The spotlight can be a very dangerous place for young people. Whether it’s child stars who wind up in the gutter, young performers who can’t seem to stay out of trouble, or athletes who blow all their money on mansions, boats and cars before suffering a career-ending injury, the spotlight may bring wealth and superficial happiness, but one thing it doesn’t provide is maturity.
Justin Lawrence was thrust into the spotlight at a relatively young age. The professional mixed martial artist first appeared on The Ultimate Fighter: Live reality show in March 2012 at only 21 years old. He was, by far, the youngest competitor, but he showed his skills very well. After beating WEC, Titan and RFA veteran James Krause by a first-round TKO to get into the house, he was the first pick for Dominick Cruz.
Lawrence’s time on the show had its ups and downs. He showed tremendous skills, especially after he won his fight against Cristiano Marcello with a second-round knockout. However, there were times in practice when he showed some immaturity, especially in episode six, when he was paired with Mike Rio and was throwing some dangerous spinning kicks after being asked not to. Through good times and bad, Lawrence made an overall great showing from a skills perspective, but the limelight was definitely hanging over his head.
In the last three years, the Missouri native, who is now 25, has made great strides in his career. After entering the show with a 3-0 pro record, he was released from the UFC a year later with a 4-2 mark with his two losses coming in back-to-back fights. Lawrence’s UFC release led to a three-fight run in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance. During that time, he improved many aspects of his game, including his ability to deal with the spotlight.
“I’ve come the complete circle, man,” Lawrence told Combat Press. “I’m a complete mixed martial artist. I’m game. I’m tough. I’m tough at every discipline — striking, wrestling, jiu-jitsu — and I feel like I’ve grown a lot since TUF, as far as a fighter, maturity, a man. So I’m going to show them that I’m dedicated. I’m here, working my tail off on my weaknesses, and I’m trying to get better to become the best mixed martial artist that I possibly can and become a world champion.”
After defending his RFA featherweight title last April against then-undefeated Sam Toomer, Lawrence, feeling like he was growing into a complete fighter, was ready for the next stage of his career.
“Nothing is like getting kicked down to the regional show and having to fight for your life,” said Lawrence. “It’s kind of good for a fighter, and I think that every fighter ought to experience that — when your back’s against the ropes and you really have to go out there and prove yourself. That’s what I felt like in my last fight with Sam Toomer, and I finished him pretty early in the first round. That following Monday, Bellator was on the phone with my manager, trying to get a hold of me. So it all kind of worked out. Bellator offered me a good contract, so I signed it, and now I get to fight in my hometown, which is kind of cool.”
In the blink of an eye, Lawrence signed a four-fight contract with one of the biggest promotions in the world. His debut will take place on Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the town where his fight life began.
Lawrence is originally from Pacific, Mo., which is to the southwest of St. Louis. When he originally came to TUF three years ago, he was hailing from 21st Century Martial Arts in his hometown. His stepfather had been training him in striking arts since he was a young boy, and he was a decorated striking champion prior to trying his hand at MMA. By 21, he was on TUF training under Cruz and his stable of coaches. That’s when Lawrence realized that if he wanted to be the best, then he needed to train with the best.
“I came out to Alliance MMA in San Diego after my UFC 150 loss, basically right after TUF,” Lawrence explained. “I rubbed elbows with Dominick Cruz and Eric del Fierro and all of the coaches at Alliance. The training just wasn’t that good back home. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good coaches back home — my dad, Benny Voyles, has been my main striking coach ever since I was, like, seven years old — and I think all the coaches back there are great, but I needed good training partners. You’re only as good as your training partners.
“So, I moved back to San Diego with Dominick Cruz, and kind of wanted to mimic him. Michael Chandler was out there, and he’s from Missouri, and I thought it would be a good fit to move out to San Diego. And, I also noticed that Chandler wasn’t training back home and he was doing real well, so I felt like you’re only as good as your training partners and I made that trip out to San Diego.”
The transition to San Diego turned out to be a great career move for Lawrence. After winning and defending the RFA title, he landed on the Bellator roster, and his first bout is tomorrow night at Bellator 138. While Lawrence is a tough up-and-comer, his first opponent, Sean Wilson, is no stranger to MMA.
Wilson, who fights out of Premier Combat Center in Omaha, Neb., has been active as a pro for a whopping 15 years. In 59 fights, he has only been to decision once, and most of his fights have ended on the ground. In fact, his submission record, specifically, is 23-22, his knockout record is 10-3, and he did capture the scorecards in the one contest that went the distance. Like many Omaha fighters, he likes to put on a show, which means a finish, regardless of which way it goes. After a rough one-year run, where he dropped six-in a row, he has gone 2-2 since Aug. 2013, and is also looking to make a big statement at Bellator 138.
“Tough guy, veteran, journeyman,” stated Lawrence. “He’s fought everybody in the game. He’s super tough and he really likes to hurt you with his overhand right. But, at the same time, his overhand right is kind of telegraphed and easy to counter. I just have to circle from the strong side and work to his back, his weakness, and land with my right hand and I should be fine. This is my fight. My dad always tells me, ‘It’s another day in the gym. It’s just like sparring. There’s nothing to it.’ And, that’s what keeps me focused and keeps me balanced back in the locker room.”
While the RFA has been a rising promotion, feeding a lot of fighters to the UFC and Bellator, this will be the first time Lawrence has been back in a big-stage spotlight in over two years. However, a lot has changed for him since TUF.
“I feel like [my biggest learning experience has been] going out there and not letting it be so surreal, where you’re not worrying about the fact that it says Bellator or it says UFC, and the cameras in your face and things like that,” said Lawrence. “Those are the things that happen a lot at the big show, at that level. At our level, everybody knows how to fight and everybody’s in shape, so it comes down to the mental aspect of fighting.
“A lot of times, I was pretty much a young dude fighting grown men that had families and mouths to feed. I felt like they had a lot more to prove and a lot more to fight for than me just trying to save for my next dirt bike, you know? That being said, I feel like I’ve really grown a lot as a fighter, not just physically, but as a fighter mentally. You can’t really grow mentally unless you’ve been in those positions. You’ve got to experience it, and that’s why experience in this game is so important. You can’t buy it. You can’t train for it. You’ve only got to go in there and do it.”
Clearly, Wilson will have more experience in terms of time served, but Lawrence has been fighting the new breed of fighters, and that experience goes a long way in this day and age of the ever-evolving sport. Of course, training with the killers at Alliance helps a lot too.
“I fully moved to San Diego,” Lawrence elaborated. “I felt like, even when I’m not in camp, I need to go in the gym at least once a day and make sure I don’t get out of shape. I’m still learning, you know? These are some of the best coaches in the world here at Alliance. I feel that if I miss a day, I miss a lot of information and a lot of good drilling. I feel like moving out here and staying out here is kind of important. Plus, it cuts out a lot of the distractions from back home. I’m pretty much fresh out of high school, and a lot of my high school buddies are still at that party stage. I can’t really do that if I’m going to go where I want to go and become a world champion.”
In his short career, Lawrence hasn’t ever had more than two fights in a year, but he is hoping to change that moving forward. He’s still young, so he has plenty of time to climb the ladder, but he is also looking to get at least three fights in before the end of 2015.
“This is a back-to-back camp for me,” said the RFA champ. “I just fought in April, and it was a five-round, vicious fight that I trained for, so it was like a 10-week camp. Then I flew back to San Diego and Bellator was on the phone with me, and they wanted me to fight again in several weeks in St. Louis, so I was kind of right back into training camp. So I’m going to knock this fight out and enjoy some family time, enjoy life for a minute, but I definitely want to get another fight in before the end of the year. And, hopefully, we can knock out one of the top guys in Bellator. That would be kind of sweet.
“I definitely want to knock out these fights pretty quickly. Three or four fights per year is not bad, but you also have to think that we’re training at a high level and your body gets somewhat wrecked, you know? People don’t understand. People just think we just train once or twice a week, then we get locked in the cage to fight. It’s not like that. We train a couple times per day, and when we’re not training, we prep our meals. Then we try to get some rest in between. Usually, our morning sessions at Alliance are typically our most grinding, hard and just brutal. So, by the time you get home, get your food and get settled in, you’re passed out on the couch, setting your alarm for 4 [a.m.], and getting up and getting back in the gym. I definitely want to get another one in, maybe two, and start knocking out this four-fight contract within a year.”
Lawrence is a young fighter, but he has already been around the block a couple times. Bellator 138 will be the first step toward the next logical progression in his career. He has been maturing, not just as a fighter, but as a person, and he’s ready to show the world that he has shaken off the spotlight effect from his time on TUF. He’s ready to grow into a future world champion.