Being a prospect in any sport as a teenager is pretty damn cool, but T.J. Laramie is a reminder of what it takes to accomplish this goal.
If you were an athletic child involved in sports, you know the dream, for however long it may have lasted, was to be one of the greatest and the youngest to do it. It’s a fantasy that is hard to let go and easily remembered.
Even decades later, we wonder “what if?” Maybe you’re sitting in a cubicle daydreaming about trading places with an 18-year-old Lebron James on the basketball court, or you’re a bricklayer on the job site wondering if you could’ve been the young phenom Wayne Gretzky if you had devoted more time to hockey. Maybe football was your sport, and while you operate a forklift for 40 hours a week, you think of how you could have been Odell Beckham Jr. had you worked on your catches more. Or you could even be a welder who has thoughts of how you could have been a 23-year-old Jon Jones if only you perfected that oblique kick.
The money, the fame, the bright lights and everything that comes with prospect status is at your fingertips. Sounds like a swell life, doesn’t it?
As adults, we often forget the day-to-day struggles we experienced as teenagers and are quick to conclude a young professional athlete’s life is free from worry. We overlook how difficult it is to grow up. We neglect the mounting pressures maturing brings, let alone consider coupling those issues with the problems a professional athlete endures.
“It’s hard to explain to a lot of people my age — ‘Oh, I’m considered a professional athlete,’” Laramie told Combat Press. “It’s a hard thing for people to understand. Even adults, too. They think, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Good for you,’ like I just won some local tournament, but they don’t understand I’m bigger than that and what I plan on doing is bigger than that and where I stand in my eyes is a lot bigger than what they think.
“It’s hard to explain and understand, but my close friends are pretty supportive and that’s really cool. My close friends help me out a lot. They keep me company and understand when I can’t hang out. My friends are awesome, but it’s just that with people my age, there is a lot of pressure. They think, ‘Oh, just go in there and beat him up. You got this, bro,’ and it’s not that easy. They don’t get that part of it.”
As a professional mixed martial artist, Laramie goes through the same complications the combatants at the top of the sport face. Along with the grueling training that is expected out of any athlete, Laramie deals with the politics of the sport.
Barring wealthy parents, most teenagers can only imagine what it’d be like to travel across the globe. Sure, it’s nice to get lost in a day’s moment and picture you’re on the beaches of Hawaii, in the finest restaurants of Paris, in the mountains of British Columbia or visiting the Land of the Rising Sun. For Laramie, at 17 years old, it was a choice he had to make to further his career.
Laramie took part in the reality show Fight Xchange and traveled to Japan. It doesn’t sound bad to get paid to go on a free trip, but it wasn’t the fun and relaxation anyone would desire.
There was no halt in his schoolwork. Laramie utilized a tutor to stay on top of his studies while maintaining his training so he could take part in his first pro MMA bout. As someone who had been successful in various martial arts competitions — including three Grapplers Quest wins (No-Gi and Gi), an Ontario Open (No-Gi and Gi) win, two-time runner-up honors in All-Ontario Wrestling, a runner-up bid in Absolute Grappling and an Under-17 153-pound IKF Kickboxing world championship — Laramie was forced to look far and wide to try his hand in MMA on a professional level. The bout ended in a first-round TKO victory for the 18-year-old aspiring UFC bantamweight, but the old problems are forever ongoing.
Laramie was scheduled to showcase his skills against Josh Ladouceur at Hard Knocks FC 46 on Oct. 23. However, hours before he was about to speak with Rear-Naked Choke Radio to discuss his upcoming fight, Laramie was hit with a phone call he is sick of receiving.
“After two cancellations leading into this fight already, I was really looking forward to fighting,” Laramie said. “I already started my water [weight] cut and everything. I dropped a lot of weight already. Just to hear that it’s canceled a couple days away is frustrating, especially since I haven’t fought in what seems like forever at this point.”
Now, Laramie is scheduled to be on Hard Knocks FC 47 on Nov. 13 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. If history repeats itself, he’ll be left heartbroken again. These are the things a professional MMA fighter goes through, but at his age there’s so much more that comes with it.
Along with the battles a teenager faces in high school, there’s the war at home. Parents breathing down your neck, checking on your homework, enforcing rules and carrying out other parental duties, just to ensure they raise the best child possible. Laramie’s parents have been fortunate in that regard when it comes to him, and even in the case of his younger brother Tony, who is following in his footsteps.
The recent high school graduate did academically well in his studies. He holds down a job as a barber at The Chop Shop in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which is more than can be said for some people twice his age. Outside of combat sports, he finds enjoyment as an automobile enthusiast and purchased his fourth car over the summer. His hobbies aren’t unusual for someone his age and he managed to avoid youthful mischief, which is available in abundance as a teenager, because his commitment to pursuing his goal kept him on the straight and narrow.
Then there’s that sweet thing we can all remember as a young man or woman called teenage love. It’s a great feeling to find your first crush and experience the earliest bits of love. It’s a much needed thing for everyone to go through, but for Laramie and his girlfriend, Katie, it’s completely different than what most of us go through.
Any parent of a teenage daughter is going to put a young man looking to court his little girl through an extensive screening process. Now, imagine walking up to your future mother-in-law and telling her your goals and aspirations are to have a career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It’s a laughable statement that would warrant getting thrown out of the house similar to Jazzy Jeff flirting with Hilary in the Banks’ residence on the old Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sitcom.
“Most adults in general, when I tell them about my career path and what I plan on doing, have a hard time believing it at first,” Laramie admitted. “But I feel like when anyone gets to know me, they start to see how set I am with what I want. My girlfriend’s mom is really awesome. She is always excited to hear about upcoming news on my fights and even my little brother’s local amateur bouts.”
Before convincing her mom that you’re the next big thing, so to speak, you have to get your girlfriend to believe it. Laramie’s girlfriend was not buying what he was selling until she got to know what this ambitious man is all about.
“I feel like at the time of me meeting my girlfriend, she really didn’t believe me when I told her things about my training or competition,” Laramie said. “When it comes to her, I don’t think that was much of a factor, but there were times where I would get attention solely for my success and that’s not really something I want, because outside of the gym I like to put all of that stuff away and just relax and have time to be as normal as I can.
“Now that she’s seen everything and been with me through the whole Japan experience, she really sees how serious I am about this sport and my potential in it. She’s extremely supportive and always wants to see me do well.”
Following high school graduation, it’s typical to further your education. Laramie didn’t consider that as an option. He already has a career and knows what he’s going to do with his future. His idea of a higher education would be visiting a gym to advance his skills. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, like most teenagers, is adventuring through life experiences to grow as a person as she enters adulthood. Those experiences are far different than the ones Laramie has been through.
The decision to go to college in a different city, state or province and create a long-distance relationship is strenuous at any age. Laramie understands his position in life is unique and respects his girlfriend’s choice to evolve, even though it put continents between them.
“Katie is currently in Thailand on a one-year rotary youth exchange program,” Laramie explained. “She gets to live with multiple families, go to school and really enjoy the culture of the Thai people. Being apart hasn’t been the easiest, but we both have things to focus on — her with her exchange program and me with my career, especially now that it is kicking off in North America. I really want to see her happy and I know she’s enjoying her time in Thailand. Seeing her happy makes me happy, and I know she feels the same. If anything, being apart has brought us a little closer, having to know what it’s like without one another.”
Facebook and Facetime keep the two lovebirds in touch on a daily basis, which makes the best of a not-so-ideal situation, but they’d rather be face to face. Laramie hopes to get out to Thailand early in 2016, but first he has business to attend to at home.
In Ontario, Laramie is hard pressed to find an opponent due to the fact that he trains with the province’s elite. Outside of his home gym of Maximum Training Centre, Laramie works with members of Adrenaline Training Centre and other gyms in the province, which forces him to venture out west, into the United States or Quebec to lock down a fight.
Training with the best martial artists in Ontario, whether on the rise or retired, allows Laramie to gain experience from UFC-level mixed martial artists. Most people, kids and adults, would be awestruck in the presence of Laramie’s gym buddies, especially when those people are somewhat hometown heroes, but “The Truth” views them as one and the same.
“I 100 percent respect them, there’s no doubt about that, but to say I look up to them or idolize them, I can’t really say that anymore,” Laramie said. “It’s equal grounds now, you know what I mean? I want to be where they’re at or I want to be better than them. I pick up what I can and I utilize them for what I can. They help me out and I appreciate it and I respect it, but I just want to get better and they’re a part of my journey. They’re helping me get better, and it doesn’t matter where they’re at, even if they’re retired or not, they’re helping me out with what I need.
“Working out with people like that gives me even more confidence going into a fight. So, when I work with a guy like Chris Horodecki, Mark Hominick or Sam Stout, or any of the guys like them, it makes me look at going into a fight against a guy with a similar record like me like, ‘This is nothing. I’ve been in the room with way better guys than you and competed against way better guys than you, so you don’t scare me. I’m here to smash your face in and you’re not the guy to stop me.’”
Competing for UFC gold, such as Hominick did against UFC featherweight champ José Aldo at UFC 129, is a peak in a career most people couldn’t fathom. Laramie, however, is aiming to trump that achievement.
As MMA — and the UFC in particular — grows, we’re seeing dominant fighters and superstars at a younger age. There’s evidence of that in Jon Jones winning a light heavyweight title at age 23. UFC bantamweight Michael McDonald burst onto the scene in the Octagon at age 20 after capturing a 135-pound title in Tachi Palace Fights. Former UFC welterweight No. 1 contender Rory MacDonald entered the promotion at the age of 20 as well, and Paige VanZant joined the UFC roster at 20 years old after being selected then denied for The Ultimate Fighter 20 because she didn’t meet the minimum age requirement. The newest UFC youngster is 19-year-old Sage Northcutt.
Instead of looking upon Northcutt in shock like the masses, Laramie views the Texas A&M student as motivation. Laramie sees a young competitor with a lot of hype, but is quite confident he can fill the same role.
“I feel like if he’s there at 19, I can be there at 18,” Laramie said. “You figure a year from now, I might be able to get four or five fights, and if I get the right fights at the right time, there’s no reason I can’t be.
“He was only 5-0, and I believe he only fought one person with a winning record before he fought in the UFC. He’s 5-0, with only fighting one guy with a winning record, and he’s in the UFC? Of course he looks good if he’s only fighting bums.
“There’s no doubt he’s athletic and he picks up things well, but I think I could be there before him. I feel like I could be there in a year, no doubt, 100 percent.”
It may sound farfetched for Laramie to compare himself to a popular mixed martial artist like Northcutt, but his advanced thoughts are exactly what separate him growing into a young professional athlete from us adults not reaching our childhood goal.
Laramie, at 18 years old, is intelligent enough to make wise career decisions. That’s not to say it’s all his doing. No. He listens and learns and accepts guidance from people who have his best interests in mind. However, his dedication comes from within.
With a record of 1-0, Laramie is well aware that he still needs experience and challenges before he embarks on his UFC endeavor. He doesn’t believe his own hype and wants to strategically build his career with competitive fights. The problem is finding someone to commit and square off against this young, brave man.
In 2015, Laramie’s short-term goal might not be attainable, but it is just another obstacle in the path of his destiny.
“I wanted to have at least two more fights before this year is over,” Laramie said. “I wanted to be 3-0 before 2016, but at this rate it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. We’ll see. If I can get two more fights this year, that will be a dream. I just want two more fights so I can start working my way up against bigger names and harder opponents and break into the top 10 in Canada. I’m not here to take all the easy fights and get easy wins. I’m here to be the best. I don’t just want to be a name people know. I’m here to fight. I’m here to be in the UFC and I’m here to be the best in the world.”