It was a couple of weeks early, but Benny Voyles couldn’t have asked for a better Father’s Day gift. His son, Justin Lawrence, coming off Season 15 of "The Ultimate Fighter," won his first UFC fight via a third-round knockout over John Cofer, then picked up two bonuses for his efforts — Fight of the Night and KO of the Night.
Yet as the win sank in for the 22-year-old from Pacific, Mo., Lawrence came to the conclusion the win wasn’t just the perfect way to kick off a UFC career; it was also a realization that everything his father taught him and put him through in their gym over the years was for a reason. And “The American Kidd” couldn’t have been more thankful.
“I trained so much through high school,” said Lawrence, who actually got his start in combat sports at age 6x. “I didn’t party in high school, my dad was super strict, and back then, I was really upset.”
The pleas were the usual ones from a teenager.
“Why can’t I go out with my buddies?”
“Why can’t I go party?”
“Why can’t I go on a date with this girl?”
The answers were the usual ones, too.
Except for the last one, when Voyles added: “The girls will come.”
“That’s what he always said,” Lawrence said with a laugh in the days leading to his featherweight debut in the Octagon on Saturday in UFC 150 against fellow prospect Max Holloway. “I never realized it until now that I’m 22 and fighting in the UFC, and I look back at those four years of high school, and I could have gotten in a lot of trouble, but (Voyles) was super strict on me and he kept me grounded. When that was happening, I hated it.
"I look back now and I see all my buddies and I say, man, ‘I’m glad I had a good dad that kept me grounded and kept me structured and kept me into it. And that’s the thing — he never really burned me out. There are a lot of guys that start out at the age of 6 and a lot of those dads push them really hard. My dad pushed me very hard, but he didn’t burn me out, and that’s the key. I was extremely blessed, I really was.”
Onewould be hard-pressed to think of a better situation for Lawrence to be in. Sure, he’s only 4-0 as a pro mixed martial artist, but before making the leap, he was a high school wrestler, a two-time Golden Gloves champion and a six-time IKF national kickboxing champ. This experience was evident when he stepped into the TUF house earlier this year, and even though he barely made it into the competition with three fights, “you never would have known,” he said.
And he’s right. Beating veterans James Krause and Cristiano Marcello is serious business, and though Lawrence lost to eventual show winner Mike Chiesa, having a lesson-filled loss that doesn’t count on your official record is pretty much the only way to fly.
But back to the original premise, which is that despite his record, he’s got a lot more experience than anyone with a similar slate, and perhaps even more than many of his more-seasoned UFC peers.
“The amateur experience is huge,” said Lawrence, whose work with the renowned BlackHouse team (home of Anderson Silva) is pretty impressive for the resume, as well. “You can’t put a number or can’t explain how important the amateur experience is. I’ve been there, I’ve trained hard my entire life, I’ve been in over 150 amateur fights and there’s nothing better.
"They say if you want to be a great wrestler, you’ve got to have that mat time, and if you want to be a good boxer, you have to have that ring time. Sparring is great. God knows how many rounds I’ve sparred and hit the mitts. But until you’re actually out on the stage and out in a fight, there’s nothing like it. And when you have numerous amateur fights, it makes you feel so poised and so comfortable inside the cage or ring. And that’s huge. This is second nature to me.
"A guy can start now at 22, and he’ll never have as much experience as I have. I had no responsibility; all I had to do was go to a gym and train. At 22, you’re a grown man — you’ve got responsibilities, you got bills to pay, you have a full-time job if you’re not making money as a fighter, and that’s huge.”
You can tell that there’s a maturity to Lawrence that goes hand in hand with his youthful enthusiasm to scrap. It makes him a compelling prospect in a tough division, but after being in the nation’s collective living room for the 13 weeks of TUF and then delivering one of the most bonus-decorated debuts ever, he keeps a cool head.
“I haven’t even really sat down and thought about it,” he said of the hype surrounding him. “I get so lost in my training, and that keeps me focused. I work hard every day and I don’t pat myself on the back too much. Those (the bonuses) are all great things, but I’m at the bottom of this pyramid still. I haven’t done much. Honestly, I had a good fight, that’s it. So I’ve just got to stay focused, keep grinding and keep on my toes.”
And Holloway’s likely the kind of fighter to keep him on his toes. At 20, the youngest fighter currently on the UFC roster, Holloway also has a mature outlook on things, likely developed by already being a husband and father. In the Octagon, he’s shown glimpses of top-level skills, and while still raw, he has the talent to give anyone a run for their money.
“He’s young, he’s hungry, and he wants the goal that I want,” Lawrence said of Holloway. “He’s very talented, he’s got good striking, good shot defense, but I think I’m the more well-rounded fighter, I think I’m going to be a little bit bigger, and I think I’m going to hit a little harder. He does a good job at keeping people at his range, but he hasn’t fought a kickboxer like me. That’s the key. My kicks are going to set up everything in this fight, and that’s the plan.”
What about the bonuses? Do they factor into this master plan?
“I just go out there and try to put on a great performance,” Lawrence said. “That’s my goal. Getting a Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night was great for my UFC debut, but that’s the goal every time I go out there, just to put on a great show for the fans. I fight for the fans, and if I can put the fans in the seats, that’s the best thing for me and that’s how I keep my job.”
Justin Lawrence might just remain gainfully employed for some time.