This ascetic lifestyle represents only a fraction of the sacrifices professional fighters like Thompson make to compete in the dog-eat-dog world of mixed martial arts.
Training alongside former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk (Pictures) at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Thompson pushes his conditioning to the limit day after day with the same type of insane “caveman workouts” that garnered Sherk attention at the Athletic Performance Institute. If you recall the pre-event broadcast for UFC 73 last July, those same drills had Sherk growling and gnashing his teeth like a feral beast.
Sherk caught a lot of flak for his steroid debacle, but his grit cannot be questioned. As Sherk’s training partner, Thompson feels a lot of the “Muscle Shark’s” blue-collar mentality has rubbed off on him, which, in turn, has been critical in transforming him into a consummate professional in everything from training to dieting.
“I know that, for me, training at that level is something I would have never imagined before I trained with Sean,” says Thompson, who will face Jake Shields (Pictures) for the vacant welterweight championship at EliteXC: Unfinished Business this Saturday in Stockton, Calif. “He showed me the importance of pushing yourself as far as you can every time you train, and I think that is what is so inspiring about him. You have to respect someone with that kind of work ethic.”
As if his grueling training regimen were not taxing enough, Thompson spends what little free time he has preparing for the bar exam at the University of Minnesota’s School of Law. While he has often put his studies on the back burner in order to prepare for fights, Thompson has still managed to maintain a respectable 3.0 grade point average and hopes to one day practice in the field of contract or tax law.
Like many MMA athletes, Thompson breaks the stereotype of fighters, which pigeonholes them as inarticulate and brutish. In fact, if everything goes according to plan, Thompson could become the first MMA champion to practice law. Laughing in disbelief, Thompson reveals he is “actually taking the bar two days after the fight [with Shields].” Imagine the look on people’s faces if Thompson walks into the exam room sporting a black eye or busted lip.
The strain of pursuing two equally challenging and time-consuming careers, however, leaves Thompson “feeling suffocated” at times, and on most Sundays, he crashes in bed and does nothing. Two things force him to jump out of the sheets and back into the grind.
“First and foremost is my wife,” Thompson says. “She likes to say that every relationship has a flower and a gardener, and the gardener’s job is to tend to the flower. My wife doesn’t get the recognition, but she makes just as many sacrifices in order to ensure that I can study and train as hard as I need.”
Even with his wife’s support, there are days when he questions why he’s at the gym and oftentimes finds himself looking for excuses to skip a workout and go home early. He’s human after all.
“On those days, I try and picture my opponent working out,” Thompson says. “I hate the idea of going home early and letting someone get better than me.”
Thompson’s Herculean discipline seems fed by his acute competitive nature. Like former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell (Pictures) confessing he hates losing even at checkers, Thompson admits he’s gung ho about everything he does. A recent training session drove the point home.
“Many of our API caveman sessions end with us challenging one another to some sort of feat of physical strength,” Thompson says. “I lost a pull-up competition to an API instructor the other week, and I am still pissed. I’ll be damned if he is going to beat me in any competitions in the future. I am getting all riled up just talking about it.”
Such drive helped Thompson (36-9-1) -- a self-professed B-level fighter earlier in his career -- emerge as a legitimate contender after a career-defining TKO stoppage against Eddie Alvarez (Pictures) in 2007. Moreover, with Alvarez’s scintillating victories over elite fighters inside Japan’s Dream promotion, Thompson’s stock continues its rise. He has posted 20 wins in 21 fights, including 12 in a row.
“Frankly, I think I beat anyone on my best day and their best day, save [UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre (Pictures)] and maybe [Josh] Koscheck,” the former Bodog Fight welterweight champion says. “If I can use my reach to out-strike someone as good as Eddie, I like my chances against anyone at 170 pounds.”
Thompson will have the chance to test his mettle against a legitimate top 10 welterweight in Shields (20-4-1) in a matter of days. He was second -- to UFC veteran Drew Fickett (Pictures) -- on EliteXC’s list of potential opponents for Shields, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who will carry a nine-fight winning streak into the match. When Fickett fell out of favor with the promotion recently, it opened the door for Thompson.
As it turns out, Thompson had actually called out Shields around the time Fickett’s relationship with EliteXC soured. When Shields caught wind of Thompson’s challenge, he immediately approached the EliteXC brass about a potential bout between the two. The result was a fighter’s fight put together by the fighters themselves. Thompson’s motivation for calling out Shields was simple.
“Jake and I are the best welterweights not in the UFC,” he says. “We both are riding significant winning streaks, we both have beaten top competition, and we both were the champions of our previous organizations. This fight just makes sense.”
The bout also sparks interest from a stylistic perspective. Thompson -- who, at 6-foot-1, looks like a Giacometti figure -- will have a definite reach advantage against Shields and will try to use his crafty footwork to volley strikes from a distance.
“I would definitely like to keep the fight standing,” Thompson says, “but Jake’s hands are underrated, and I am unsure how much of an advantage I truly have in muay Thai.”
Shields, on the other hand, owns one of the best top games in the welterweight division. The fact that he has been finishing opponents of late, either through vicious ground-and-pound or slick submissions, makes Shields even more dangerous. In fact, he has stopped his past five opponents, the last four inside one round.
In addition to his daily training with Sherk, Thompson has also worked out with the University of Minnesota wrestling team. He hopes his investment will pay dividends against Shields.
“It will not be the first time I have faced that kind of control or pressure,” Thompson says.
The Thompson-Shields showdown will be carried as part of the CBS broadcast, which will be anchored by a rematch between EliteXC middleweight champion Robbie Lawler (Pictures) and UFC veteran Scott Smith (Pictures). The opportunity to compete live on major network television has not been lost on Thompson.
“Winning the Bodog title by knocking out Eddie Alvarez (Pictures) was huge, but now I have the opportunity to win a world title by beating someone of that ilk, and it will be broadcast on mainstream TV,” he says. “What more can a guy ask for?”