From Fireball Kid to wise veteran, Takanori Gomi now enjoys the small moments

CHICAGO --- By the time former world champion Takanori Gomi got to the UFC, in 2010, he was already a living MMA legend. Now, as he heads into a UFC on FOX main event contest against Joe Lauzon on Saturday, Gomi is a nearly 17 year-veteran.

He began his professional MMA career in 1998, while still a teenager. After all these years, we asked the fighter Thursday afternoon if he still has the same excitement and enthusiasm to compete as he did as an adolescent.

"You know, I always ask myself that exact question right before every fight," he admitted, through a translator.

"I ask myself that question every fight. Every time I close my eyes I think about that question."

And, though the grind of being a professional athlete no doubts get to "The Fireball Kid" at times, he explained that he's learned to recognize and value small but profound moments he shares with teammates and friends that are unique to being a world-class fighter. "Something I learned is that I have this one time where I can enjoy, fully, with my team, in training camp," he said.

"I have a very special moment after the fight with my friends and family, and that makes me want to continue. That keeps the passion going for me."

Gomi went on to mention that some of that memorable moment involves a "jug of beer after the fight," that is very special and "is worth doing." Though we don't doubt that he enjoys good food and drink after a tough training camp, it seemed clear that the relationships with those close to him are what Gomi really enjoys about his life.

"I never disliked my career, my profession. I purely love MMA, and I love the people around me who support me," he said.

"So, every time I ask myself that question - is the love, the excitement, the passion to do this still inside me - the answer is always the same. I always try to make exciting fights, and try to make people happy."

He's made his fans plenty happy over the years. He has also frustrated some, who believed persistant rumors that the Japanese slugger sometimes didn't train or work as hard as he could have in training.

Gomi humbly said he believed some of that criticism was unwarranted. Ultimately, he said he made peace with it, and explained that fighting less often than he used to has re-energized him.

"I sometimes feel that the criticisms are unfair, but it's all my responsibility because I'm the one who fights in the Octagon, and that criticism must be something that I have to receive," he said.

"But, once I got some time off between fights, where I'm not fighting three or four times a year anymore, it has given me time to relax."

Indeed, in his prime Gomi fought at a breakneck pace and with punishing frequency. It was likely enough to put out the most fiery of youthful work ethics.

Now, fighting for the first time in 2015, the 36 year-old seems eager for battle once more. "The time off between fights as given me time to get back on track to fight again," he explained, in conclusion.

"All the time in between the fights I get now has refreshed me so that I can continue and think positive."