It’s still dark at 5 a.m. in Brush Creek, Arkansas, a small town in the state’s heartland. There isn’t much noise to punctuate the darkness, with most of the city’s humble population still fast asleep. But, until recently, not UFC Fort Lauderdale’s Thomas Gifford (17-7).
Hanging up the hatchet
“I wake up at five o’clock in the morning, which is unusual for most people,” Gifford told The Body Lock.
Gifford’s early rise came with good reason. The 26-year-old cage fighter lived a very different life than most of his cage-fighting colleagues: Thomas Gifford was a lumberjack.
“I get up, and from about 6:30 in the morning – depending on how it went, how fast daylight comes – from 6:30 in the morning ’til about two to three o’clock in the afternoon,” Gifford began.
“I’m constantly walking up and down hills, running a chainsaw, sweating my butt off, drinking water, trying to stay hydrated. It’s, it’s a taxing, taxing job,” said Gifford with a tired sigh. “I’ll wear protective gear, which makes it extra hot on top of my clothes, and it really makes you sweat really bad because you’re constantly burning calories and you’re constantly moving; you’re constantly having to do something – heavy lifting, heavy moving… it really just makes you sweat like crazy.”
However, in March, Gifford received news for which fighters around the world yearn: he’d been offered a UFC contract.
“I was actually getting off work,” Gifford said of getting that famous UFC call.
While Gifford is set to make his promotional debut this month, this isn’t the first time he’s received an offer to fight for the UFC.
“I actually turned down one [previous offer] because I was too much overweight.”
That offer happened to be against Jesus Pinedo UFC Nashville on March 23, The Body Lock confirmed. Pinedo ultimately faced John Makdessi at that event. But Gifford didn’t have to wait long for more good news.
“Then, two weeks later he called me again, and was like, ‘Oh, would you like to fight April 27 for the UFC?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, hell, yeah!’ He was like, ‘Just sign the contract. Do you think you could make weight?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m about 170-pounds right now.'”
Gifford says he’s learned from being slightly overweight and missing his initial UFC fight offer: “I’ve already been dieting since the last offer I turned down.”
With the UFC contract, Gifford has been able to hang up his chainsaw, so to speak.
“I finally got to quit that job, and I get to wake up in the morning and go train two or three times a day. Then I get to come home and chill, and that’s more relaxing. So yeah, [fighting is] kind of like a vacation. I wake up in the morning and I do whatever I want. I can either go to practice or not go to practice… but I’m going to go to practice,” Gifford says with a laugh.
Looking to hand Roosevelt Roberts his first loss
Thomas Gifford will face a highly-touted lightweight prospect, Roosevelt Roberts (7-0), in his UFC debut.
Roberts, 25, scored his UFC contract with an impressive second-round submission victory over Garrett Gross on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series (DWTNCS).
Roberts then successfully made his UFC debut, scoring a “Performance of the Night”-earning, first-round submission win over Darrell Horcher at The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale.
However, Gifford says, Roberts is about to face his toughest test yet.
“He’s hasn’t fought anybody like me,” said Gifford. “He’s never fought somebody who fights back like me. He can hit me with all he’s got, and I’m going to keep coming forward. I’m going to keep that pressure on him. I’m going to keep doing wild things, and if he puts me on the ground, I’m going to get out of his submission; then I’m going to throw submissions and even if I get stuck in submission, he’s going to have to break it or choke me unconscious because I’m not going to lose this fight.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind of me even having a chance to lose this fight.”
As for his official prediction, Gifford’s is short and sweet: “Second round, tap out.”
What a UFC win would mean
Thomas Gifford is coming off of a massively underrated “Fight of the Year” candidate. Last October, Gifford fought to a split-decision victory at V3 Fights 70, in what was a wild, back-and-forth barnburner of a bout.
Regarding that fight’s insanity, Gifford remarked that he was just as in awe as the rest of those who tuned in.
“It was actually kind of crazy. I figured that after I got that triangle and armbar in the first 30 seconds, I believed it was over in my mind. But he took that ripped-apart elbow and kept fighting. He was a tough guy, and I couldn’t put him down with any punches, and he couldn’t take my submissions. So, we tried to stay standing and bang it out.”
If Gifford’s next fight with Roberts is anything like the Brown win, he’ll certainly be walking away with a $50,000 UFC “Performance of the Night” bonus. As for what the now-ex lumberjack would do with the money, Gifford is practical.
“I would actually look into paying off my and my girlfriend’s car, and then look for a decent house to start fixing up. That way, I can live the rest of my life there.”
Ultimately, Gifford says, he wants to move out to Colorado, the home of surging MMA gym, Factory X, where Gifford trains.
“Eventually, yes, I would like to have some land and build a house out here [in Colorado]. That way, I can go elk hunting and bring my family down, and that way I’ll have a place to stay when I’m training, instead of staying with other people in the fighter house.”
A new Thomas Gifford
For Thomas Gifford, everything’s going right. He’s on a six-fight unbeaten streak, he’s just signed with the UFC, and he’s going to make his UFC debut against a top prospect.
The Arkansan attributes all of those things to his time at Factory X under coach Marc Montoya.
“My first day, [Factory X] welcomed me in like family. I learned all their names and I got my butt kicked for two whole practices, and then I came home, sore as crap, and I knew that it was a good choice for me because I learned so much in the first two practices of my weeks here,” remembers Gifford.
Predominantly, Gifford has been working alongside fellow UFC lightweight Devonte Smith, ex-UFC middleweight and GLORY kickboxer Chris Camozzi, and top LFA featherweight prospect Youssef Zalal.
Putting in work in the gym with those “top killers” is a big part of his success, says Gifford. But it’s his work with the brains behind Factory X, Marc Montoya, that’s really helped Gifford put it all together.
“The first time I ever did mitts with him, he showed me that I’m raising up and going high, and I was takin’ away my power instead of staying low and using my body into my power, I was always punching with my arms.
“It’s crazy, you would think I’m a long fighter because I’ve been fighting long, but he showed me that I actually have about six more inches that I’m not using; I got more length to give. And now, I’m going to have at least six more inches of reach, and I’m going to have twice as much punching power.”
A longer, more powerful Thomas Gifford is a scary thought. Gifford warns the UFC’s lightweight division:
“They’d better be ready.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.