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Road to Bellator 145: Justin Lawrence

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

At just 25-years-old, Justin Lawrence has a stacked and packed MMA resume.

In 10 pro outings, the Pacific native has already fought for Strikeforce, the UFC, RFA, and Bellator.

Lawrence (8-2) rides a four-fight win streak into his featherweight bout with Emanuel Sanchez (11-2) at next weeks Bellator: Vengeance at the Scottrade Center.

Lawrence was originally scheduled to fight Pat Curran (21-7) until Curran pulled out of the fight due to an injury. Curran and Sanchez fought in June with Curran getting the unanimous decision win.

"It was kind of a weird deal and I wish (Curran) a fast recovery," Lawrence said. "Pat is a veteran and I'm still going to hawk him down. Stylistically, they are both about the same. Pat was able to get off fast and first in his fight with Emanuel and I plan to do the same. Just out-class him everywhere because I'm the better fighter everywhere."

Lawrence relocated from Pacific and his dad's gym, 21st Century MMA, to California three years ago to train at Dominick Cruz's Alliance MMA. But he recently followed another Missouri native and Bellator fighter, Michael Chandler, from Alliance to Power MMA in Arizona.

"Chandler has done it right and I decided to follow his footsteps," Lawrence said. "We are going to be on a lot of the same cards together and he is one of the main names in the Bellator organization. Plus, his style is a threat to me so when I do face that dynamic, power wrestler it won't be such a shock. If I can keep Michael Chandler from taking me down and getting on top of me I can keep anyone from doing it."

Lawrence started his career 3-0 (after a 5-0 amateur run) then in February 2012 was selected to be a participant on The Ultimate Fighter: Live. Lawrence defeated two-time WEC veteran James Krause via TKO to move into the Ultimate Fighter house. Lawrence was selected as the first overall pick by Cruz and in the first round of the tournament, Lawrence fought PRIDE veteran, Cristiano Marcello. Lawrence knocked out Marcello at 3:15 of the second round, earning a place in the quarterfinals. Lawrence's quarterfinal fight was against Team Uriah Faber's Michael Chiesa. After a hard-fought two rounds the judges declared a draw and the fight went to a third round. Lawrence was mounted early in the third round and lost via TKO, eliminating him from the competition

Though Lawrence did not win the show, the UFC decided to sign all 16 cast members. Lawrence made his UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale on June 1, 2012 against fellow TUF cast member, John Cofer. Lawrence won via KO due to a tremendous head kick in the opening seconds of the third round. The performance earned both participants Fight of the Night honors, with Lawrence also earning a Knockout of the Night bonus. Lawrence made his featherweight debut, dropping down to face Max Holloway on August 11, 2012 at UFC 150. After two close rounds Lawrence lost the fight via TKO (body punches) at 4:49 of the second round. Lawrence next faced Daniel Pineda on April 13, 2013 at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale. He lost the fight via submission in the first round and was subsequently released from the promotion.

The RFA scooped up Lawrence and after a win against Luis Saldana, he won the vacant RFA featherweight title with an unanimous decision win over Mark Dickman in August, 2014. He successfully defended his belt with a first-round TKO over Sam Toomer in April of this year.

There have been many a RFA champion who parlayed their title into a trip to the UFC and it appeared Lawrence as destined for a return to the organization. But he surprised many when he opted to sign a four-fight deal with Bellator just weeks away from the organizations tent-pole show here in June.

Lawrence said one of the reason's for choosing Bellator instead of the UFC was dollars and cents.

"The Monday after my title defense, Bellator was hitting me up," Lawrence said. "I would like to thank Jesse Finney for bring me to (Bellator) attention. At the end of the day, Bellator is paying me two-times as much as the UFC. I want to live comfortable with the least amount of stress. I didn't want to get into a situation knowing that I had to win a fight in order to pay the rent. That's stress that doesn't need to be there. I have nothing bad to say about my time in the UFC but I felt Bellator was the place where I could step up to the plate, showcase my skills, and make a name for myself. When I agreed with the deal they promised that three of my four fights would be in St. Louis. When you factor in sponsorship and ticket sales, it really helped out."

Also around this time was when word of the pending UFC Reebok sponsorship deal was leaking through the cracks.

"That did scare me away," Lawrence said. "The Reebok deal wasn't completely laid out at the time but we sort of knew how it was going to go. I would have been in the bracket with guys making $2,500 and I would have to have five fights in the UFC to make $5,000. I don't think it's very good for the fighters or the sport. I have been able to clear $5,000 in my last two fights. It was a huge decision and I had to have a long talk with my dad but I felt like we made the right move."

Lawrence ended up having a smashing debut for Bellator. Fighting in St. Louis for the first time since 2011, Lawrence pounded out Sean Wilson and got a first-round TKO win.

"There was definitely some nerves," Lawrence said. "When you fight for an organization for the first time you just don't know how smooth things are going to go. As you gain experience all the little things matter and you take them into account. I was just so excited to be back fighting in St. Louis."

Lawrence's social media accounts are updated on a weekly basis with clips and photos showcasing the non-glamorous side of a pro fighter. Week-in and week-out, sweat drenched, the toils of training are on display from grappling to striking to strength and conditioning and of course, sparring.

"The bad days are really bad," he said. "But it's a challenge every day and I love it. Whether it's wrestling with All-Americans or giving up Mountain Dew for camp, as much hard work as I put into it the more confidence I have going into a fight."

A self-professed "game nerd", Lawrence prefers Netflix nights on the couch with his girlfriend and their Yorkie as opposed to nights at the club. While out West he did pick up a new hobby, skateboarding.

"I never really did it as a kid," he said. "Those Missouri sidewalks aren't really the best for it. When I'm in camp I stop driving and skateboard to the gym. It helps me warm up and it's like an added workout."

Lawrence began training at the age of six under his step-father, Benny Voyles, a former professional boxer and kickboxer who owns 21 Century MMA. Lawrence would go on to become a two-time St. Louis' Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament Champion, and compile over 150 amateur kickboxing wins. In kickboxing, Lawrence also was a six-time IKF International Kickboxing Federation National Kickboxing Champion, and a two-time Pan-American Kickboxing Champion. He began wrestling in the third grade and placed in the state tournament multiple times and was a standout running back and linebacker on the Pacific football team.

With so much time spent in combat sports, Lawrence knows that even despite his age the clock is always ticking on a pro athlete's career.

"I'm not going to fight my whole life and when it's done, it's done," he said. "I feel like I was born and raised around the gym and I'm not going to get too far away from that. I would love to take over my dad's gym and even promote shows. I have made a lot of great connections in the Midwest with a lot of great people. I love the idea of being a promoter and helping other kids live their dream and just sharing my love of the sport . When I get closer to 30-32, I will have to make that decision. But I still haven't hit my prime yet. I'm looking forward to that old man strength."

Fans will have an opportunity to meet Lawrence and Chandler on Monday at 6:30pm at Thoroughbred Wrestling Academy, 830 Fee Fee Road in Maryland Heights. The pair will be working out and will be available for photos and autographs.

Top billing at the November 6 event features two world title bouts when Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (24-2) defends his strap against Daniel Straus (23-6) and Brooks (16-1) vs. Held (21-3) with the 155-pound belt on the line.

Tickets for Bellator 145: Vengeance, which start at just $30, are on sale now on and at the Ford Box Office at Scottrade Center. Doors for the event open at 5:00 p.m. CT local time, and the first contest takes place shortly after.

Bellator 145: Vengeance airs live on Spike at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT, while preliminary bouts will stream on at 7 p.m. ET.

Full card: (Subject to change)

Featherweight Title:
Patricio Freire (24-2) vs Daniel Straus (23-6)

Lightweight Title:
Will Brooks (16-1) vs Marcin Held (21-3)

Emmanuel Sanchez (11-2) vs Justin Lawrence (7-2)
Michael Chandler (13-3) vs David Rickels (16-3, 1 NC)
Bobby Lashley (13-2) vs James Thompson (20-14, 1 NC)

Alex Huddleston (6-1) vs Augusto Sakai (8-0)
Garrett Mueller (2-0) vs Scott Ettling (3-0)
Kain Royer (1-2) vs Clay Mitchell (1-0)
Adam Cella (6-4) vs Chel Erwin-Davis (2-1)
Steve Mann (11-2) vs Kyle Kurtz (4-1)
Garrett Gross (6-4) vs Luke Nelson (2-1)
Adam Meredith (4-1) vs Jordan Dowdy (2-0)
Brandon Lowe (0-0) vs Rashad Lovelace (1-0)

Bellator 145: Vengeance
Friday, November 6th
Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO