The daily grind. It’s an essential part of our lives. It’s what gets us up in the morning and gives us the push to make it through the day to get home to our loved ones or the solace of our home. It’s synonymous with the working life, but it doesn’t always fit that mold. A truck driver may have to start his days when most people are ending theirs. A nurse may have to work a 14-hour shift overnight just in time to be home and asleep before most people are punching in for the day.
Thomas “The Young Lion” Gifford used to be one of those anomalies. He was a lumberjack before the UFC came calling. On Saturday, Gifford leaves his day job behind. It will be the first time in his 27-fight career that he has been able to train full-time.
“Well, first off, I am fully rested,” Gifford told Combat Press. “I am completely on weight already. I am 100 percent more prepared than I ever have been. I don’t have any injuries. I don’t have any soreness. I don’t have any misplaced bones anywhere. I’ve been to the chiropractor multiple times this fight camp, and I’ve really been taken care of, because we do about 18 to 20 hours of training a week at Factory X and it ain’t no slouch training.
“We got Ian Heinisch, Maurice Greene, Court McGee, Zak Cummings. They’re all in the top 10 to top 15 of their weight classes, and I’m rolling and going with these guys every day. But back in the day, I was going with guys that I could tap out, that I could knock out, and I could beat. I was going with these regional guys, and now I’m on that high level to be able to compete with the UFC fighters that I’ve been fighting.
“It’s crazy, the feeling that I feel when I come here and I breathe this air in Arkansas, compared to the air in Colorado. My cardio has jumped up at least 50 percent better than what it ever is — and I’ve always had good cardio, but now it is through the roof. I can push the pace for three to five rounds constantly. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing — ground, wrestling or standing — my cardio has jumped through the roof, all because of the elevation training I’ve been doing. Let alone, I haven’t been going to practice tired and [worn] out. I haven’t been working eight to 10 hours a day in the heat, in the sun, and then going to practice half drained [and] half being able to work. I am fully prepared for exactly what I am having to go through.
“It’s the biggest change in the world, and it’s hard to explain, because most people don’t work like I do. Carrying around something 25 pounds on your forearm all day is a skill in its own. Most people get cramps or sit down and rest. I didn’t get to sit down and rest. I just kept going. The faster you get done, the better your pay is. I was doing production work. It’s no slouch out there walking up and down hills and having no shade whatsoever.”
Gifford took a big risk with his decision to quit a full-time job. Most fighters have to work their way up, and the pay doesn’t always come right away. It’s a sacrifice. Sometimes, it’s a leap of faith, just like making a big change in training camps, especially moving to one out of state.
“When I signed with Jason House [and] Team Iridium, he told me my game after the [last] Fight. He was like, ‘Hey, you need to go to the top gym, a UFC gym, and I think I got the perfect coach for you,’” Gifford explained. “So he hooked me up to go see my buddy Bryce Mitchell fight in Nashville, and I met Marc Montoya, and I done mitts with him for an hour, and I was like, ‘Ho-ly crap!’ This dude is a genius. What have I been doing staying in Arkansas thinking that I’m the best? It was like a blessing in disguise.
Gifford had been boxing for a long time. He was convinced that nobody was going to change his stand-up game. He had no idea he’d run into someone like Montoya.
“He tweaked a little bit of things,” admitted GIfford. “He made me realize that I was actually screwing myself up in ways and I was hurting myself, and I was like, ‘Man, I need to go there. I have to go there.’ And that’s how it worked out. Jason House hooked me up with the best coach in the world. Even Coach Marc Montoya told me, ‘Since the first day I met you, you are 100 percent better than what you used to be. You would kill that kid you used to be.’
“Back in the day, I was 9-2 at 155 [pounds], and I was thinking I was the next big thing. And I was telling everybody that, and they were like, ‘You need to get out of Arkansas. You need to sign with a management company. You need to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Nah. I don’t need all that. God’s got me. He’s gonna take care of me.’ And that’s exactly what he did. I went through a little valley and then I rose back up to the top. I signed with the best sports agency in the world, Team Iridium, and now look at me. I’m in the UFC, and I’m fixing to climb the ranks come next Saturday.”
“Everybody needs to understand that this life is rough. It’ll do things to you mentally, physically and financially. You need help in all three aspects if you’re gonna live and do this full time.”
It’s amazing that for MMA being such an individual sport, a team can make so many impactful changes on not just a fighter’s approach, but their awareness. Sometimes, though, the timing just doesn’t line up correctly.
“I thought I was good,” Gifford said. “I got the UFC call, and I went to Factory X, and I tried to jam three weeks of knowledge into my brain. I wanted to do all this new stuff and I wanted to try all this stuff out, but I just learnt it. I didn’t know really how to perfect it or set it up. I wasn’t sparring and putting the moves on other people like I’ve been doing these last five months. Everything Marc Montoya has taught me, I have taken into sparring rounds, into my Grappling, [and] into my wrestling. I have tried it multiple times. I have failed multiple times. But now, I have perfected it. I have control over it. I have the IQ of a fighter now. I’m not just some brawler that goes out there and fights anymore. I’m somebody who sits there, picks my punches, hits my shots, and I’m accurate. I am a stylin’ sniper, and everybody in the world is fixing to find out.
Montoya is much more than just an MMA coach to Gifford, though.
“He don’t just make us better as fighters,” Gifford explained. “He makes us better as men, and he makes us better to God. He is a very Christian man. He helps us in everything day-to-day and helps us live right. He helps us with taxes, our credit score, any kind of problems. Marital problems or boyfriend/girlfriend problems. He is all in one. He is our psychiatrist. If we need something, Marc is there. We are a big family. It really makes a difference.”
Along with many fighters today, such as Benson Henderson and Yoel Romero, Gifford does not shy away from being a man of God. It’s not uncommon to hear a fighter give their thanks and glory to their lord, but, as Gifford explains it, it’s truly a staple in his life and the life of his team as well.
“You gotta have a solid rock to stand on,” said Gifford. “You can’t build a house on sand; it’ll wash away. Marc, Jason, and Thomas Gifford, my father, are all three good Christian men that have been through everything that I’m gonna go through eventually, and them being my accountability partners, it’s a game changer.”
When Gifford competes on Saturday, it will be the second time he’s featured on the UFC main card. It’s a spot that is historically reserved for fighters the company is looking to push.
“I’m well rounded,” Gifford said. “I can take any kind of punch or kick or knee or elbow to the face, as you’ve all seen last fight. I can get on the ground with black belts, two or three degrees, it doesn’t matter. When it’s the fight game, it’s hard to submit me, and when we’re punching, it’s easy for me to submit you. I got good boxing, good kicks, good jiu-jitsu, and I got alright wrestling. If I get my takedown defense to where it needs to be, the UFC will think I’m their next golden boy, because I got that length, I got that power, and I got the jiu-jitsu to take out anyone in the division.
“Everybody talks about Khabib [Nurmagomedov] this, Khabib that. I’m Khabib’s kryptonite. He’s not gonna be able to hold me down, lay on me, and just beat on me to win. He’s gonna have to be dodging submissions. He’s gonna have to be dodging my punches. He’s gonna have a different story with me, because I see everybody’s mistakes and everything they’ve done. But I’m gonna be Khabib’s kryptonite because he ain’t gonna walk through any of my punches, and he’s not gonna shoot some sloppy takedown and not get his neck choked unconscious. If Dustin Poirier would have done a regular guillotine instead of an arm in, he would have choked Khabib unconscious.”
These are strong words from such a young challenger, but Gifford is no stranger to this role. He has been competing in MMA since 2010, the year he turned 18. Since then, he has competed 11 times as an amateur and 27 times as a professional. Despite this long resume, MMA was not where Gifford started.
“My first boxing match, I was 13 in 2005,” Gifford said with a chuckle. “I told my dad, ‘I want to be a professional fighter.’ Boxing didn’t work out, and I found MMA. Then I found out I was good in jiu-jitsu and I was good on the ground. I was decent. I was beating all these new guys that were coming in and said they were good at jiu-jitsu. So, I progressed, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to take this all the way.’”
Gifford’s confidence cannot be denied. With a full training camp and no distractions from a full-time job, it’s obvious that a highly motivated “Young Lion” will be competing on Saturday.
“[My nickname may] be ‘God’s Gladiator’ by the end of my career,” Gifford predicted. “I’m a big fan of the Gladiator movie, and I’ve watched it since I was a kid. I almost chose that name when I first started, but my jiu-jitsu coach was like, ‘No. You need to be the ‘Young Lion’ because you’re courageous and you’re strong and you’re nothing but [you’re] gonna be a king one day.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? That sounds really good.’
Gifford was set to meet Brok Weaver at UFC on ESPN+ 19, but Weaver recently withdrew and Mike Davis stepped in to take his place. Now, Gifford has a new opponent on less than a week’s notice. Davis might want to watch out.
“After Saturday, I’ll just say that the UFC’s gonna be in awe,” Gifford promised. “They’re gonna be like, ‘Whoa! Where did this kid come from? What the heck? What happened? And they’re gonna be like, ‘Marc Montoya, you gotta tell us your secrets. What are you doing?’”