Arkansas’s fighters are having their moment in the sun, and Thomas Gifford is planning to make the most of that shine.
Gifford, 26, officially becomes the latest native son of “The Natural State” to join the UFC roster when he takes on Roosevelt Roberts in the lightweight main card opener of UFC Fort Lauderdale at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, live on ESPN+ on Saturday. He joins a recent surge of proud Arkansasans to step into the Octagon, a list that includes bantamweight Bryce Mitchell (Cabot) and featherweight Luis Pena (Little Rock), and recent Ultimate Fighter heavyweight finalist Justin Frazier (Batesville).
Pena and Mitchell have begun to make a name for themselves, and Gifford not only expects to rise to the level of his peers, he expects that he can make history by becoming the first fighter from Arkansas to challenge for a UFC title.
“That’s the No. 1 dream. I’m not gonna stop until I get to the top,” Gifford recently told MMA Fighting of his plans to represent his home state at the highest level. “I’m not scared of Khabib (Nurmagomedov). I’m not scared of Dustin Poirier. I’m not scared of Conor McGregor. I’m a tall, long fighter and I have good jiu-jitsu and I have a strong jaw. That’ll mess up Conor. That’ll mess up Khabib. Yes, I’m easy to get taken down, but I have threatening submissions and I have threatening hands. Once me and (Factory X head coach) Marc Montoya get a couple of months in together, four or five training camps, they’re going to realize that, ‘Oh my goodness, there was a superstar here and we didn’t know about it.’
“And that’s what I’m planning to do. Marc Montoya is changing my game for the better and he’s going to make me a world champion.”
Hailing from Brush Creek, Gifford has taken his career to another level in the past year, quitting his job as a lumberjack that he’s had since he was 17 and making the trek out to California to train with Team Alpha Male and then heading over to Colorado to prepare for his UFC debut with Montoya and the Factory X team.
It was Gifford’s girlfriend Hadison Bates who helped him to find sponsors that would pay for his time with Alpha Male, another experience that he could cross off of his bucket list, and later he made arrangements to do his UFC Fort Lauderdale camp with Montoya. The plan going forward is to continue to train at Spa City Martial Arts in Arkansas and then complete his fight camps in Colorado.
That kind of schedule is nothing compared to what Gifford has gone through for the better part of the last decade, waking up at 5:30 in the morning for his lumberjack gig that saw him spend most of his time avoiding chainsaw nicks. Now, “The Young Lion” can visualize cagefighting glory for himself, something he was able to appreciate firsthand as a guest at UFC Nashville, where Mitchell and Pena were both victorious.
“It was like a dream come true because I knew that that was gonna happen to me,” Gifford said. “Just seeing my fellow training partners Bryce Mitchell and Luis Pena, when their names come up on the screen and their face is up on the screen and everybody’s screaming and chanting, ‘Violent Bob Ross! Thug Nasty!’ I mean, it was insane and I just can’t wait to be in that atmosphere and then hearing them say, ‘The Young Lion’ over and over and over.
“And then winning that 50K is definitely on my mind. It is a big step in my life and 50K can change my life. I only made $22,000 last year and when I win this fight I’ll make $20,000 in one fight and that’s a whole year’s pay to me and I didn’t even have to do nothin’ but do what I love. It’s mind blowing and just wrapping my head around that is mostly the hardest part other than fighting because I’ve fought on big shows, I’ve been in front of people… It’s nerve-wracking, but once I get in there and I take that first punch, it’s nothing but war.”
Gifford credits his father Thomas Gifford II for getting him into martial arts. In high school, Gifford was an easy target, describing himself as a 100-pound, 5-foot-2 smart alec with long hair, and he told his dad that he needed to learn how to fight and fast. One visit to a boxing coach and one bloody nose later, Gifford knew he was in it for the long haul.
Despite having no formal martial arts training himself (Gifford says his father has had his share of street-fighting experience), Gifford II will be cornering his son on Saturday, another example of the respect that Gifford has for his roots. It’s his father who instilled Gifford’s work ethic in him and made him get serious about dieting so that he could become a legitimate lightweight prospect on a five-fight win streak and not a bloated welterweight that was racking up losses a few years back.
He’s hoping to be part of the charge now that is forcing people to notice Arkansas’s fighters.
“It’s growing,” Gifford said of the Arkansas MMA scene. “People are seeing with Luis Pena and Bryce Mitchell, all they did was they were young country boys who believed in themselves. They didn’t do nothing but work hard and push for what they believe in and look at them now. They’re in that big league, they’re making that big money, they’re making them big steps and everybody was like, ‘Aw, Arkansas ain’t got no fighters.’ No, we do have really good fighters. We don’t have fighters that get in here and they stick to the game plan and win lose or draw they don’t come back like, ‘Oh man, I can’t do this, this is too hard’ or ‘Oh man, I want to party too much.’
“Now that we have them set guys that actually put their mind to do what they wanted to do and never let it go, and never let anything get in their way, Arkansas’s an up-and-coming place.”
What will it take to get the UFC to make a stop in Arkansas? Gifford says it’s just a matter of letting the organization know that the state and its neighbors are passionate enough to sell out large venue, just as they did in Nashville when a legion of Arkansans made the five-hour drive to Bridgestone Arena. He expects that Nashville folks would do the same for a show in Little Rock.
“If they have Luis Pena, me, Bryce Mitchell, Justin Frazier on the card, that right there is four cities in Arkansas alone,” Gifford said. “Not to mention all the fanbases they already have coming into one place. It’s just a matter of fact of the UFC seeing that there’s potential there, that there’s money there.”