In an era in which mixed martial arts is finally legal in New York, the sport remains largely ostracized in France, a product of a political tug-of-war between MMA advocates and the country’s influential French Judo Federation.
While the future of professional cage fighting in France remains uncertain, it is quite the opposite for Parisian Tom Duquesnoy, whose place at or near the top of most reputable prospect lists seems secure until he makes the seemingly inevitable leap to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. That day could be on the horizon, as the “Fire Kid” has just two fights remaining on his British Association of Mixed Martial Arts contract. That includes his bantamweight title showdown with Shay Walsh in the BAMMA 25 headliner on Saturday at Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, England -- a card which streams live to Sherdog.com. Once his current deal is finished, Duquesnoy fully expects to make the Octagon home.
“For the past two years I’ve been in contact with [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby. We have a good relationship. We are aware that we will work together very soon,” Duquesnoy told Sherdog.com. “We just have much respect for each other, and we know we will at some point be in business together. For right now, the goal to me is to be more prepared because I want to be in the UFC to stay. I don’t want to go back and forth.”
When it comes to MMA, Duquesnoy has always been in it for the long haul. While he was not allowed to practice MMA until the age of 18 in France, Duquesnoy immersed himself in the combat arts. Inspired by the exploits of Fedor Emelianenko in the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships, he began practicing combat sambo, the legendary Russian’s discipline of choice, when he was 12. As the years passed, Duquesnoy added boxing, wrestling and muay Thai to his repertoire. He even tried his hand in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments despite not initially knowing how to properly utilize the gi. For Duquesnoy, it was all in the name of research -- a project that would pay off by his 18th birthday.
When that day arrived, combat sports was no longer simply a tool Duquesnoy’s father hoped his son would learn in the name of self-defense. It was a potential career. His father then offered to pay his son’s expenses to move from Lens, France, to Paris in order to fully immerse himself in the MMA training lifestyle. If after one year’s time Duquesnoy had not proven himself, the deal would end. The investment has paid off; and really, Duquesnoy says, he was never really interested in a future outside of MMA. Fighting was the best way for him to live the life he envisioned for himself.
“I’m not really as fascinated in school as I still am at MMA,” Duquesnoy said. “I took a philosophical approach [to my future]. I started asking myself what I wanted to be in life. When I was answering that question I was like, ‘I like traveling. I like training. I like to have a good state of mind. I like to be healthy. I like to discover new things, new languages, new culture, new people.’”
Duquesnoy discovered that MMA could provide a means for him to do those things while still providing him with enough money to pay his bills. More importantly, he flourished at his chosen profession.
Training under the guidance of France native David Baron, a 22-fight veteran with bouts against the likes of Jim Miller, Dan Hardy and Takanori Gomi, Duquesnoy tore through the early portion of his career and eventually captured BAMMA’s featherweight title. His only bump in the road came against current UFC talent Makwan Amirkhani in his fifth professional bout at an event in Finland. When Duquesnoy reflects on that defeat, he admits that it might not have been the best idea to agree to matchup with an opponent nicknamed “Mr. Finland” in Finland.
“There were no official weigh-ins. I never saw my opponent, except the Saturday night in the cage, so maybe he was way heavier than me; and we’ll never know that. We had a late flight to catch just the day before the fight. Those were pretty hard conditions,” he said. “I feel like that organization did local shows so they just did everything for their local guys to win. They do everything against the foreign guy. You have to check all the stuff because if you don’t control it, it can make things very hard for you.”
On a positive note, Amirkhani has done quite well for himself since then. “Mr. Finland” has won his first three fights in the UFC and is a rising talent in the promotion’s featherweight division. Duquesnoy can envision a scenario in which the two former foes meet again under different circumstances.
“Makwan is a brilliant opponent. He was on the way up. That was good for him because he gets a win against an opponent who is good and has a good name in Europe, but I was still in the making,” Duquesnoy said. “Right now, I’m still in the making, too, but I’m not the same man I was. Maybe at some point I will get revenge.”
However, Duquesnoy’s long-term home appears to be at bantamweight. After a controversial split decision triumph over Brendan Loughnane at BAMMA 22 in September, “Fire Kid” made a splash in his 135-pound debut on Feb. 27, scoring a first-round knockout of Damien Rooney. Duquesnoy was admittedly less than pleased with his performance against Loughnane -- “That’s a win, but that’s not a victory,” he said -- but he believes that led to his making the necessary improvements in the gym that resulted in the first true knockout of his pro career.
“My last fight I found my KO power,” he said. “I was pretty happy to find that because that KO power I used to have my whole career, especially when I was 15 to 18 years old. I remember that I used to KO adults, even in training, even with headgear.”
Some of Duquesnoy’s perceived progress is a result of his decision to move his training to a more established camp outside of Paris. That journey took him from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and finally to Albuquerque, New Mexico, before Duquesnoy settled upon Jackson-Wink MMA as his new home. Duquesnoy needed to find a place where he could better blend the impressive arsenal of skills he began to acquire as a teenager, and the renowned gym run by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn provided the best opportunity to do that. Of course, there is also the virtual all-star roster of sparring partners against which Duquesnoy can test his mettle.
“We always like to see the guy’s grit; we like to see how tough they are,” Jackson-Wink assistant coach Brandon Gibson said. “We’ll put them in some hard rounds and see if they have some flash or if they have some real show. Tom’s definitely one of those kids who has some real show. Even recently this camp he spent a lot of time training with Anthony Pettis. He trains a lot with B.J. Penn [and] Diego Sanchez -- very tough fighters; and lighter, faster fighters, too, like John Dodson.”
Of all his new training partners, Duquesnoy especially enjoyed going head-to-head with former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm. The Frenchman in particular admires how Holm was able to smoothly transition from boxing to MMA.
“Maybe it’s my gentleman’s side, but I really love to spar with [her],” he said. “She’s efficient, she’s smart, she takes the angle. For me, she has one of the best techniques in Albuquerque, and she is a really good sparring partner. We are the same size, so we have a lot of benefits for each other.”
For now, Duquesnoy will continue to go back and forth between Paris and New Mexico until his BAMMA deal expires. Once that happens and the anticipated UFC contract arrives, he will move to the United States on a permanent basis. Clearly, Duquesnoy is not afraid to venture outside his comfort zone to improve. Besides traveling to a foreign country, he has taken hot yoga and even a classic ballet class in order to enhance what is already a high level of athleticism. That open-minded approach makes him a unique talent, even in a gym full of supremely gifted fighters.
“Physically [what’s most impressive] I would say is his elasticity,” Gibson said. “He’s a very flexible, agile, balanced martial artist. He can do things in certain positions that I’ve never seen any other martial artist do -- very graceful, very aware of his body and his range. He’s quite the impressive martial artist to watch in all aspects.”
Very soon, a much greater audience could gain appreciation for what Gibson and the rest of the Jackson-Wink crew have only recently gotten a chance to witness. When Duquesnoy’s day arrives, he believes he will be ready. He has basically been preparing for his UFC debut for the better part of a decade now.
“I can see where my level is. I don’t want to be arrogant, but I feel like little by little I feel ready for that title; but I want to do things step by step and respect the physical steps in my career. I want to work on a lot of stuff and I want to go in the UFC to fight for the belt,” he said. “I’ve got a long-term vision in that business. You have to go in the UFC when you’re ready for the title, not before.”