Listening to UFC veteran, coach and Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight co-star Din Thomas speak about the fight business reminds one of that old E.F. Hutton commercial. If you don’t remember, to paraphrase…
“When Din Thomas talks, people listen.”
“I don't know when I turned into that grandfather telling stories, but I'm him,” Thomas laughs. “I really am.”
That’s a good thing, because the 44-year-old is one of the rare individuals who crossed the bridge between the old school, no holds barred days of MMA and the modern era when the sport exploded on the mainstream scene. Want to call him a pioneer? He’ll accept that title.
“I love the fact that I have so much history and I can speak from experience because it's hard sometimes,” he said. “When you tell somebody something and they look at you like, ‘Well, who are you?’ I go, check my resume. And they're like, 'Okay, you've got it.' (Laughs) So I love that I can speak from experience, and I'm always trying to gain experience even now. No one can have anything on me and say I don't know what I'm talking about because I've been there. I love the role that I play now, and I love the fact that I've done what I've done in the past.”
Owner of a 15-year pro career that began in 1998, Thomas came up during a time when African American fighters were few and far between. There were a few, most notably UFC stars like Maurice Smith and Kevin Randleman, but as far as having folks around him on the regional scene to look up to, that wasn’t the case.
“Most of the guys that I followed were Brazilian guys, like Jose “Pele” Landi,” he said. “And even at some level, (early UFC competitor) Pat Smith was a guy I could look at and go, 'Yeah, I like what he's doing. He's got some nice kicks.' And I think that's why it's important for representation and being somebody that people can relate to, because it's hard to look around and not see anybody that looks like you, and then go, 'All right, I fit in.' So representation is extremely important for encouragement and to better everybody. I had Pele Landi and Pat Smith and Maurice Smith and even a guy like Randleman. Randleman was coming up and I liked some of the things he was doing. But there weren't many of us back then.”
That didn’t stop Thomas, who whittles down the appeal of fighting back then to the barest of essentials.
“At the end of the day, to be honest, I just never wanted to get beat up in the street,” he said. “I just wanted to know how to fight in the street so that I never got beat up. And I was a small dude, so I was like, 'Man, there's a lot of big people out there. I need to learn how to fight.' So regardless of whether I was fighting competitively or not, I was still gonna train. Competing was just something to test it to make sure that it was working. So I was competing just to make sure I knew how to fight. Nothing was gonna stop me from fighting.”
Soon, it got bigger than that, as he rapidly became a fighter kids could look to as a role model thanks to his success both Stateside and in Japan.
By the summer of 2001, he began a UFC run that saw him compete nine times in the Octagon against the likes of BJ Penn, Caol Uno, Matt Serra, Clay Guida, Jeremy Stephens and Kenny Florian, while also putting in a stint on season four of The Ultimate Fighter.
Following his run in the UFC, Thomas won three of his last five bouts before retiring in 2014. At 37, Thomas still had some gas in the tank, yet he never returned to competition, a rarity for any professional prizefighter.
“I liked fighting, but I didn't really like everything that came along with fighting,” Thomas said. “I said, you know what, I want to use my creativity in other areas, and that's what I'm doing now. I'm lucky to have been able to reinvent myself and stay relevant. But it's because I didn't go back to fight. All these guys keep one foot in it, thinking they're gonna come back and they never evolve as people, so they have a hard time reinventing themselves.”
They’re words of wisdom, but also a living, breathing example of how to do life after fighting right. Many don’t, and the examples are everywhere, not just in combat sports, but sports in general.
“I guess the good thing for me is that I never really made a lot of money fighting, so I never built up this lifestyle I had to maintain when it was over,” he said. “I always lived humbly.”
So no pet tiger in the backyard?
“I barely had a chihuahua,” he laughs.
These days, Thomas co-stars with UFC President Dana White and former opponent Matt Serra on the aforementioned “Looking for a Fight” series, and he’s doing some acting, as well as coaching a host of up and comers. And as a coach, expect to get the knowledge and no-nonsense treatment only a true veteran who has been there and done that can offer.
“I think that me having the upbringing that I had really is an advantage for all the people that I work with,” Thomas said. “I'm still kind of a throwback in terms of some things and I make sure that I don't spoil my people the way a lot of people get spoiled. So when something bad happens and the situation is not the way they expect it, we're prepared for that. A lot of times people go to fights and something happens - their opponent drops out or whatever the case may be, and they're thinking that they're entitled to something. Me and my people are not entitled to nothing and they know that because that's the way I raised them. I raised them to be a throwback, to be prepared for anything, to always be ready for changes because nothing is guaranteed. No matter what happens, you gotta show up. And when I came up, we were prepared for anything. And that's the way I groom my people now. Always be ready for anything.”
It's a good rule not just for fighting, but for life.
UFC is proud to celebrate Black History Month by acknowledging the achievements of African American and Black UFC athletes throughout our history. During February, UFC will highlight the personal stories of these athletes, past and present, while celebrating their significance in promoting and growing UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts.