Somewhere around the 30-minute mark of his interview, UFC lightweight contender Josh “The Punk” Thomson is still going strong on a series of big-picture topics he claims he’s no longer as invested in as he was around the 2008 election. With little prompting, he riffs on politics, government, personal responsibility, religion, and education. If this is his version of apathy, you wonder what activism looks like.
At the moment, the federal government is shut down, so there’s a lot to talk about for a self-identified Libertarian. The 35-year-old says there’s too much reliance on our elected leaders and too little incentive for people to control their own destinies; too much focus on other countries and not enough on America; too many closed minds and not enough willing to consider other points of view.
“I know where I stand,” Thomson says. “I stand on the belief that we should be supportive of people here in our country and take care of our country first. If we’re a strong nation, we can be strong with other people. And I feel like we’re getting weaker and weaker as time goes on.”
His thoughts move at a fast clip and flow together in a series of arguments and counter-arguments it seems he’s prepared in case of dissent. He explains that he’s not only used to that, but welcomes it. Mostly.
Google the veteran lightweight, and your results will be dominated by two things: his upcoming title shot against UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis, which comes December 14 at UFC on FOX 9, and the controversy he sparked by sharing his thoughts on gay marriage. The former is, of course, the pinnacle of a 12-year career in MMA, which started in an Idaho gym and took him on a tour of virtually every major fight promotion before his triumphant return to the UFC in April. The latter is a look at how he walks through the world. Taken on its face value, you might get the wrong impression about him.
Above all else, Thomson is a world-class 155-pound fighter, who was groomed by the UFC for a title shot before the promotion shuttered the lightweight division in 2004. He largely fought in the shadows of the MMA boom brought by The Ultimate Fighter, despite winning the Strikeforce Lightweight Title from Gilbert Melendez in 2008. After returning to the Octagon in April with a head-kick knockout of Nate Diaz, Thomson is ready to prove he’s the best in the world.
Posting on Facebook about same-sex marriage, his credentials hardly mattered. He came off as the kind of conservative hysteric who’s guaranteed an Internet flogging, and indeed, he took his lumps, not only from fans and the media, but also UFC president Dana White, who said he should get a hobby, like finger painting.
If, however, you were able to put aside the defensibility of his logic, which linked same-sex couples to deviant behavior, as well as its relative lack of nuance, his expression revealed a defining characteristic. You would have missed it reading words on a screen. But spend any significant amount time listening to Thomson—and you will with the UFC’s promotional machine kicking into high gear—and one thing is unmistakable: the guy likes to engage.
“I bring up conversations, not because I believe anything, but I just like to hear people’s opinions,” he says.
Thomson is not a policy wonk—he said he prefers not to scour the Internet for facts and figures, but read links sent to him by friends and others. He simply likes to debate, and he likes getting a reaction. He wants to find out where you’re at, where he’s at, and whether both of you believe what you’re saying. He’ll have an opinion one way or another, and he won’t be shy about sharing it.
“That’s how you get knowledge about things,” he says. “If you just continue to deny talking about it, you’re going to find that you’re never going to open your mind. There are times when you’ll learn something from somebody when they speak up, and that educates you. That’s a big thing to me.”
He will say there’s no link between his confrontational approach to conversation and his style in the cage, although the mischievous smile he wears during combat suggests otherwise. His expression can be an unnerving presence for opponents, who throw heavy hooks and are greeted by a grin. But for those closest to him, it’s a reassurance.
“I spent years trying to knock the smile of his face—unsuccessfully,” says American Kickboxing Academy head trainer Bob Cook with a laugh.
Suddenly, Cook is interrupted by another Josh, this one with the last name Koscheck. The scruffy-haired two-time UFC welterweight title challenger is riding shotgun with the trainer, and he’s managed to sniff out the topic of conversation when Cook says Thomson is mellowing with age.
“I’m going to say 30 is when Thomson started maturing a little bit,” says Cook.
“Uhhh, 34,” counters Koscheck, a real stranger to provocation.
Asked what Thomson was like before he matured, Koscheck blurts, “An asshole. In every aspect, he’s just a prick. That’s his nickname.”
“I’m going to go out there and get the win, go home, get a good night’s sleep, and get ready to start training for the next fight.”
Then, almost as quickly: “Let’s be real. Josh does have a huge heart. He’s an asshole and a punk, but man, he’s got a big heart. I remember when I fought my first fight when I started with AKA, and me and him drove all the way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, overnight. He drove the whole time. He’ll go out of his way for his friends and teammates. He’ll take your back on any stance.”
Cook lived with Thomson for a half-decade. He remembers a cocky 17-year-old who walked into AKA with more bark than bite, but he came back despite getting armbarred a half-dozen times.
Thomson, he says, is a pain-in-the-ass little brother, but a brother nonetheless.
“I think there’s been a lot of time where he hasn’t gotten his due,” Cook says. “I think he’s got as much skill as anybody, but because he wasn’t always necessarily in the UFC, I think he got somewhat overlooked.”
After the recent controversy, which he said brought death threats, Thomson says he’s tempered his public voice. He now knows he can come off the wrong way when delving into subjects that interest him.
“I’ve noticed that when you bring up topics like that, people don’t even talk about it,” he says. “The first thing they do is start calling you names, and that’s when you know they’re not really educated on what the topic is about.”
But with his teammates, nothing has changed. Thomson calls it “hooking,” like goading an opponent into a bad position, which, as it turns out, is exactly what he tries to do when he discovers an opinion.
“I’ll get them to bring up a subject,” he says. “Javier Mendez [AKA trainer] brought up, ‘Miguel Cotto is a better boxer than Antonio Margarito.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but Margarito whooped his ass the first time they fought.’ I hook you in. ‘You think Cotto is a better boxer? I’ll bet you Margarito is going to win.’ I was hooking him into making a bet. Daniel Cormier is getting better at it. He knows how to hook me. If I’m putting it on somebody, he’s telling that guy, ‘You going to let Josh do that to you?’ Then I look over and say, ‘You might want to be quiet before this kid gets it worse, because you’re pissing me off.’”
Thomson will certainly need to impose himself on the unpredictable Pettis, who’s made a career of bending the rules of combat to his favor.
“Honestly, I’m impressed with him,” Thomson says of Pettis, who submitted Benson Henderson to capture the belt in August. “The thing that makes him the most dangerous is he’s the guy who shows up to the gym every day to think up new moves that he can do off the cage or in the middle of the ring. Those are things that you only do when you enjoy doing what you do. He spends time thinking about how he can run off the wall and kick you in the face. Now, that could also be his downfall with me, because I’m no normal fighter. I’m someone who knows how to capitalize and put people in bad positions. If he tries too much and ends up in a bad position, you can bet your ass I’m going to finish him.”
With the UFC’s lightweight division in relative flux—Pettis the new champ, and contender T.J. Grant being forced to pass on a title shot due to the lingering effects of a concussion—the time is now for Thomson. If successful against Pettis, he’ll become the first American Kickboxing Academy fighter to win a UFC Lightweight Title.
That might render him speechless, but just for a moment.
“I’m going to go out there and get the win, go home, get a good night’s sleep, and get ready to start training for the next fight,” he says. “That’s all there is to it. This is a job. I enjoy doing this job, and for me, it’s just another fight.”