When former WWE star Bobby Lashley first transitioned into MMA in 2008, he wanted to avoid what nearly every other athlete in the sport covets: the spotlight.
Because of Lashley's celebrity status in the pro wrestling community (he headlined a Wrestlemania in 2007) MMA promoters were immediately eager to book the heavyweight to high-profile events, despite his inexperience.
In his fifth fight, Lashley opened a Strikeforce main card on Showtime against Wes Sims, a veteran opponent with more than 30 fights on his record. Before long, Lashley decided that kind of environment wasn't helping him as a martial artist and he pumped the brakes.
"Most fighters get to work their way up, but for me, I was thrust into a main event slot," Lashley said. "I would get jitters. I wasn't prepared for it. I wanted to take a step back and take fights where I wasn't so out there.
"I wasn't knocking on the UFC's doors, saying I wanted to go there. I wasn't knocking on Bellator's door. I didn't want to be attached anywhere. There was not even talk with them. I didn't have a manager, so nobody had any means of contacting me."
From 2011 to 2013, Lashley (13-2) fought exclusively on smaller shows. He accumulated a 5-1 record and attempted to even out his game, which is built off a strong amateur wrestling background.
His only loss during that time came via decision to James Thompson in 2012. He'll look to avenge that loss on Friday, when he meets Thompson (20-14) for the second time at Bellator 145 in St. Louis.
The word 'avenge' might actually be the wrong one, as Lashley says he's completely distanced himself from his loss to Thompson three years ago. He accepted their first fight on relatively short notice and says he did so mostly because he didn't want to pass on the paycheck.
Heading into this week's rematch, he even avoided watching tape of it, as he believes he's in a completely different mindset now.
"It was probably one of the worst fights I've ever fought," Lashley says.
As he approaches his sixth year as a pro, Lashley is comfortable with the attention that initially threatened to consume his growth in the sport. Should he get by Thompson, he believes a Bellator championship fight is within his next "two to three appearances." He's also been linked to a potential matchup against Kimbo Slice on Feb. 19 (a guaranteed hit for television ratings), although officials have not confirmed those reports.
To some fans, a boost in ratings might be what Lashley represents most, but the 39-year-old says his participation in MMA has always been with a championship in mind. That's the main reason he bailed on the high profile fights early on, so that he'd have an opportunity to prepare himself to eventually succeed in them.
"I do want to win the title," said Lashley, who is 3-0 in the Bellator cage. "Whether or not I will feel complete if I do it or not, I don't feel that way -- but it's definitely something I'm gunning for. The money will be the same either way. It's not like if I win the title, Bellator is trying to build me up into this or that. I've always been at a point in my career where I'm not worried about that. Most people are hustling for attention. I'm hustling to get out of it.
"The guys I train with know why I'm here. I've got [UFC heavyweights] Junior dos Santos and Todd Duffee working with me every day. I don't have to talk to anybody watching from the couch and try to prove anything. If I win a title, I will have reached that plateau I wanted to. If I don't get it, I'll know I busted my a-- and tried as hard as I can."