When Oli Thompson’s career as a competitive strongman came to a close, he needed another outlet. He chose mixed martial arts.
Thompson will face fellow Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Cheick Kongo in a three-round heavyweight feature at Bellator 172 on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. Their battle takes place in the shadow of the Fedor Emelianenko-Matt Mitrione main event. Thompson, 37, saw his career-best five-fight winning streak grind to a halt at Bellator 158 on July 16, when he succumbed to second-round punches from Mitrione in his organizational debut.
In this exclusive interview with Sherdog.com, the Wolfslair Academy representative discusses his showdown with Kongo, his failed encounter with Mitrione and the pressure of competing on the same card as Emelianenko (current odds).
Sherdog.com: What are your thoughts on Kongo?
Thompson: I think he’s a very effective fighter. He has been around a long time and has done some great things, but I think he’s overrated in some parts of the [MMA] fan base. I think he’s being overlooked by a lot of people even when considering what he’s done in the past and more recently what he’s been able to do since coming over to Bellator. He’s what, 7-2 since coming to Bellator? Those two losses were decisions against great opposition. He’s taken on some great, tough competition, and I think he deserves a lot more respect than what he’s been getting. I look at this as a huge opportunity for me; and I have trained with him in the past, as well, so I know how effective and how great he really is.
Sherdog.com: Considering that you two have trained together, how are you approaching this fight?
Thompson: We have come up with a plan as to how we want to attack him in this fight, but I also want to see how it goes when the fight is happening. I know I have to be patient because he’ll want me to rush in and make mistakes. He wants the fight to be taken down to his pace because he’ll easily be able to fight for three full rounds if he needs to. He likes to use low kicks and press his opponents into the [cage] and then fight in little bursts. I’m very conscious of that.
Sherdog.com: Have you been able to bring in anybody who can replicate his size and mimic the way he fights?
Thompson: I’ve got plenty of huge training partners, so being able to find big guys like Cheick hasn’t been a problem at all. I’ve been practicing on a lot of drills and techniques, though, and putting myself in the worst-possible-case scenarios, learning how to properly fight out of being in bad situations. The good thing about Cheick is that because he’s been around for so long, he’s not going to have any surprises out there; we already know exactly what he’s going to do. Of course, he’s going to be tough, but I know what to prepare for.
Sherdog.com: Kongo has become known for an affinity toward methodically grinding on opponents. Have you done anything in training to perhaps force him to be more aggressive?
Thompson: It’s hard to describe without giving away our entire game plan, but I know what you’re saying and we are trying to find that perfect balance where I’ll try to fight by pushing the pace and he’ll try to bring the pace down to his favor. We do want to push the pace a lot more, but we can’t just jump in there and be reckless. We’ll have to use a lot of feinting and give him a lot of movement to keep him guessing. I do want to make him uncomfortable throughout the entire fight.
Sherdog.com: Without giving away your strategy, have you seen anything on film that maybe Kongo’s other opponents failed to notice or capitalize on?
Thompson: Some of my coaches always study film and they break down every movement my opponents have made in their fights, but there isn’t really too much that Cheick does in terms of mistakes that others haven’t seen yet.
Sherdog.com: What about when you two trained together?
Thompson: When we sparred before, I wasn’t trying to solve him or capitalize on his mistakes. We were just staying busy and helping each other out to get ready for other people. I just know he’s a great striker who likes to wrestle; he’s a good wrestler who has pretty good jiu-jitsu and he’s a good jiu-jitsu [player] who is a great striker. I just need to mix my game up when I fight him and make sure I fight my fight and not his.
Sherdog.com: How disappointing was your loss to Mitrione and how quickly did you recover from it mentally?
Thompson: Mentally, I recovered from it immediately. I was disappointed that I lost, but he is a high-caliber fighter, a man who is quite possibly the best heavyweight in Bellator at the moment. I took the fight on two weeks’ notice, and I didn’t have a full camp going in. If you go back and look at the fight, I was winning the exchanges, but when the fight got into the second [round], he started hitting me with some good shots but I wasn’t getting hurt. When the fight got stopped, though, it wasn’t like I got stopped because I was taking all these massive shots. Rather, it was more a case of exhaustion, and he capitalized on it. There is nothing that I took away from that fight that suggests that I couldn’t have won if I had a full camp. I don’t think I’ve lost any credibility, either, because here I am on a full camp and getting ready to take on a great fighter.
Sherdog.com: It has been nearly four years since you last fought in the United States. What are your thoughts on coming back here to compete?
Thompson: I love fighting everywhere. Of course, I love fighting in the U.K., but I also love fighting in Japan, Poland, everywhere. I really enjoy fighting for all of the big organizations, and most of them are based in America. So if you’re going to be fighting for a big promotion on one of its biggest stages, you’re going to be fighting there in America. Bellator 172 is going to be one of their biggest cards with all of the big stars fighting on the bill. I’m excited and it’s really cool to be fighting over there and getting my name out to those fans, as well. Most of the fight fans still don’t even know who I am, and this fight will help me gain more fans.
Sherdog.com: With this being Emelianenko’s Bellator debut, do you feel any added pressure or excitement knowing that many more eyes will be on you?
Thompson: Every situation has as big a reward as there is a potential for disaster. I’ll tell you what: I’d rather be fighting for such a major reward and disaster in front of potentially a million or more people in a huge arena on national television than in some town hall in front of a few hundred people where there is no major risk-reward and nobody watches.
Sherdog.com: You enjoyed a terrific career as a strongman. If you could have equal success in MMA or in strongman competitions, which would you prefer?
Thompson: Oh, as an MMA fighter -- easy question to answer right there.