Bad blood is in short supply between the two former lightweight champions on Saturday's UFC card at the United Center.
Former UFC champion Benson Henderson called former Strikeforce champ Josh Thomson "a true veteran of the sport." Thomson, 35, said he "thinks the world of" Henderson. Theirs will be a rivalry of respect.
Henderson, the UFC's No. 1 lightweight contender, is coming off a loss to Anthony Pettis. Had he successfully defended his title a fourth time, Henderson (19-3, 7-1 UFC) would have set a record for UFC lightweight champs and tied Gray Maynard's record eight-fight winning streak in the weight class. Instead, Pettis won on a first-round armbar.
"It's kind of sad, it's disheartening and heartbreaking," Henderson, 30, said of the Aug. 31 loss. "It's never nice to lose, period. And losing your world title on the verge of breaking a couple of records is tough, but you have to get up and move forward from it."
Thomson's MMA career began in the UFC in 2001. The lightweight division was shut down in 2004, so Thomson (20-5, 4-1 UFC) moved to Japan for one fight before signing with Strikeforce, in which he established himself as a premier lightweight.
Strikeforce dissolved in January 2013, so Thomson returned to the UFC. His April 2013 TKO of Nate Diaz put him squarely on the championship radar. Thomson was scheduled to fight Pettis on Dec. 14, but the champion was scratched with a knee injury.
As a result, Thomson has been training for almost 16 weeks, which he considers a disadvantage.
"You're on cloud nine, like, 'Here's a title fight,' then you come down with, 'Oh, no more title shot,' then you're back up: 'Well, now I'm fighting Benson, and he's a former champion. How can I not get up for that fight?' " Thomson said. "But that was 10 weeks ago, and I'd already trained five weeks for Pettis. It kind of leads into one big blur of a camp."
Thomson was born in San Jose, Calif., and moved to northern Idaho after his parents divorced. There, his grandmother signed him up for kickboxing, which refined his natural inclination to fight. That desire eventually led to wrestling, which further solidified the swagger of the fighter known as "The Punk."
"Wrestlers, you'll find, don't lack in self-esteem," he said. "They're very confident in what they do. They grind it out all day long in the wrestling room, so some kid that knows nothing about wrestling isn't going to be able to come up to you and talk smack to you. You have a different mentality."
Henderson's foray into MMA also began in the wrestling room. He graduated from Dana College in Blair, Neb., with a double major in criminal justice and sociology and a goal of becoming a police officer. He said he received offers from the police departments in Denver and Omaha, Neb.
While deciding his future, Henderson returned to Dana to coach wrestling. After a particularly tough practice, the team sat around, "having guy talk, talking crap," he said. He was dared to try MMA, told that he "didn't have the stones" to fight in the octagon.
"I had the competitive itch," Henderson said. "I'd put so much time into competitive wrestling that I wanted to use it and give MMA a shot."
Twenty-two matches later, he meets the well-rounded veteran Thomson.
"When I was in the UFC in 2004, I should've been fighting for the lightweight title then," Thomson said. "The fact that I'm back here, 10 years later, still at the top of the chain, that says something about me and my longevity and consistency in the sport. I'm happy with whatever happens."
The lightweight class, which Thomson called "absolutely loaded," is without an active champion. Pettis is hoping for a July return, but the status of his knee is uncertain. Henderson, in a bout of atypical braggadocio, wants all comers.
"(Pettis) can stay injured for a year, stay hurt until July, or two years," he said. "He can keep the belt and he can stay injured. Every guy that UFC would give a title shot to, send them my way. I'll go down the entire list of the top 10. I'll beat everybody's butt.
"And then, when (Pettis) is healthy and he does come back, I'll be waiting."
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