Justin Lawrence, from The Ultimate Fighter: Live, spoke with Fist-Ta-Cuff Radio Sunday night as he finishes preparing for his bout this Saturday against Daniel Pineda. Lawrence (4-1) was eliminated from TUF by season 15 champion, Michael Chisea, in the quarterfinals; but he knocked out John Cofer in the season finale with a 3rd round head kick.
Since competing on The Ultimate Fighter, Justin has fought once last August, losing by TKO against Max Holloway. The loss prompted a move from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri to the Alliance MMA gym in San Diego, California.
“I believe I learned a lot from that,” said Lawrence. “I don’t think it was a loss, I think it was a lesson learned. I never say that I lost, because, as a fighter, losing is not an option; but I have learned more from that than I have learned in any other fight that I’ve had throughout my whole career. I made some big moves; I decided to move out to San Diego with Alliance to really get pushed out here with a bunch of other hybrid fighters. I think that was the best move for me. Where I’m from, St. Louis, Missouri, doesn’t really have a lot of great fighters- there are some great fighters there- but there are only really one or two gyms that are really good. Out here, you got one gym [with] 10 guys, 15 guys, that are just monsters in the UFC or Bellator. I think that was a huge move for me, I think that loss really helped me. In fact I turned it down, I turned to my dad, and I asked him questions right away, because that’s a feeling I never want to feel again. Let’s say I would have won that, I would rather have learned that early in my UFC career than later. Now, I haven’t even hit my prime yet, and I’m already training with some of the best guys in the world. That’s a great feeling for me. I know that I’m getting pushed every day.”
The move is certainly a step up for Lawrence. He now trains with one of the elite MMA gyms in Alliance, home to current UFC bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz and Bellator FC lightweight champ Michael Chandler, and top UFC talent such as Phil Davis, Mike Easton, and more. For Justin Lawrence, this new team has challenged and pushed him to the point of self-confidence coming into his fight.
“When you walk into Alliance,” he explained, “there is no such thing as an easy round. You know, you got Miles Jury, Jeremy Stephens, Ross Pearson, Michael Chandler, Dominic Cruz, Phil Davis, I mean the list goes on. You’re only as good as your training partners, I really believe that. If you’re the hotshot in the gym, you’re beating up everybody, you might feel like you’re good, but it’s not bringing you to the next level. You know, one day I might be on top, and then the next day Miles Jury is going to be on top, or Jeremy Stephens. It’s good to understand that you’re not the man. I’m nervous every time I go to training, every time I go to train, I’m nervous. And that prepares me for a fight, it really does. The biggest thing of all that, like you said, you put your 8-10 weeks of training camp, you’ve done your studying. The test that you didn’t study for is the test you’re nervous for. I studied very hard for this test, and I’m ready. I have the best training partners around… A lot of these gyms, they spar not as hard, or they spar hard sometimes; that’s great for them, but it’s not like a fight pace. When you go out there, you’re going 120%, you’re trying to hurt the other guy, it really brings that fight atmosphere out. We’re all great friends, don’t get me wrong… the best fights are in the gym; when you go to Alliance, you’re going to see a fight.”
This kind of training and sparring certainly mimics what Justin will experience in the Octagon come Saturday night, but the physical preparation is only one aspect of being ready to fight in the UFC. Justin Lawrence talked a little about how Dominic Cruz, his coach from TUF and now his teammate, has helped him mentally prepare for his fights.
“When you step in that cage, or right before you walk out into that cage, I don’t care what anyone says, they’re nervous. You got a lot on stake there, for a job, and nobody wants to get beat up in front of 15,000 fans, I don’t care who you are. It’s just how you embrace that. I’ve learned a lot from Dominic Cruz, he’s really shown me a lot since the show. I’ve been out here for about 6 months now, and every day I just grill Dominic Cruz with questions; and he’s really showed me a lot, and really made me understand: embrace, embrace that, embrace the war, embrace the feeling that you have. You know, all the hard work’s over, man. I’m going to be nervous, but I understand that I put in all the work that I possibly could for this fight. I put in nine weeks solid with amazing sparring partners, and I know that those training partners are at the highest level possible. Not only [are they] at the highest level, but they’re doing phenomenal at that level. All those guys are great; look at Ross Pearson, he looked phenomenal; you got Mike Easton, he looked great; Miles Jury, Michael Chandler, both champions, you know? So I’m going to go in there super confident, I’m going to fight great, I’m going to execute my game plan to a t. The nervousness will go away as soon as that bell rings, I know that. So [I just have to] embrace that feeling, because it’s a great feeling, it really is. At the end of the day, the fist remembers.”
To Lawrence, it’s this mental preparation that separates great fighters from the truly elite mixed martial artists. “We’re all great fighters, that fight in the UFC, but it’s the fighters that take their feelings and those emotions and how they put them to use, to good work. Dominic Cruz does that the best. Georges St. Pierre does that the best. They take that pressure, they take that criticism, and they put it out on the line in the cage. That’s what separates a world champion from a UFC fighter.”
Not to downplay his intense training from the last six months, Justin Lawrence has a wealth of martial arts experience that goes back to his childhood. Though he has five professional fights, his experience expands far beyond that.
Justin explained, “A lot of people don’t really realize how many fights I’ve had or how much of a gym-rat I’ve been. I’m blessed to have a dad who owns a gym, and I’ve kind of been born and raised in that environment. So training hard like the Alliance camp was nothing new to me. It was a good fit for me. I’m kind of that new generation, the Jon Jones’s, that are the total hybrid of MMA fighters- you know, who have been wrestling since he was in 3rd grade, been rolling jiu jitsu since he was a teenager. But those kids who are walking around in the gi’s now who are six years old, and who are doing the striking, those are the kids who are going to retire me. Each generation just keeps evolving. I’m just the tip of that wave, and you’re starting to see it now.”
While many fans may not know Justin and his background, the UFC certainly respects his potential, as they are facing him against Daniel Pineda (17-9) who boasts more than five-times the fights under his belt than Lawrence.
“They know how good I am,” Justin said of the UFC. “I’m exciting- you know something good is going to happen when Justin Lawrence is in the cage. It’s going to be fun to watch. Daniel, like you said, he’s a very good opponent, I think, for me; stylistically he’s going to match up well. But he’s a journeyman; he’s a veteran, he’s had over 20 pro fights. But at the end of the day, like we just talked about, I have a lot more fights than five fights. Whether they’re MMA or not, just being around and getting that ring-work, cage-work, or whatever it is, it plays a big part. Like you said, I think they understand that when I go in there somebody’s going to get knocked out or somebody’s going to try to get knocked out. And that’s what the UFC really likes nowadays, you know, excitement. They really like my hands, my kicks, and my wrestling. They understand where I’m at as far as the game is. You know, the best part about this whole thing is I love the challenge. Me being an underdog, I cherish that role very much. I’m sure I’m the underdog in this fight, just because people look at the records for comparison. That’s fine with me, I love that. What Joe Silva and them, they know how good I am.”
As he gets ready for his second UFC fight, and first of 2013, Justin took some time to reflect on his goals for the future.
“I want to climb this ladder, man. You know, at the end of the day, there’s a lot of us in this featherweight division. There’s a bunch of hungry fighters just like me who want the same thing, and that’s that gold strap. I want to climb this ladder, I want to be in the top ten knocking on title contention for sure. I really want to climb this ladder and be noticed as one of the great fighters in the featherweight division, and I really think that I can do that. Dominic Cruz, Eric Del Fierro, all those guys at Alliance, they believe in me, and they know that I have the ability to do that. That’s one of the goals I have set for 2013, to start climbing this ladder. Dominic Cruz has told me literally less than 48 hours ago, ‘every fight is a step to the world title,’ and this fight with Daniel Pineda is my fight towards my title. That’s exactly what he told me, and I’m taking that with me when I go into the cage. Like I said, Dom’s really helped me out a lot in this camp, and he really gave me a mental edge as far as the mental aspect of fighting. That’s what I want, to really start climbing that ladder and be knocking on title contention.”
Be sure to watch Justin Lawrence as he takes on Daniel Pineda on the Facebook Prelims of The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale this Saturday. The main card will feature the second women’s fight in the UFC between Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate as they fight for the second coaching spot opposite Ronda Rousey on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter; and the headline fight will be an exciting bantamweight fight between Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen.
You can catch the full audio interview here which also featured Garrett Holeve, Clint Hester, and Travis Browne.