(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)

CHICAGO – Josh Thomson wasn’t supposed to be in shivering Chicago this week, but now he has a good reason to be.

Thomson (20-5 MMA, 3-1 UFC) was supposed to fight Anthony Pettis for the UFC’s lightweight championship in December before a knee injury put Pettis on the shelf. Now Thomson fights ex-champion Benson Henderson (19-3 MMA, 7-1 UFC) in the main event of UFC on FOX 10 on Saturday (FOX, 8 p.m. ET).

Coming into the week, Thomson knew the stakes could be high. But he wasn’t sure if an upset victory – Henderson is roughly a 3-to-1 favorite – would put him right back into the ondeck circle, waiting for Pettis to heal.

“Your next fight is always the hardest fight. It’s always the most important. It’s always the one that gets you closer to the title,” Thomson told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.

“It’s just a fight. I didn’t need this fight to get a title shot — I already had it. But what are you going to do? You need to fight.” But now a Thomson win literally will be the one that gets him closer to the title.

UFC President Dana White confirmed Thursday that if Thomson wins he will be locked in as the No. 1 contender when Pettis is ready to return.

And if Henderson wins? He might need to fight more while recent title challenger Gilbert Melendez moves up in line.

“Here’s the reality: If Thomson wins, he’s the next in line,” White said. “Obviously Ben Henderson just lost very decisively in his last fight with (Pettis). Should Benson Henderson win, we’ll see what’s up with (Melendez).

In April, Thomson became the first fighter to knock out Nate Diaz. After taking him out, and while waiting for a call for his next fight, the former Strikeforce champion got an unexpected call. He was asked to fight Pettis for the lightweight belt.

But the disappointment of having that title shot put on hold only lasted long enough for him to realize he’d rather stay active and prove he deserved to be the No. 1 contender.

“I’m over it. I’ve got, obviously, I think, bigger fish to fry,” Thomson said. “Benson poses more of a threat. He’s more well-rounded. There’s more to him that I have to worry about. With Pettis, I don’t have much to worry about.”

But the only way Thomson will find out for sure if he has to worry about Pettis is to get through Henderson, whom he thinks has the type of well-rounded style that compares to his own.

“He fights like me,” Thomson said. “This sport was created for this purpose right here. It’s not a one-dimensional fight.”

For the latest on UFC on FOX 10, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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