Colby Thicknesse may only be 20 years old, but with nine amateur bouts under his belt and a spot as one of Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski’s main training partners, he has already begun to turn heads.
Thicknesse, now 8-1 as an amateur, currently finds himself on a five-fight winning streak. He recently swept through the featherweight tournament at the 2020 International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Oceania Open Championships in March, winning three bouts in the three days and punching his ticket to the IMMAF World Championships. As the sports world continues its hibernation in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Thicknesse has started to plot his course to his professional debut in hopes of eventually following Volkanovski’s footsteps into the Octagon. Interestingly, wrestling with his twin brother led him to a career in mixed martial arts.
“Me and my twin, we used to fight,” Thicknesse said, “so my dad took us down to the [Police Citizens Youth Club] and we started just wrestling and boxing with each other. We did that for around seven years. From about six to 13, we were training and wrestling twice a week, as well as playing footy; and then after, we won national titles, state titles. We were both pretty good.
“By 13, I got a bit sick of football and wrestling,” he added. “I think the last wrestling class I did [at the PCYC] was a Thursday, and then that following Monday, I started at Freestyle Fighting Gym, started my jiu-jitsu straight away. I think after about six months of training I entered my first jiu-jitsu comp.”
Thicknesse laughs when revealing that his first Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament ended in disqualification after 20 seconds as a result of an illegal slam, but it certainly was not a sign of things to come. His teen years were punctuated by regional and national titles in jiu-jitsu and wrestling, and by the time he was completing his high school certificate, he had already booked his first amateur fight.
“I had my first fight just as I was finishing high school,” Thicknesse said. “I remember, I was doing my HSC exams, [and] I was having to water load when I was doing it, so that was very interesting, to say the least. I almost got kicked out of my exam because I had a five-liter bottle on my desk and I drank the whole thing in a three-hour exam. I went to the toilet like eight times, so it didn’t go too well. My first fight, that was a local show and I just remember thinking how tired I was mid-fight. After the first round, I don’t think I have ever been that tired in my life, so I was like, ‘F---, I want to get out of here. I need to go out and finish him.’ I ended up getting the second-round TKO.”
Thicknesses fought twice more in the 12-month period after his debut, putting together a 3-0 record with three stoppages—one knockout and two submissions—before a lack of willing dance partners put him on a forced hiatus.
“I was 3-0 at the time, and then after that, there was a long state of me not been able to find any fights.” Thicknesse said. “I ended up ballooning up in weight, too, because of the Christmas break. I was still training, but there were no fights ahead, so I sort of took a bit of a backstep; and then I got a short-notice callup and about eight days’ notice to go up to the Gold Coast and fight [at Eternal MMA 42] in February. I ended up losing that one by decision, but that was probably the best thing for me because I went in to that fight with just a game plan of ‘Oh look, I’m [going to] just grab him, take him down, choke him out and not have to worry too much.’ Then I grabbed him and he was obviously a lot better wrestler than I thought and a lot stronger, and I couldn’t get him down. It sort of played with my head space. I chucked the game plan out the window and just started brawling, so I ended up losing. I’m not happy that I lost, but it’s a very good learning experience.”
Since that bump in the road, Thicknesse has gone a perfect 5-0 and picked up the Superfight MMA bantamweight title before taking the IMMAF tournament by storm. There, he took out regional stalwarts Ali Yaqoob, Abzzy Mahdawi and Dylan Thompson. Thicknesse conceded there was a tradeoff between competing in successive fights without the usual training camp and weight cut while also having to manage injuries and soreness.
“Usually after every fight, whether it’s win or lose, you’re thinking, ‘Now, I have to put another hard eight to 10 weeks of work in just so I get to do that again,’” he said. “After beating Ali by TKO in the first bout, I remember I was more happy that I got to fight again the next day than I actually won, because that means I didn't have to do all that extra training and dieting just to fight again.”
“By the third day, I could barely walk” Thicknesse added. “I had a corked leg and a black eye. About two weeks before the tournament, I had ruptured my knee, so it pretty much had another baseball on it. We ended up needing to rub out my leg for a good 45 minutes with cream. I was still pretty much an Olympian once I got there, but I just went into the [tournament with a] mindset of two more hours just in this venue. Just put it to the side, then you can rest afterwards sort of thing.”
Thicknesse secured the gold medal, chalking up 26 minutes of fight time in three days when it ordinarily takes a full 12 months. As the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak and sports organizations continue a lengthy hiatus from activity, he can only sigh in relief that managed to get a competitive fix before the lockdown orders came into effect.
“Oh, I’m so happy I got to do that because I always try to get three to four in a year, and the way things are going, we’ll be lucky [to get another bout in 2020],” Thicknesse said. “I don't even know when we can sort of even think about having fighting events again, so I’m happy I got three out of the way. I’m lucky.”
Treading water does not represent the ideal situation for Thicknesse, who had originally set his sights on the IMMAF World Championship later this year. However, the event has been postponed. Thicknesse is not keen on the idea of waiting another full year to participate, so at this stage, his next scrap is likely to be his professional debut.
“I’m thinking the way things are currently going [that] I will be turning pro for the next one,” he said. “I would like to [debut] in New South Wales just because it’s always good to get training partners, family and friends and everything to come up and watch a pro debut, but I love traveling. That’s why I love fighting, so I’m more than happy to fight professional wherever they can give me opponents.”
With Volkanovski and head coach Joe Lopez in his corner, Thicknesse finds himself champing at the bit to get back into the gym to start the next chapter of his story. Only a few short months ago, he was flying to Nevada with “Volko” and the crew, as Volkanovski became just the second Australian to capture a UFC title with a unanimous decision victory over featherweight champion Max Holloway. What was likely to be a rematch with Holloway is on hold, and even as the UFC attempts to resume part of its regular operations, the future is up in the air.
“I trained with Alex, and his last fight was in December,” Thicknesse said. “He was meant to be back on with Holloway, but now everything’s in limbo with us, as well, so it’s just a waiting game pretty much.”
He remains grateful for the chance to see Volkanovski spring the upset at UFC 245 in person.
“That was such a surreal experience,” Thicknesse said. “I’ve been one of his main training partners since 2017, just locally at the gym [when he’s not at Thailand’s Tiger Muay Thai or New Zealand’s City Kickboxing]. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see him win the title. I got to be backstage for it. It was unreal.”
Thicknesse’s pre-quarantine routine was an enviable one. He put in two sessions a day, six days a week down at the Freestyle gym, while teaching kids’ classes and working as a security guard for Lopez’s Insight Security Services company, usually on the Wollongong club circuit from Thursday to Saturday. He laughs at the idea that his size makes him an appealing target for clubgoers.
“I’ve had plenty of hairy situations,” he said. “I’m a bantamweight, so I’m not a big person by any stretch. I’m always the smallest guy on the team, so the big boys kick everybody out. Then they come see me, [and] they think, ‘We’ll just take out our frustration on the little guy.’”
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Thicknesse’s sessions at the gym have been supplanted by home workouts; and with the club scene on indefinite pause, his security gigs have transitioned him to guarding vacant construction sites. It is a big change that Thicknesse approaches with enthusiasm.
“The first week [of the stay-at-home directives] was pretty weird because it was a big routine change,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep training at my normal set times. When it’s like 9:30 a.m., I’ll normally do a skill session, a skill or stretch. Then during the day I’ll go for walks and just try to relax and let my body heal a bit more because of the tournament and the knee injury. Around 5 p.m. till 7 p.m., I’ll do weights, like strength and conditioning. I’m still able to see a strength and conditioning coach twice a week, so I see him every Wednesday and Sunday. I’m still getting somewhat training sessions. It’s not optimal, but you just have to make do with what you have. I’m also doing lots of film study on my three previous fights.”
When asked to give his master plan for the coming years, Thicknesse revealed he has carefully plotted his course, influenced in no small part by Volkanovski’s perfect run through the UFC featherweight division.
“The goal is to hopefully have my first professional fight by the end of this year, if everything goes well with the current situation,” he said. “I’m 21 in June, and I want another probably three to four years of fighting in Australia and internationally before I try and crack and get a big promotion. Not that I have time on my side, but I have to use the time wisely because you see heaps of hot young prospects and they’re chucked into the deep end too early. I’d rather have my foundation, take a bit of extra time, get into the UFC at 24 or 25 and then sort of start chasing it from there.”
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