MMA fighter Josh Thomson found purpose on way to the cage

He’s known as “The Punk.” And truth is Josh Thomson doesn’t much care for the nickname.

“I hate it,” he said. “Everybody would like a good name.”

Thomson wanted something classy, like “The Golden Boy.” But Oscar De La Hoya got there first, and nothing else seemed to fit.

“So, I’m stuck with ‘The Punk.’ ”

Thomson takes that billing into his long-delayed rematch with Gilbert Melendez on the Strikeforce mixed-martial arts card Saturday at HP Pavilion. The lightweight title fight was postponed twice this year as Thomson dealt with leg injuries.

Well-spoken and clean-cut, Thomson doesn’t come across as a, well, punk. But it wasn’t always that way. By his own description he was a cocky guy who ran his mouth too much, swung his fists too quickly and found himself with an inside view of prison bars.

“If you had known me before, you probably wouldn’t have liked me, and I wouldn’t have cared what you thought, either,” said Thomson, 31, a San Jose native. “But that didn’t get me very far. I knew something had to change.”


Combat sports are filled with stories of redemption as wayward fighters find purpose, direction and maturity in the gym. Thomson makes no claim that MMA turned his life around. Rather, it was the people he encountered.

“He’s still a punk, trust me,” said one of them, American Kickboxing Academy head trainer Javier Mendez. “But now it’s not in a bad way. He’s just a regular punk.”

Half-Latino and half-Caucasian, Thomson saw himself as an outsider growing up on the East Side.

“The Mexicans hung with each other,” he said. “It was a little strange with me and the white kids. I didn’t fit in with the black kids. The gang stuff was pretty heavy, and kids were walking around in bandannas. So I was fighting probably once a week.”

A middle school principal got punched while breaking up one of his scuffles, landing Thomson in the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall. Afterward, Thomson went to live with his father in Idaho, where he attended high school and then wrestled one year for junior college powerhouse North Idaho College.

His coach, John Owen, remembers Thomson as a good wrestler whose dad worried about him.

“I liked Josh, but wrestling wasn’t a priority,” Owen said. “If you want to be a great musician, you have to pound on that piano. Josh just didn’t pound on that wrestling mat hard enough, because he had a lot of things going on in his life.”


MMA Web sites mention that Thomson also wrestled at Stanford. But then-Cardinal coach Chris Horpel has no recollection of him. Thomson said the school wasn’t for him, and he lasted only a few weeks.

But while Thomson wasn’t crazy about wrestling, he was showing a knack for the sport of cage fighting — as well as finding trouble.

Freedom lost

In 2000, Thomson was on an Idaho lake cruise with friends. One pal had a beef going with someone from another group. An alcohol-fueled brawl erupted, and Thomson choked another man so badly that he required CPR.

“Thank God there was a nurse there, or I’d probably still be in jail for murder,” Thomson said.

Charged with felony aggravated assault, he served about six months of a three-year sentence before being released for good behavior.

“It had always been ingrained in me the importance of being loyal to your family and friends,” Thomson said. “But I let loyalty go too far. It cost me my freedom. I decided that would never happen again.”


But when he began training at San Jose’s AKA gym, the 155-pound Thomson quickly was tagged “The Punk.”

“He would chirp all the time, getting into people’s business, and sometimes it would get physical,” Mendez said. “He didn’t care what size they were. There were times that I threatened to kick him out of the gym for good.”

Instead, Mendez and his wife took Thomson into their home. They were among those who urged him to think hard about how he dealt with people.

Meanwhile, Thomson was developing into a top-flight fighter and caught the wave of MMA’s growing mainstream acceptance. In 2008, Thomson won the Strikeforce lightweight title in a five-round decision against his friend Melendez.

“He has come a long way,” Mendez said.

‘Heart of gold’

The way Kris Crawford sees it, Thomson also is a perfect gentleman who has “a heart of gold.” She founded a group called Knock Out Dog Fighting, and Thomson, who owns a bulldog, accompanied her to the same juvenile hall where he once was incarcerated.


“Josh told the kids, ‘I used to be here, and look what I’ve been able to do with my life,’ ” Crawford said. “They can relate to him, because he’s been there and done that. The only reason he does this is because he wants to make a difference.”

What Thomson (16-2) wants now is to fight. It has been 14 months since he was last in the cage. The first scheduled rematch with Melendez (16-2) in April was postponed when Thomson broke his left fibula just above the ankle. An August bout was put on hold when Thomson broke the bone in a different place. But now, with a plate and eight screws in the leg, Thomson finally is healthy.

Although their friendship has been strained by the rivalry, Thomson has nothing but praise for Melendez. But in the gym, Thomson still knows how to yap.

“He hasn’t fought in awhile, so he’s starting to be a little punk again,” joked Jon Fitch, a UFC fighter who also trains at the AKA facility. “He needs to fight, because that levels him out.”

But Thomson also has learned when not to throw down. Earlier this year, two men, fortified with liquid courage, goaded Thomson as he was leaving a pizza parlor.

“They were chasing me around, and I was actually running from them,” Thomson said. “How embarrassing was that for me? But I wouldn’t fight.”

Nowadays, he saves that for the cage.

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