like “The Punk,” he thought fighting was going to last forever. With maturity, he’s learned to smile and enjoy it because it won’t. That’s why he’s trying to go there.
“We’re not quite there,” said Mendez. “But we’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been before as far as getting him to settle down in those certain areas where he’s weak in.”
“When I get back to that point,” concluded Thomson, “A lot of people are gonna be in trouble.”