Josh Thomson won't deny there is a chip on his shoulder. And it's been there for quite some time.
The AKA staple and top-ranked lightweight has hovered in the conversation as one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world for the past decade. Yet, where his record and résumé reflect a body of work that commands respect, there is a subtle tell in the way he shifts slightly in his seat when the topic of his current situation comes up.
Make no mistake about it, the 35-year-old doesn't flinch when the subject of his upcoming bout with Benson Henderson next month at UFC on Fox 10 is posed, nor does he hesitate to share his feelings on how a title shot against Anthony Pettis eluded him. Those questions he answers with a tempered measure of excitement and clear-eyed reasoning; in a manner an 11-year veteran of the fight game would. That said, when the finer details of the path he's traveled for the past decade are put on the table, there is a different side of Thomson that comes to light.
In a typical conversation with the former Strikeforce champion, a joke or levity is always at the ready, but when it comes time to focus on the steps taken to reach the point he now stands, a grittier side to the current contender breaks through. While he's enjoyed success at a high rate and earned championship recognition along the way, Thomson pulls no punches when he explains the route he eventually had to travel wasn't the one he would have chosen.
But he didn't have a choice.
Back in 2004, an undefeated Thomson was making his name on the rocky landscape of a far from stable UFC. Despite the uncertainty of his surroundings, the San Jose-based fighter had collected two solid victories and was positioned to fight Yves Edwards at UFC 49. While there was no title on the line, Thomson believed they were the best two lightweights on the roster and in his mind, were setting the stage for the division's future.
Little did he know that win, lose or draw, there would be no future for him or any other lightweight fighter under the UFC banner.
Thomson suffered a first-round knockout against Edwards and the aftermath was devastating. Where the loss was the first of his professional career, the organization decided to cancel its lightweight division entirely following the card. Bouncing back from a loss is one thing, but having the entire floor drop out from under you is an entirely different animal.
"Honestly, where I got the chip on my shoulder is from back when I was with the UFC the first time," Thomson told Bleacher Report. "When I fought Yves Edwards, it was supposed to be for the title because I was the No. 1 fighter in the world at 155 pounds and he was No. 2. We had beat everyone else in the division and B.J. Penn had already gone up to 170."
"When they made the decision to cancel the division, it showed they didn't think they could piggyback that weight class off us. Whether they could afford to keep it or not, it just kind of put a bad taste in my mouth. Those are the old days, but it really bugged me because I felt like we had everything there to make the lightweight division successful and make it grow. And they didn't feel that way. I had to leave and go to Pride, then after that it was Strikeforce, and jumping around like that will put a bad taste in your mouth.
"That right there will put a chip on your shoulder because the best promotion in the world doesn't feel like you are good enough. That hurt and led me to make the decision that I had to make the most of my career. I've had some ups and downs in my career. There were guys I fought who I didn't really take seriously. There were some fights I didn't really train for the way I should have. You have those ups and downs but you grow with experience."
"Especially now, at this point in my career and for the last three years, I'm motivated by the people I fight. Fighting Nate Diaz motivated me. Not only did I want to beat Nate, but it was my first fight back in the UFC. That is all the motivation you need. I wanted to show everyone who I am and what I'm capable of doing in this sport, and what better way to explode back onto the scene than beating Diaz the way I did? When I left the UFC, they were putting on five fights a year. Now, there are five fights a month."
"The chip on my shoulder came from the past, but it's kind of gone now," he added. "I stamped my name and made a big return with the Diaz fight, and now it's up to me to capitalize on it. I made a statement and showed that they should have never let me go and this was the reason why.
"The focus on this fight is to put on another exciting battle to show they missed out on 10 years of exciting fights because they could've had me, and I was sitting right in front of their face the entire time. That's kind of what is on my mind at this point."
If coming back to the biggest stage in mixed martial arts was something Thomson had marked in the back of his mind, he certainly made the most when the opportunity came to call. After defeating Nate Diaz in his long-awaited return to the Octagon at UFC on Fox 7 in April, the savvy veteran became the first fighter to ever stop the former title challenger with strikes, as he scored an impressive second-round stoppage over the Stockton representative.
The victory put a surge of momentum behind Thomson's stock in the divisional picture, and he began to look for the quickest possible way to take things to the next level. During the fight week for UFC 162 and the UFC Fan Expo which accompanied it, the Californian took to calling out Anthony Pettis as the two fighters moved around the city for appearances and obligations. When both verbally agreed to take the fight, "Showtime" would soon be called up to replace an injured TJ Grant and fight champion Benson Henderson at UFC 164 in Las Vegas.
The Duke Roufus-trained fighter would go on to score a first-round submission victory and become the new holder of the lightweight strap, and Thomson would be forced to wait and see how things played out in the title picture. With Grant still suffering symptoms from the concussion he suffered in June, Thomson was tapped for a championship opportunity, and the showdown with Pettis was set for UFC on Fox 9 on Dec. 14 in Sacramento, Calif.
Nevertheless, the world of MMA is an unpredictable landscape, and the lightweight champion suffered damage to his knee as he began his training camp. The injury forced Pettis to the sidelines and put Thomson in a position where he had to make a decision. In a sport where title shots are precious, it's not an uncommon thing to see a fighter wait for the champion to return. Yet, Thomson's knew there was no guarantee the Milwaukee native would have a fast recovery and decided to keep things moving.
He accepted a bout with recently dethroned former champion Benson Henderson, and the two fighters will step in to handle business at UFC on Fox 10 in Chicago on Jan. 25. While there will not be a title on the line, Thomson very much believes there is enormous value in the fight.
"I want a shot at the title more than anything, but when they give you an opportunity to fight a guy like Benson, who just had the title and had it longer than Anthony Pettis currently has it, that was an opportunity I wasn't going to pass up," Thomson said. "I have a lot of respect for both guys and I didn't come here just to fight anybody they put in front of me. I came to fight the best guys and Henderson is on that list."
"When I came over from Strikeforce, I told Joe Silva I want to fight the best guys, and if I start losing that will dictate where I fall in the order of things. But I came over and had a big win over Nate [Diaz] and that put me in a great position.
"When Pettis pulled out of the fight, they were talking about matching me up with some guys I had never heard of and who weren't in the rankings. I told them I would rather fight someone like [Rafael] dos Anjos, Benson Henderson or even Gilbert Melendez again. I didn't care. They said give them a bit to talk to some guys, and a week went by and I didn't hear anything."
"I didn't think that was a good thing, and then they called out Benson when I was in Las Vegas for UFC 167. I couldn't turn that down. I asked for the best guys and that's what I'm getting. I know the title is big, but I can't have that in my mind right now. Pettis chose to pull out and sit on the sidelines. Benson chose to take the fight."
"Pettis taking time off is putting a lot of guys in weird positions," he added. "[TJ] Grant has been hurt, and it doesn't look like he's coming back anytime soon either. He's saying six months, but I was originally told it was going to be 10 months. If that is the case, then you really don't want another Dominick Cruz situation happening. There are no guarantees when you are dealing with knees and the fact that he kicks so much—that could potentially lead up to some problems."
"It's one of those situations where I could have possibly still been given a title shot against either Gilbert or TJ., but that opportunity wasn't presented. I took the next best thing, and that is a fight against the guy who has held the belt for the past two-and-a-half years."
Where Thomson's well-rounded skill set has put him at an advantage for the majority of his career, the upcoming bout with Henderson will present an interesting stylistic dilemma. The MMA Lab product is solid in every area of the game and both fighters have relied on similar strengths to find success in their respective careers.
Henderson has used a strong wrestling base and an endless gas tank to wear down the opposition, which is the same approach Thomson has used for the past decade. That said, Thomson's striking game has been on a constant evolution, and his improvements in that regard have paid dividends inside the cage. Henderson is certainly adept on his feet as well, and Thomson believes their clash of unique styles will make for one the year's best tilts at 155 pounds.
"I think we are mirror images of each other," Thomson said. "He's a little stronger in certain areas and I'm stronger in some of the areas he's not. We may cancel each other out a bit, and it may turn into a chess match, but it's going to be a fight. We both always come into fights in great shape. He knows I'm not going to get tired and I know he won't get tired either. It's going to be one of those fights where it comes down to which one of us puts their queen in the right spot to take the upper hand. It's going to be a chess match."
"I just have to go out there and get it. I didn't come this far just to come up short. I'm going to go out there and leave it all in the cage. I have nothing to lose. I just turned 35 this year and I have everything to gain and nothing to lose in this fight. The pressure is not on me, and it's just another fight."
"We haven't really sat down yet and figured out how we are going to beat him," he added. "We are tough stylistic matchups for anyone we face, and it is going to be interesting to fight against someone who is so similar.
"People got on me when I said Pettis was an easier fight than Benson. I didn't mean that beating Pettis would be easier as much as I did that stylistically Benson is a mess for anyone. He's hard to prepare for. With Pettis, you can focus on a few areas where you can beat him in. I could just focus on those areas in my camp and be fine. But with Benson, it's different."
When Thomson steps into the cage to face Henderson under the lights of Chicago's United Center, there will be plenty at stake. Where a victory will be absolutely necessary for him to hold onto his lightweight title dreams, fighting a former UFC champion will also provide Thomson the opportunity to prove he's worth everything he believes himself to be.
Almost a decade has passed since his painful split with the UFC, and the road ahead is about leaving his mark on the sport. The road to that point will have come with both highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, but Thomson believes he's taken valuable experience from the process. The only thing left to do now is go out there and win. While the task at hand will be a hefty one, Thomson has every intention to deliver and show fans he is—and always has been—one of the most exciting fighters on the planet.
"It feels good to be back in the UFC, and it's been a long trip," Thomson said. "I consider myself a very loyal person, and I have a lot of love for Scott Coker, Strikeforce and what we accomplished there. I'm so proud of the guys who have come over from Strikeforce. They are doing great in the UFC and I want to be the first guy to come over from Strikeforce and win a title. That is important to me.
"Hopefully that doesn't get stunted here in January, but I just don't foresee that happening. It's going to be a great fight and that's really what I'm focused on. Coming in, putting on a great show and making sure every fan that walks out of that building on fight night got what they paid for. That is how I've always catered my career.
"I'm 35 and this right now is about leaving my legacy and mark on the sport. If for no one else but myself. I've hit every promotion in the world, and when you bounce around from promotion to promotion the way I have, it's hard to leave a legacy that people will remember. But I do want that, and this fight will definitely help in that regard. I want to be remembered as a guy who came out and put on exciting fights, and this fight is absolutely going to fit in that category."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.