At some point in his career, every fighter gets bit.
Not bit like “Mike Tyson on Evander Holyfield” bit, but by the injury bug. In a combat sport, injury almost is inevitable since the root objective of fighting is to inflict damage on another human being. Fights are harsh enough, but practice, conditioning and grueling training camps can be just as damaging.
UFC lightweight contender Josh Thomson knows full well the impact of that injury bug. At the end of 2008, he was seemingly cruising along in his MMA career. “The Punk” had found success in three fight leagues -- UFC, Pride and Strikeforce -- and wrested the Strikeforce lightweight championship from Gilbert Melendez in June 2008.
From 2009 to 2011, however, a string of injuries prevented Thomson from finding that groove again, sidetracking him out of several bouts, including a title defense and unification bout. Upon his return to UFC, an injury opened a door to a title opportunity in 2013 when T.J. Grant injured his knee and Thomson was offered a shot at champ Anthony Pettis in December. But Pettis injured his knee, and the bout was called off.
So excuse Thomson if he’s tired of fight camp and injuries. Since his convincing win over Nate Diaz almost a year ago, Thomson says it feels like he’s been in fight camp forever.
“Honestly, this might be the worst camp of my career,” Thomson said. “It’s just been so long. I got into camp for Pettis, then he got hurt. Then we got Henderson, so I just extended camp and kept going. So it’s been like 15 weeks. I’m like, ‘Man, are we there yet? Can we just get this crap over with?’”
Thomson cut himself some slack -- about one week’s worth after he took the Benson Henderson fight, which will be Saturday at UFC on Fox 10. But that’s it.
“You know what made it an extra tough camp is that it was all during the holidays,” Thomson said. “Everyone was gone. It was hard to get even anyone to spar or roll around with in the gym. The gym was desolate. No training partners. I had to do everything to stay focused.”
Got that groove again
Finding a moderate pace seems foreign for Thomson’s hard-charging personality. Indeed, some of his past injury issues have originated from Thomson’s own intensity during practice and training camp. Just ask his coach at American Kickboxing Academy, “Crazy” Bob Cook.
“Josh is one of those guys who, in the past, probably inflicted more damage on himself than he needed to from practice,” Cook said. “Josh has always done more than everyone else. But there comes a point where maybe you shouldn’t do that extra conditioning or sparring. You’ve got to let your body rest.”
Flash back to 2008: Thomson was on a serious roll, riding a six-fight win streak into his Strikeforce lightweight title bout with Melendez that he would win via unanimous decision. Both UFC and Strikeforce were enjoying deep and talented lightweight divisions, and Thomson suddenly was one of the sport’s brightest stars and a marquee draw for Strikeforce.
That star was due to get brighter with Strikeforce set to debut on Showtime featuring Thomson’s rematch with Melendez. However, a broken ankle suffered during training just 10 days before the fight sidelined Thomson for the next eight months. He and Melendez ended up fighting a trilogy; Thomson lost his title in the process and never regained the belt.
Injuries -- suffered in training and in fights -- would set back Thomson another couple of times to the point where many wondered whether he could ever regain the level he achieved leading up to winning the Strikeforce lightweight belt.
In fight camp, Thomson follows the AKA protocol, sparring three days a week and grappling/wrestling the other days. Conditioning is at night. It’s a plan that has produced UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and some of the best mixed martial artists in the world.
But Thomson knew he had to make some adjustments. When he first fought in UFC, he was 25 years old. In his second UFC “debut,” Thomson was closing in on 35.
“When you’re young, you can keep doing what you’re doing. But as you get older, your body changes and you have to make adjustments,” Thomson said. “I admit I tend to push myself harder. I do a little more mitt work, a little more bag work. I do a little more just about everything. But it’s about training smarter, not just harder.”
While he didn’t detail what those adjustments were, the results have been obvious. Thomson’s return to UFC was spectacular, defeating Diaz at UFC on Fox 7. Thomson bludgeoned Diaz with pinpoint head kicks and eventually earned the TKO via strikes. Until then, Diaz had yet to be finished in UFC.
Strangely, Thomson said he wasn’t feeling very well before the Diaz fight. In his win against Melendez, he battled two staph infections, the flu and several minor injuries leading up to the fight. Against Diaz, he felt a similar sluggishness.
“The morning of the Diaz fight I just felt like crap," Thomson said. "I was sitting on the couch watching TV and just passed out. I woke up at 2 p.m., and check in was 2:15, so I packed up real quick and headed down to the arena.
"On the way to the arena, I felt really, really good. Just that two-hour power nap I got in the middle of the day, I felt like a rock star, man. I felt phenomenal. I had that tingly feeling in my body and had a great fight.”
So if this camp has been grueling, perhaps a new part of that AKA protocol will be a prefight power nap.
For Thomson, it seems like a bad camp doesn’t always mean a bad outcome. Regardless, he’ll be ready.
“Just coming back to the UFC and beating Diaz was sort of the validation I needed to show I belong among the top-five guys in the lightweight division,” Thomson said. “Now it’s about making progress and show I deserve a title shot.
"The shot was given to me before, but Pettis got hurt, so I moved on. Look, if I can’t get by Benson, then I probably don’t deserve a title shot and he does. But to me he’s the best lightweight in the division. So if I beat him, there’s nothing stopping me.”