After more than a year away from the cage, Josh Thomson returns Saturday against a Bellator lightweight stalwart. Yet the shadow of past and potential future matchups with the division's champion still loom.
Thomson (22-8, 1 NC) squares off against Patricky "Pitbull" Freire (16-8) in the co-main event of Bellator 172 from San Jose's SAP Center. For the 38-year-old Thomson, the contest represents a chance to shake off the ring rust against a high-caliber opponent with dangerous hands.
"You gotta be concerned about his power. Man, he has got some big punches," Thomson told ESPN.com. "He throws pretty good kicks as well. He just doesn't throw them as often. I don't mind being in there, exchanging a couple of punches, but you don't want to just hang out right there. Always just try to keep the little angles and things like that, not standing directly in front of him."
When this event was announced in the middle of November, the San Jose native assumed he'd be on the card. Thomson stayed in shape by doing fitness workouts twice a week at his own gym and training with his students. At that point, the fight date was eight weeks out. Then seven, then six, and no opponent offered. Finally, Bellator's matchmaker, Rich Chou, contacted Thomson and offered him a fight with champion Michael Chandler.
Having just five weeks to train initially left Thomson in a state of panic, but he eventually agreed to the bout. According to Thomson, it was Chandler who did not accept, which opened the door for a fight with the older "Pitbull" brother.
"I had to sit down and think to myself, 'Do you want to sit and wait for Chandler and Benson [Henderson]?'" said Thomson. "'You've already been out for a year. Do you want to get in there and just fight this fight and get on the biggest card you can possibly get on in Bellator history?'"
This wasn't the first time a fight between Thomson and Chandler fell apart. Last May, they were scheduled to meet at Bellator 154, but "The Punk" withdrew due to an undisclosed injury. While Thomson was on the sidelines, Chandler captured the vacant lightweight title with a brutal knockout of Freire last June and defended it against Henderson in November, winning by split decision.
After his latest victory, Chandler told MMAJunkie Radio that he didn't want the Thomson fight in San Jose, but if the two met, "the guy is going to get his block knocked off, and he will get retired if he fights me."
"It has got to be a little demoralizing for a champion to be calling out guys," said Thomson. "I never understood the point of a champion calling people out, but I guess in his eyes he doesn't have any [respect] for himself [or] ... for that title."
For now, the focus is on Saturday's fight with Freire. Thomson's five-week camp has focused on getting him in the best shape for the scheduled three rounds. The UFC vet and former Strikeforce champion feels he can use a speed advantage to get in and out of the pocket, to unload combinations before taking any heavy leather from Freire.
For "Pitbull," the matchup marks his return to the cage after suffering the devastating defeat to Chandler last June. Thomson complimented Freire's ability to stop the takedown of Chandler early in the bout, showing off what he worked on in camp. For Saturday, he's not expecting any timidity on behalf of his opponent due to the knockout.
"Maybe it's in the back of his mind a little bit, but the other thing too is he's going to come out hungry. He's going to come out looking to prove something," said Thomson.
For Thomson, who made his pro debut in 2001, limiting the punishment in training has become a priority. Like several other current fighters, Thomson is taking a more cautious approach to his sparring. Gone are the days of going three times a week against the likes of Luke Rockhold, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick and other notable, much heavier, fighters.
These days, Thomson picks who he spars with twice a week, with one of the days focused more on timing and technique. The other session is a full go with full pads, getting a fresh training partner each round. After memorable battles with the likes of Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz and others, the emphasis is now on form inside the training room.
"These athletes now, not just fighters but also football players, they're spending less time banging their head against the wall, and they're spending more time focusing on their techniques," Thomson said.