Editor’s note: This story originally was published in The Courier-Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
It was over 90 degrees outside in Shelbyville, Ky., and just as hot inside the Apex Martial Arts Academy where Lance “The Tornado” Lawrence was training for the fight of his life.
The tall, slim fighter was drenched in sweat, throwing hooks and abdominal kicks with great force at a heavy punching bag when someone made a announcement to the room.
“You know, it’s his birthday today,” one of the fighters said to everyone in the small gym in between drills. Lawrence turned 26 that day, and he decided to celebrate the occasion by sparring, drilling and taking interviews in scorching heat.
Lawrence has made all kinds of sacrifices to get where he is now, on the cusp of making his dream of being the first UFC fighter from Louisville come true.
He’ll compete in a featherweight bout against Kevin Syler on Tuesday in Las Vegas at Dana White’s Contender Series, where MMA fighters from around the world fight for a shot at a UFC contract. This kind of opportunity is something Lawrence has been dreaming about since he was little.
“I always wanted to do martial arts and I never could,” Lawrence explained, kneeling on the padded gym floor. “We bounced around too much. We moved from state to state for a while and I just never could get into it. So, when I was 16 years old and found some people who were training in a gym and I didn’t have to pay anything – I could just show up and get beat up – I stuck with it ever since.
“It’s something I found a talent in when I felt like I wasn’t good at anything else.”
The Southern High School graduate felt like he found his calling, and on Sept. 21, 2013, he made his amateur MMA debut at Hardrock MMA 57 against Dustin Phillips in Shepherdsville. It only took a little over two minutes for “The Tornado” to lock his opponent in a triangle choke and be declared the victor by submission.
The rush of his first amateur win was a feeling Lawrence wanted to chase, so he agreed to fight again only two months later. His dominant debut seemed to work against him though, as his opponent never showed for that fight, likely to avoid a possible loss on his record.
It wasn’t the last time a fight never materialized. Three separate opponents were no-shows after agreeing to fight. He didn’t get his second amateur bout until February 2014, and once again he got the first-round finish in a little over two minutes by submission.
Built like a champ
At 6 feet tall and 146 pounds, Lawrence’s length and mobility cause a real problem for fighters on the ground. He can lock opponents into submissions from surprising positions, and his constant movement can wear them out quickly. He pairs his devastating ground game with a rapidly improving stand-up, according to one of his longtime coaches, Rock Cruz.
“He’s got pretty good hands. The more and more he trains his stand-up, the more and more his hands get better,” Cruz said. “One of his best qualities is his movement. … He’s got great movement for a big guy, he hardly stands still unless he’s getting tired, and then I’ll start yelling at him so he’s not flat-footed.”
Lawrence’s all-around ability makes him a blur in the octagon, thus the fitting Tornado moniker. His ability in the ring is only half of the nickname’s origin, though; the other half comes from his mom.
“My mother gave me the nickname, and then my coaches caught wind of it,” Lawrence explained with a smile. “Any room I walk into, she’d say, ‘It looked like a tornado was here!’ I’m pretty clumsy and ditsy at times and I break things a lot. I’m just kind of destructive without meaning to be.”
The tornado outside of MMA destroys everything in his path unintentionally. “The Tornado” inside the ring destroys everything with a purpose.
Lawrence went 8-0 as an amateur, all eight of his fights ending in a submission or a knockout. He defeated Brandon Kaiser to win the HRMMA lightweight championship, defended the title twice and had six fights canceled in two years.
Training for a fight can cost a lot of money, energy and time, so having that many fights canceled at the last minute was frustrating for Lawrence. His training partner, and owner of Apex Martial Arts Academy, James London says Lawrence does his best work under pressure, which makes for a great quality in a fighter.
“He’s a determined man,” London said describing his friend of four years. “When a fight gets hard, that’s when you’ll see the best out of Lance.
“A lot of guys get in there under the lights and under the pressure, getting hit, in bad positions and they fold. They break. With Lance … that’s when he’s in his element. He’s comfortable, his mind is clear and his movements are focused.”
Tackling his biggest bout
Nothing is a greater example of performing under pressure than what Cruz and London agree was Lance’s best moment in the ring: the second round in his fight against Chris Dunn.
After having so many opponents back down, and realizing the success he was having, Lawrence decided to turn pro in 2016, putting him one step closer to his goal of fighting in the UFC. As if the higher level of competition only made him stronger, the Tornado went 4-0 as a pro, every fight ending in a first-round finish.
All of that built up to his fight against Dunn, a grizzled veteran with 23 pro fights under his belt. Early on, Dunn proved he was a step above the other fighters Lawrence had faced. His strength and experience made him a formidable foe on the ground, where Lawrence usually had an advantage.
“Lance was not winning that fight,” Cruz said. “Chris Dunn is good, he’s a good wrestler, so he kind of stifled Lance. But, Lance just hung in there, hung in there, and hung in there. That shows patience.”
Lawrence appeared on the verge of losing a round for the first time in his pro career. The fight found its way back to the ground in the second round, and about four minutes in, Lawrence was able to maneuver his long legs into a Triangle Choke, the same hold that won him his first fight.
The crowd in Shepherdsville cheered as their hometown hero was declared the victor by submission. Lawrence proved that he was capable of winning even in a bad situation, and his resilience led him to get possibly the most important phone call of his life.
“I had just finished training at Apex Martial Arts,” Lawrence said. “I just got home and hit the shower. I missed a call from my manager and I called him back. He had already called the opponent because I didn’t answer, and my opponent had already accepted. He was like, ‘Dude, you’re in. Contender Series.’
“I was just like, starstruck. ‘You mean I’m in? That’s it, I’m in?’”
The Contender Series is the opportunity of a lifetime for fighters with UFC aspirations, and for Lawrence, his entire career had been leading up to this moment. A lot is at stake for him in this one fight – professionally and personally.
“I quit my job about a month ago. I’ve worked full time for every fight that I’ve had, and I quit every job I ever had at some point because it got in the way of fighting, and that’s No. 1 over everything in my life, except for family and my future wife.”
Lawrence worked in property management, cleaning out cockroach-infested houses, scraping mold off ceilings and picking up trash. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it put food on the table, and Lawrence gave it up to pursue a UFC contract.
He wasn’t the only one making sacrifices. Lawrence and his fiancee, Sasha Knight, were in the process of buying a new house when he got the Contender Series call. They made the decision to give up buying the house in order to use the down payment to pay bills so Lawrence could train full time.
He recognizes that it isn’t easy to put your life on hold so someone else can pursue their dreams, and he is grateful for his wife-to-be’s support and the additional motivation she provides.
“We started dating a little over three years ago, and we’re getting married 80 days after the fight,” Lawrence said. “Ever since I met her, my fights have been the best fights I’ve ever had. I’ve been on fire ever since I met her.
“At first I was fighting because I had nothing and (fighting) was all I had, and now I have something to fight for. She always gives me a reason to push harder in training.”
Fighter with a purpose
Lawrence is laying everything on the line in preparation of his next fight. His career, his family’s future and possibly the future of every MMA fighter in Kentucky hinge upon how well he does in his next bout.
Lawrence says he won’t stop at just earning a contract. He wants to be remembered as a fighter who proved that it doesn’t matter where you come from, that even a place like Louisville can produce elite talent.
“I want to leave a legacy,” Lawrence says plainly. “I want to have my future children and grandchildren have a legacy to look up to.
“I never met my father. I don’t have anything to remember him by. I would like to have a legacy that makes everyone proud, and just to show everybody it doesn’t matter what you start with or where you started.”
Winning the fight may not be enough alone to get the contract. Lawrence will have to impress UFC president Dana White, and he believes he can do that if he finishes his opponent. Lawrence admits it won’t be easy – his opponent is 15-0 in total career fights and 8-0 as a professional. Lawrence will likely have the weight of every sacrifice he’s made on his shoulders.
“The additional pressure is there, and I’ve seen what that does to other fighters,” Lawrence said. “I’ve finished all my fights, so if I go out there with no pressure I should be able to get the same result. I’m not going to let it stress me out. I just want to go out there and be able to show all of my abilities.
“There’s no other UFC fighters here in Louisville, but (Tuesday) I’m going to be the first UFC fighter from Louisville to show that you never say never.”
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: DWCS 20: Lance Lawrence one fight away from his UFC dream