Usually a spot for nuts and bolts answers about a fighter’s reason for choosing his vocation, the question “when and why did you start training for fighting?” on the official UFC bio form took on a different slant for debuting middleweight Tom Watson.
“My fight career began at 16 years old,” wrote the Southampton, England native, “when I realized that by living a few years of my life like most won't, I could live the rest of my life like most can't.”
It’s a great line and a profound one, and even though a few years have turned into a decade for the 30-year-old Watson, he hasn’t wavered in his adherence to that quote.
“I grew up playing football (soccer), and that was from 4-5 years old, and I was with professional teams from when I was 10-11 years old, so I was really involved with professional sports and I saw how things were done, and that’s all I ever visualized me doing,” he said. ‘And when that didn’t work out, I saw boxing and I got involved with combat sports. I had this dedication and I had this drive, and that quote sums it up for me. You’ve got to go out and work for anything. I grew up under two very hardworking parents, and I’ve never doubted that my ability to achieve is never gonna come down to work ethic. I’ll do everything with what I was given.”
That’s the story of Watson’s pro mixed martial arts career. 15-4 since his debut in 2006, he is the epitome of a blue collar battler who can handle himself wherever the fight goes, though it’s his striking and knockout power which most point to immediately. Yet look in the camps and corners of many of his training partners, and you’ll often see Watson, a student of the sport who is willing to share what he’s learned over the years.
But it also begs the question, why, at 30, is Watson just getting his shot in the UFC, especially with wins in 11 of his last 12 fights?
“Everything happens for a reason supposedly,” he chuckles, but losing the momentum he built up in 2010-11 with a 4-1 slate that included wins over Matt Horwich and Murilo Rua due to a back injury was no laughing matter. And when surgery sidelined him for nearly a year, he thought that he might have reached the end of the line.
“I had a couple surgeries before, but it was nothing that I thought would get in the way of my career, and then obviously with the back issue, I had a couple months where it was difficult to get off the floor,” he said. “Kenny Florian’s been through exactly the same back problem recently and has called it a day, so there was a sort of depressive period for me where this is what I’ve done for a decade of my life, so I was thinking ‘what am I gonna do now?’”
And despite the wins, the respect from the fans and his peers, and some regional titles along the way, not getting to the UFC would have haunted Watson had he been forced to retire.
“When you do anything in life, you set out goals and you want to achieve certain things, and I always saw the UFC as something in the back of my mind where I told myself I would get to that level and not only get there but go there and compete and try to win a belt,” he said. “So when I had this issue, that was a depression for me. I could look back and think ‘yeah, I had some great fights and everything, but I never really reached the pinnacle of the sport.’”
Watson would return though, stopping Jack Marshmann in two rounds on March 24 of this year. Looking as if he didn’t miss a beat, “Kong” got his call from the UFC. It was time to fulfill his promise on the big stage. Ask him these days what that feels like, and he says, “It’s difficult to describe really. I just want to fight. I just want to get in there and fight in front of the UFC fans and get going.”
He’ll get his chance soon enough, as he makes his Octagon debut in his home country this Saturday against Brad Tavares. It’s a tough assignment for his first time out, but that’s just what he expected and just what he wants.
“I knew who Brad was,” said Watson. “I train with Kyle Noke at Jackson’s and he was on the show with him and was pretty good buddies with him, and as soon as they said his name I remembered a couple of his fights; nothing too detailed, but I do watch a lot of fights, so I do know most of the fighters. For me, I think it’s a great fight because he’s had four fights in the UFC, he’s won three of them and his only loss a very close decision to Aaron Simpson, who just stalled the fight in my opinion and just held Tavares against the fence. So for me to go against a guy that has had four fights in the UFC and won three, it’s a good marking point for me, and to beat Tavares will put me in the middle of the division somewhere.”
It can be almost overwhelming for a fighter to be in a situation like this, and to do it in front of a screaming crowd of home country fans. But talking to Watson, it’s as if he’s the UFC veteran fighting a newcomer. There is no hint of him being a deer in the headlights or having the first time UFC jitters, and when he says he just wants to fight, he really means it. And this maturity and cool under pressure may very well be the key to his future success.
“I think it’s a significant advantage,” he said. “If you would have asked me that question three or four years ago I’d have said no, it’s down to your talent and the best guy wins. But the longer I’ve been in the sport, I realize that all these factors come into play and I feel like I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve been headlining main events in probably my last three-four fights, and there were over 10,000 people in some of these events.”
So Saturday night in Nottingham? Business as usual for Tom Watson.
“Saturday,” he smiles, “that’s really when the fun happens.”