Justin Lawrence will not have to travel far to punch into work and get his hands dirty.
The Pacific, Missouri, native will oppose former Pancrase champion Isao Kobayashi in a preliminary featherweight battle at Bellator 157 on Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, less than 30 miles from his hometown. Lawrence anticipates a firefight with the Japanese standout, and he looks forward to it.
“He’s a veteran, man. He really likes to fight,” he told Sherdog.com. “I think he’s going to want to try and bang. He’ll want to mix it up and I hope he’ll try to take me down, but I’m just excited to get in there and trade some punches with this guy.”
Lawrence declared himself prepared for whatever Kobayashi throws his way, whether he engages him on the feet or attempts to do so on the mat.
“I think my wrestling is very underrated because I never really get a chance to use it,” he said. “I’m usually just out there sprawling and brawling because I want to keep it up on my feet a lot, but I feel like I’m the bigger, stronger fighter and my cardio can go for days.”
Based on Kobayashi’s track record, “The American Kid” expects a difficult test. Kobayashi has never been knocked out in 25 professional appearances.
“I feel like I’m one of the hardest hitters in my entire division, and I’m super quick,” Lawrence said. “I’m not sure exactly how hard he punches, but I expect him to be tough; and after I punch him a few times, I expect him to be in there diving for my legs. He’s a southpaw, so that might be a little tricky, but I’ve been working with southpaws this entire camp. I think he’s tough. It will take more than just one shot. I’ll really have to work to put him away, and I’ll likely have to put a barrage on him in order to get rid of him.”
Lawrence sees himself on the verge of returning to where he was a few short years ago when he was a fledgling prospect inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He was cast on Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series and reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Michael Chiesa. Lawrence concedes the experience was a boon to his career.
“It’s opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I’ve been able to live my dream from that point on. I was the youngest in the house, so I got to start my career earlier than many fighters. It was a great experience, and I learned so much. I’m still only 26, and I have a long way to go. That changed my life.”
The immediate future appeared bright for Lawrence once he graduated from the show. After he knocked out John Cofer with a head kick at “The Ultimate Fighter 15” Finale in 2012, a palpable buzz grew around him. However, back-to-back losses to Max Holloway and Daniel Pineda, both of them finishes, resulted in his UFC release -- an event that almost led Lawrence to pack his bags and hang up his gloves for good.
“It was heartbreaking when I found out -- through Twitter -- that I got cut from the UFC,” he said. “It was horrible. I found that out and I was kind of debating on whether I should continue fighting, but my parents kept me motivated; and because I was so young, I had so much time to get better and figure things out.”
Lawrence signed with the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and captured the promotion’s featherweight championship, posting a five-round unanimous decision over Mark Dickman in August 2014. His efforts did not go unnoticed.
“I went over to the RFA, won there and picked up their title; and before I knew it, Bellator was calling me and wanting me to sign,” Lawrence said. “They’ve done a great job so far in getting me good fights. It’s been an awesome journey. I would never take anything back or change a thing because it’s made me a better person and a better fighter.”
Lawrence last fought at Bellator 145 in November, when he wound up on the wrong side of a split decision against Roufusport’s Emanuel Sanchez. He knows he cannot afford another defeat.
“You have to win fights in order to do anything in this sport, so a win is a must for me; and that’s why I can’t let [a second straight loss] happen,” Lawrence said. “I feel like with a win over Kobayashi I’ll be back in the mix and hopefully knocking on title contention by the end of the year. By no means am I looking past him, but I feel like I will be knocking on that door very, very soon.”