Josh Gross
Sunday June 29th, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Talent is never enough.

Late last year, having heard stories of partying and drinking and a lack of respect for himself as a professional mixed martial artist, Javier Mendez took Josh Thomson aside and stated the obvious.

"I don't give a damn what the hell you're doing, but if you're going to continue fighting you need to stop," Thomson's trainer told him. "And I don't even want to talk about this ever again.

"It needs to stop."

Early Saturday morning, after impressively capturing the Strikeforce lightweight belt, Thomson had many people to thank. Mendez was at the top of the list.

"When I listen to him," Thomson said, "I win."

That applies in life and fighting.

"I don't know what he was doing, or how much he was having fun," Mendez said. "But I knew it was interfering with what he as doing."

To look at the 29-year-old Thomson's record you wouldn't see a problem. But for those that were closest to the former UFC contender, negative changes in his attitudes and influences were obvious.

"I watched him last year throwing his career away," said Trevor Prangley, a veteran middleweight fighter who first met Thomson after arriving in the U.S. from South Africa 12 years ago. "It's pretty disturbing. We talked to him. When someone is in that mode you can't force them to do anything, just try to explain to him. Let him know we care about him and he needs to get out of that. You can see by his performance tonight he's back on track."

"I spent all last year at a bar and all I had to show for it was bar tab," Thomson quipped. "This year I don't plan on being that person. I plan on being a person holding [the Strikeforce belt] around my waist."

He earned the right to do that Friday after impressively dismantling ranked lightweight Gilbert Melendez, a jet-fueled Bay Area fighter, in front of 7,488 fans at the HP Pavilion.

"There was no way I was going to lose the fight," Thomson said. "Not a chance. I trained too hard for this fight. When I was sick I trained. When I had staph I trained."

Coming off shoulder surgery, Thomson (15-2, 1 NC) was a sizeable underdog. From the outset Thomson appeared to be the sharper fighter against his former sparring partner.

"Thomson's tough," said Jake Shields, Melendez's friend and cornerman. "A lot of guys underestimate Thomson. I knew it was a fight that could go either way."

Leading into the fight, Thomson spoke openly in the media about setbacks during his training camp. Preemptive excuses, some thought. To Thomson, it was about being honest. No, he was not 100 percent. No, he didn't not feel his best. But so what, here he was -- ready -- to win a title against a very good champion.

"Josh fought his game plan," Melendez said. "For some reason, I don't know, that first takedown was locked and I just couldn't finish it. It discouraged me on the takedown part, so I had to stand with him. I had some mental malfunction where I couldn't finish the takedown. I ended up standing with him. He was the better man today."

Working off a stiff jab, Thomson moved laterally and kept Melendez (14-2) reaching. Controlling the distance, Thomson dictated when to strike and when to wrestle.

Training in heavy doses with UFC welterweight contender Josh Koscheck, Thomson concentrated on wrestling while preparing to win a belt he failed to capture against Clay Guida in 2006. Though Melendez was expected to control the former Stanford University wrestler as Guida had done, Thomson ceded nothing when it came to being taken down.

"We worked hard on that with really good wrestlers that were bigger," said "Crazy" Bob Cook, who trains Thomson alongside Mendez at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.

"I think that really messed up Gilbert," Mendez added. "I don't think he realizes Josh jumped another level on the takedowns, and it's all honestly due to Josh Koscheck."

Koscheck wouldn't have had the opportunity, though, had Thomson continued living inside a bottle. No amount of coaxing from Mendez or encouragement from Prangley would have made difference if "The Punk" refused to listen.

"I've seen a huge difference in him," Prangley said. "When I met him he was just young and he is a punk. But he's grown a lot."

Having stayed dry since January, Thomson now owns a meaningful title and is tremendous position to capitalize. Next on Thomson's plate could be a challenge against the Dream lightweight tournament winner -- Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Eddie Alvarez or Caol Uno -- said Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker.

Like UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn, who underwent a similar awakening, Thomson will go as far as he allows his talent to take him.

Said a beaming Mendez: "This is the best Josh Thomson I've ever seen."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.