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When Nick Thompson began studying mixed martial arts fighting four years ago, his nickname was "The Fainting Goat."
It wasn't meant to be flattering. The moniker referred to a neurological disorder that afflicts some goats, causing them to suddenly collapse when they're startled. In other words, Thompson often finished a match unconscious.
"I had never been in a fistfight in my life," he recalls. "I was awful. At least once a week at practice I'd get knocked out."
Thompson's initial public bout took place at Memorial Hall in Racine, Wisconsin, after just four weeks of training. To no one's surprise, he was knocked out in the first round.
Despite this inauspicious debut, the former University of Wisconsin wrestler continued training. In 2005 he moved to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. He also began working out at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, in Brooklyn Center.
Then the Fainting Goat started winning fights. He employed a guillotine to submit Victor Moreno at Freestyle Fighting Championship 16 in Tunica, Mississippi, then choked out Josh Neer at Extreme Challenge 64 in Osceola, Iowa.
No longer fainting, now he was just "The Goat."
A string of five straight victories earned the 170-pounder a shot in mixed martial arts fighting's most popular circuit, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In his premier bout at UFC 56: Full Force, he slugged out a unanimous decision over Keith Wisniewski.
In April 2006, Thompson returned to the UFC, squaring off against veteran Karo Parisyan. Parisyan's impressive résumé included a unanimous decision over Matt Serra, the UFC's current welterweight titleholder. Thompson got sliced open with an elbow and didn't make it out of the first round.
"He cut me and proceeded to punch me many times," he recalls. "It was very mean of him, really."
Last year, Thompson was recruited by an upstart international fight circuit called Bodog. The company's flamboyant Canadian-born billionaire owner, Calvin Ayre, made his fortune assembling an online-gambling empire. A fan of MMA, he lured top fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Lindland to his fledgling league.
Thompson signed a two-bout deal with Bodog. In his first fight he choked out Davion Peterson in Costa Rica. Then he traveled to Vancouver, Canada, and executed a first-round submission of Ansar Chalangov. The pair of impressive victories earned him a shot at Bodog's 170-pound title.
Last month, the 25-year-old Thompson flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, to take on Eddie Alvarez for the belt. Alvarez boasted a 9-0 record, with all but two of his victories coming via first-round knockout or submission. The Philadelphia-based fighter was billed a 2-1 favorite over the Goat.
Thompson's game plan was to keep the fight on its feet, because he owned a considerable reach advantage over Alvarez. In the first round Thompson landed several strong jabs. He added some punishing kicks to the mix in the second period. Then the Goat floored Alvarez with a right uppercut.
"It surprised him," Thompson says, "knocked him down, and I was able to jump on top of him and basically hit him until the ref pulled me off."
After winning the title, Thompson was summoned to a private post-bout gathering with Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who were in the audience. But something was lost in translation and the Goat missed the meeting.
"At first I was bummed out," he says. "But then I thought, lots of people get to meet the president. Who blows off the president?"