The life of British heavyweight James Thompson is a true rags-to-riches story.
The 29-year-old mixed martial artist has experienced both the highest highs and lowest lows. Before the man-mountain started in MMA five years ago, he had worked all kinds of obscure jobs.
"The craziest thing that happened to me during those times was while working as a debt collector," Thompson remembered. "Once I went to get a debt, and a woman answered the door dressed in leather underwear. When I walked past her, I found the guy I was looking for wearing a leash and sitting in an oversized dog basket."
At 6-foot-5 and close to 290 pounds, Thompson stuck out like a sore thumb in his hometown of Cheltenham -- a spa town that is more famous for its Regency architecture and steeplechase horse races than martial arts.
Nonetheless, local promoter Ultimate Combat soon took notice of the huge kid and invited him to take part in its shows. Even without proper training, Thompson won six of his first seven professional fights, finishing five of them early. The marquee bout of those early years was a five-round war with UFC Hall of Famer Dan Severn, which Thompson took via unanimous decision.
Thus "The Colossus" was born.
However, Thompson's rise to prominence on the British MMA scene was not without setbacks. In June 2004 he took on Tengiz Tedoradze, a much more accomplished wrestler with a major edge in experience. The Georgian took him down and punished him for two rounds, prompting Thompson's corner to stop the fight.
When the chance to rematch the man who had handed him the first loss of his career came around this December, Thompson practically begged Ultimate Force promoter Paul Murphy to make the bout happen. Disappointment followed when the show was postponed.
"Tengiz pulled out of a fight at Cage Rage a while ago," an annoyed Thompson explained. "Then he wouldn't fight me when I stepped up on two hours' notice at Cage Rage 19 when [Wesley Correira] pulled out, and now this. I have done everything in my power to make the fight happen for the longest time, but it takes two to make a fight happen and I get the feeling he's not as keen as myself. So I'm not putting any more of my time into this. If the chance to fight him on another show came up, I would take it in a second, but I'm not holding my breath."
When Thompson appeared inside the PRIDE ring for the first time, in October 2004, he was a diamond in the rough. He didn't have the striking or wrestling skills to compete at such a high level and lost to Aleksander Emelianenko in a mere 11 seconds.
Despite the crushing defeat, PRIDE saw something in the British behemoth and eventually brought him back. In order to live up to their expectations, Thompson joined the Trojan Free Fighters to improve his striking.
The team under head coach Charlie Joseph -- which is also the home of fellow PRIDE veteran Zelg Galesic, featherweight prodigy Ronnie Mann, undefeated judoka Maro Perak and BJJ black belt Italo Ferreira -- took the big man to Thailand to work on his Muay Thai. Consequently, much better results followed as Thompson won his next three fights in PRIDE. By using the "gong and dash" strategy, in which he charges at his opponents at full speed right after the opening bell, he became a huge fan favorite in Japan.
Thus "The Colossus" became the "Megapunk."
The biggest win of his PRIDE stint was without a doubt against Japanese judo legend Hidehiko Yoshida on New Year's Eve 2006. Looking back at the fight with the Olympic silver medalist, Thompson explained how fights are often decided mentally.
"Prior to this fight, I had just lost to Jon Olav Einemo," he said. "I was in the best shape of my life, but when Einemo took me down I was disheartened by how good he was on the ground, and mentally he beat me. Even though I took the Yoshida fight on two days' notice and had not trained for three weeks, I just kept on being positive mentally when I was in trouble and ended up winning."
Although Thompson had badly beaten one of their countrymen, the win over Yoshida made him even more popular with Japanese fans. Because he understands that fighting in Japan does not only require great fighting skills but also entertainment value, his many supporters are demanding his inclusion on this year's New Year's Eve show, Yarennoka!, as well.
"So far I've not been contacted to fight on New Year's Eve," Thompson said of his possible participation at Saitama Super Arena. "I'm at home right now planning to spend Christmas with my family for the first time in three years, and I'm really looking forward to that."
If the short notice he had before the Yoshida fight is any indication, Thompson should take it easy on the roast turkey and plum pudding. The promotion is still looking for an opponent for Russian heavyweight Roman Zentsov, and besides former HERO'S heavyweight champion Kazuyuki Fujita and K-1 World Grand Prix Final winner Mark Hunt, the "Megapunk" is certainly on the shortlist.
Even if the chance to fight at Yarennoka! does not materialize, Thompson has big plans for the future.
"I have signed a five-fight contract with EliteXC, and my first fight will be in February," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it, as it will be the first time I'll fight in the U.S."
To prepare for opponents like "Kimbo Slice" and Brazilian Bigfoot Antonio Silva, whom he could face down the road, Thompson switched teams one more time and joined Randy Couture and his stable of strong wrestlers in Las Vegas.
"It was a hard decision, but I know it had to be made," Thompson said of leaving the Trojan team. "You only get one chance, and no matter what happens in my career, I wanted to feel like I had given myself the best chance. The training was good at Trojan, but I had no sparring partners of my size, and you would notice that in fights. When [opponents like Rob Broughton or Neil Grove] would come forward at me, I would panic a bit as I wasn't used to guys even bigger than myself coming at me."
Asked how he has settled down with his new team, Thompson is full of praise.
"I have had loads of good sparring at Xtreme Couture, and even though they don't understand a thing of what I'm saying, all the guys have made me feel at home," he said with a laugh. "Already one of the biggest differences is that I used to fight anywhere between 265 and 290 pounds in the past. Now I'll fight at 254 pounds, so my stamina has gotten much better."
Said Thompson to his supporters: "I have the best fans in the world and I don't make life easy for them, as I have more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, but I truly appreciate their support. I feel ready and excited for 2008. I have a new team, a new MMA organization to fight for and a new goal: To make 2008 the year of 'The Colossus.'"
Tim Leidecker covers mixed martial arts for Sherdog.com.