“It’s a bit of a strange story.”
When those words come out of the mouth of globetrotting middleweight Tom Watson, you know it’s got to be good, and as the Southampton native describes his experience with camel wrestling last December, he doesn’t disappoint.
“It wasn’t at a high level, but they had something going on like this when I was in Egypt,” said Watson. “I saw it and it’s not like wrestling in MMA. The premise of what it is is that they have two bull camels, which are the males. And they have a female nearby that’s in heat. So the camels are basically fighting each other for the female. Since I started looking into it, they’ve had the world championships in Turkey, and it’s quite surprising – they had like 20,000 people there. It’s pretty fun.”
Yes, camel wrestling. But the best part of the description is Watson’s admittance that the bouts he saw weren’t at a high level. So should we assume that there is an Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre of camel wrestling out there?
“It’s like anything,” he laughs. “Some are better in wrestling than others. Maybe the camels can teach me something.”
Call it another chapter in the story of Tom Watson, a tale that demands a book one day, one that would chronicle his travels around the world in pursuit of his fighting dreams. It’s a journey that still continues, making a stop in his native England for a bout with Stanislav Nedkov this weekend, and despite the glamour that fans associate with the fight game, it’s not an easy life to lead.
“It is pretty tough, but if you want to do anything in life, you’ve got to do what you think is right, and I’ve basically tried to go all around the world,” admits the 30-year-old. “It’s funny because all the guys I see in the sport now I’ve known at some point. I was at Nova Uniao in Brazil about seven years ago, and (current UFC featherweight champion) Jose Aldo was living in the gym then. I see all these characters now, and these are all people I’ve seen along the way in the journey.”
These days, southern California is where Watson hangs his hat, and he’s certainly enjoying the stay at the moment.
“I’ve trained here before, I trained in San Diego a little bit, and I liked the area,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because I was 30 and maybe having a midlife crisis (Laughs), but the traveling and living in a bag and going to all these gyms and different places is great, but I needed something when I wasn’t training full-time for a fight. I need something for my mind so I can get away from MMA a little bit. I just think for too many years I just threw everything into it and burned myself out mentally.”
So is this home now for the wandering middleweight?
“It’s difficult because the longer I spend here the more I think why would I want to live anywhere else,” he said. “The weather’s fantastic all year. I love England and it’s where I spent most of my life, but nine, ten months a year you struggle with what you’ve got to do because of the weather and everything else. But I don’t know. I grew up on a farm and I always saw myself kinda doing that lifestyle. Fighting for me was just something to do for a period of time, so I don’t really know.”
That period of time has lasted nearly half his life, encompassing 20 professional mixed martial arts fights, 15 of which he’s won. He’s built a rock-solid reputation, not just among fans but among his peers, and when looking at what he’s done, he can be – maybe not satisfied, but proud, and hopeful for the future.
“I think I made the best of any situation I had at the time,” he said. “If you take it like a book, maybe I had a few bad chapters along the way, but it doesn’t really mean it’s the end of the book. You’ve just got to keep reading and keep going with it.”
The latest chapter is his UFC career, which began last September with an entertaining three rounder with Brad Tavares. The Hawaiian took the split decision win when it was over, but not before knowing that he was in a fight. And that was Watson’s sole objective: to deliver a fight.
“I really tried to go into that fight with the mentality of just having a war and to put on an exciting fight for the fans,” he said. “I didn’t care about winning, I didn’t care about anything else, and I don’t know if I regret that or not. I watch fights now from 20-30 years ago. I watch (former boxing champion) Nigel Benn a lot, and I watch a lot of fighters that are just in great fights. They might not necessarily have been the champion and the dominant guy of their generation, so part of me feels torn in limbo about fighting. It’s like this next fight. You have to win in this business, as in most businesses, and if you don’t win, it doesn’t take you very far in any successful way. But at the same time, there are plenty of people in the UFC that win their fights, but I don’t want to watch them, most of the fans don’t want to watch them, and that’s not me and that’s not why I fight. That’s not what I want it to be about.”
England’s Benn, known as “The Dark Destroyer,” is a touchstone for many UK fighters when talking about the excitement they hope to bring to the ring or Octagon, and for Watson, that’s most definitely the case.
“He was an exciting fighter, and a lot of these fighters wear their heart on their sleeve, and that’s why they get a lot of support,” said Watson of Benn. “There’s a saying that fatigue will turn any man into a coward, and I just think with fighters like Nigel Benn, that’s not really applicable. They can be as tired as can be, and if you watch his tragic fight with (Gerald) McClellan (from 1995), he’s pretty much exhausted from the first round. If you don’t know what happened to McClellan (who suffered serious injuries after the bout), you could easily watch that fight now and see that Benn lost most of the rounds of the fight.”
And though Benn emerged victorious that night, when people talk about him, they don’t talk about the end results of his fights or the titles he won. They talk about the fights, and the fights are what keep Watson going.
“Everybody wants to be the champion, who doesn’t?” he said. “Nobody wants to be just a middle of the road guy, but I love what I do. I hear a lot of fighters saying they want to create this legacy and to be honest, it sounds strange but I almost fall asleep when most of them talk about it. If you want to talk about a legacy, go and win a Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t know if it’s arrogance or what, but I just enjoy what I do. I don’t really care what impact it’s gonna leave down the line.”
It’s the attitude he’ll carry into Wembley Arena this Saturday against Nedkov, who will be making his middleweight debut. It’s a division that’s been home to Tom Watson for a long time, and as soon as the bell rings, he plans on welcoming his opponent the only way he knows how.
“Now I’m fighting three rounds, but I used to love fighting five rounds, ten rounds; that’s really when I excel,” he said. “When the going gets tough and there’s nothing left, then that’s when I get going. He’s a powerful athlete and a lot of his finishes are in the first round, but going into the fight, my point is to raise a question mark. Every time the clock ticks in that fight, he knows that the fight’s swinging more and more my way.”