Rising UK star Tom "Kong" Watson discusses PEDs, TRT, TUEs, and much more in this UnderGround exclusive interview by Jonathan Shrager.
Jonathan Shrager: Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to talk today. Congratulations on what was truly an inspirational performance on Saturday night. Have you seen the list of cuts from yesterday? What are your initial reactions? Fitch? The English lads?
Tom "Kong" Watson: Yes, I saw it last night. I think most people were surprised at Jon Fitch. I wasn't massively surprised to be honest. I know some of the UK guys, so it's obviously not a nice thing to hear. I think people forget that the UFC is the absolute pinnacle of MMA, and right now I think they're trying to trim each division down to 20-25 guys. Sort of like football's Premier League. If you don't perform once or twice, you run the risk of being released. What I will say is this; it's not as if the UFC becomes a closed book the moment you're released. For example, look at Jorge Santiago, he's been brought back 3 times. Similarly, Jay Hieron has returned to the UFC on a number of occasions. So, for the English lads, I don't necessarily think its the end. To use a footballing analogy, you may have to go back to the Championship, perform for a season, and attempt to work your way back.
JS: Yes, that makes sense. You're invariably involved in enthralling fights, and it's seemingly not in your genetics to adopt anything but an aggressive style...do you think your style is now being rewarded, one that's shared by the likes of fellow Brit Dan Hardy and your teammate Leonard Garcia, who seem to be afforded more opportunities owing to their more fan-friendly approach?
TW: I think so, yes. I personally think that's how people should fight anyway. It really depends on your opponent. It's really difficult to participate in an exciting fight if only one of the combatants is willing to push the pace and lay it on the line. That's the main reason the Nedkov fight yielded a finish. He himself was seeking to finish the fight, more so than Tavares in my UFC debut. I think Tavares was more interested in employing strategy to prevail, by securing takedowns and slowing down the pace at various stages.
JS: Yes, it certainly takes two to tango. On the heels of the split-decision loss to Tavares, did you feel an extra pressure to attain the win in order to avoid going 0-2 in your first pair of UFC outings? The pressure didn't appear to manifest itself in the cage, as you were hardly fighting conservatively.
TW: Absolutely, it was in the back of my mind that another loss might lead to my release, regardless of whether it was another exciting performance. Whilst I was warming up backstage, I watched the first two fights on the prelims which preceded my fight, and I remember consciously thinking that these guys appeared to be sparring. I was thinking to myself that a lot of the fighters are entering the cage scared, so that further encouraged me to go all out. I'd sooner get knocked out going for it than harbouring regrets following a cautious display or eking out a decision. It doesn't interest me to win a fight by just doing enough.
JS: Could Saturday night have unfolded any more perfectly? It seems like your were able to showcase exactly what you stand for as both a fighter and a person to the eyes of the MMA world?
TW: What helped me more than anything else was the spate of decisions throughout the card. Otherwise, I wouldn't have received the two bonuses. I knew all along that if I have enough fights in the UFC, then eventually people would be able to witness and appreciate my true fighting style. In my opinion, I'm the most exciting fighter in the UFC. The more fights I'm involved in for the promotion, the more evident that will become to the spectators.
JS: I suspect you've been inundated with this topic since Saturday. Your impromptu post-fight speech against TRT was well-received by many prominent figures within MMA, including leading medical voice within the community Dr Johnny Benjamin. It also appears it may have even prompted Dana White to explicitly announce at the post-fight presser his crusade against the phenomenon which is currently blighting MMA. Was it your intention to become one of the pioneering voices of this burgeoning anti-TRT movement?
TW: A lot of people have subsequently enquired about this, and whether I'd intended to broach this topic. With the adrenaline that surges through your body before/during/after a fight, you're never sure what you're going to say. I think it's just something which has been playing on my mind for the past couple of months. In fact, the past year. It's something I struggle to get my head around. In hindsight, I would have tried to communicate better the idea that I'm anti-PEDs in general, not just specifically TRT. I realise there are some legitimate cases of sportsmen with low levels of testosterone. My point was directed at all PEDs, and fighters using them who know how to beat the system.
JS: Surely with Dana on board this is something which may predominantly, or at least partly, be eradicated from the sport?
TW: I think the UFC will monitor it more vigilantly now. Like Dana stated in the post-fight media scrum, if a fighter does have a TUE like Belfort prior to the Bisping fight, he'll get tested on a weekly basis leading up to the fight, rather than a one-off pre-fight test once the fighter has cycled down.
JS: I don't want to entice you into citing specific names, but you claimed to believe that half the MW division is probably on something. What gives you this impression?
TW: I use the example of young lads who begin lifting weights at the gym. At one point or another, most gym-goers will adopt the mindset to put on bulk, so you go away and seek advice from magazines. But no matter how frequently or intensively you train, you look at other guys and it just doesn't appear feasible to look like that. So, it doesn't take long to work out that there's an extra factor at play. A lot of guys in MMA, or around the sport, know it's happening, but everybody's too political. Much like life in general, everyone is worried about speaking candidly in case you're liable to being sued, or in case you offend your employer. But that's not how I really am. If you look through history, the people that made a difference in life are those that have spoken up regarding what they believe. Not everyone has to agree with my opinions. Take Gandhi, for instance, who said "be the change that you wish to see in the world." You need to vocalise your beliefs in order for that to happen.
JS: I personally view it as a more serious offence to be using PEDs in a combat sport, in which your actions can potentially affect the health of another person, as opposed to a sport such as cycling where you actions don't directly physically impact another...it was an opinion recently echoed by Mike Bisping...do you concur with this assessment?
TW: Yes, I agree. That's what people fail to convey; thankfully there hasn't been a tragedy at the high level of MMA, and there's evidently good safety measures in place. If you look at boxing, there have been some horrific tragedies. Michael Watson over in the UK, Gerald McClellan too. As Bisping alludes to, that's the worst thing that can happen in a sport. It's bad enough for that to happen without factoring in PEDs, but if it's subsequently discovered that the combatant who has inadvertently inflicted the damage has been using PEDs, what happens then? Would the PED cheat go to jail? At the end of the day, that fighter has legally entered into a fight and increased the chances of doing severe damage to another person. I don't think fighters are sufficiently considering these angles.
JS: Do cultural perceptions towards PED usage differ? It struck me that both you and fellow Brit Bisping have vocally challenged TRT/TUEs...is this pure coincidence, or is it deemed more acceptable practice in the US?
TW: I just think the medical system differs in America. Obama has endeavoured to change it, but the medical system is first and foremost a business in the US. The UK system isn't perfect, but there still exists a National Health Service. From my own experience, US doctors tend to be more pro-surgery and medication than UK doctors. I saw a statistic that the side effects of prescribed drugs (I'm not just referring to PEDs) for all types of illnesses result in more deaths than in driving accidents. It's outrageous, but the medical field is a business.
JS: Do you empathise with Mike's disgruntlement that all three losses in title eliminators have come against those with TUEs?
TW: I do feel for him. Henderson, Sonnen and Belfort. I understand why he's extremely vocal about it, because he could easily argue that he'd have had a title shot by now.
JS: Frank Mir is currently training at one of your camps Jackson's ahead of his next fight vs Cormier. Mir is someone who's openly admitted to being on TRT. Do you think moving forward it could create tension within an MMA camp containing both anti-TRT crusaders and those with TUEs?
TW: Yes, but I'd say there are tensions in camps anyway. No camp is 100% rosy. You train with most teammates, but most fighters have their own clique outside the gym, who they tend to socialise with. It's not something that I really care for. If there's a drug cheat in the gym that doesn't like what I've said...well, I don't care for his opinion anyway.
JS: Moving onto your close pal Erik Perez, who is currently thriving. Do you foresee a title fight in his near future?
TW: Although he's 3-0, Erik will probably have a few more fights before vying for the title. I think the UFC will harness Erik to rouse interest in Mexico. He's still young so he has plenty of time.
JS: Anyone in particular in MW division who interests you?
TW: I'd like to face someone in the top ten. I requested that prior to entering the UFC, and then obviously I dropped a split decision in my opening fight. Nedkov, although not a Middleweight, was a pretty big name owing to his success at 205lbs. For me, everybody in the UFC is an absolute monster, and dangerous in their own specific ways, so I'd sooner fight someone in the top ten so I could feature on the main card and garner more exposure. But it wouldn't surprise me if I have to win maybe one or two more fights before that happens.
JS: We've previously discussed a possible UK superfight between you and Bisping, which could comfortably headline a UK card? I heard you yesterday mention it could potentially take place at Wembley stadium...do you genuinely believe MMA has reached that level of popularity within the UK?
TW: Yes, I think it could. I cite the example of Nigel Benn vs Chris Eubank at Old Trafford in front of 47,000 people. The reason it attracted that quantity was the level of media and press dedicated to the fight in the build-up, which piqued the interest of even non-boxing fans. The UFC consistently sells out UK arenas, so I don't see why a big UFC event couldn't sell 30 or 40 thousand stadium tickets, particularly with the impressive UFC promotion team. UK MMA needs such an event, and it would only serve to enhance the mainstream popularity of the sport here. The reason boxing has retained the interest of the public could be attributed to the fact that my generation grew up watching domestic superfights.
JS: True. Any plans on how you're gonna spend that fat $100,000 bonuses cheque? Anything flashy?
TW: I'll try to invest a little bit of money. When I started fighting, my main goal, aside from winning titles and becoming the best, was to achieve some sort of financial security before retiring from the sport, because it's not like I have experience in another profession for me to go and secure a well-paid job immediately. If I'm sensible with the money, it could prove useful in contributing to an easier life post-fighting. I'm not that materialistic so I don't care for purchasing a new car, or anything like that. I'll reinvest some of the money into my training, and take my game to another level again.
JS: Is that an unintentional reference to your choice of walkout song? Was that music your personal tribute to classic 90s R'n'B? What about James Te Huna's entrance, would you attempt to emulate, or even surpass that?
TW: Hahaha. No, but that's a good one. I always pick strange songs. I heard the track the week before the fight and thought it'd be pretty amusing to use, but my only concern was the UFC. I sent them the track, and they said there's a possibility it might be changed, but luckily they didn't. I've since discovered that Dane Bowers was actually in attendance, and according to one of my mates he apparently put his head down and walked out of the arena when the song began playing. Regarding James Te Huna, I wouldn't attempt to pull off a choreographed routine with outfits like that. I've done that before over the years. I'm not trying to look slick with my entrance, it's more of a joke; the worse it looks, the funnier it is.
JS: Absolutely, that's the beauty of your entrances. The contrast between the jovial music and your intimidating game face when you remove the "Kong" mask proves really effective. It's a grimace that would more befit a Hip Hop tune with aggressive lyrics and a loud beat. Well thanks a lot for the time today Tom, it's much appreciated.
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