When Lauren Taylor starts telling her story, you get out of her way. You grow silent. She starts upon it quietly, slowly, but then it rolls along and picks up energy and becomes a runaway train. It's a load, her own personal cargo, but it got her from there to here. Somehow it did. In some ways, it's a miracle. Taylor was an alcoholic. She was a drug addict. She overdosed. She lived "a criminal type of life." And yet here she is now, 29 years old and healthy, and making waves in one of the world's most demanding sports despite almost no athletic background to speak of.
In a strange way, it makes sense. This is her life. She lives on the extreme edges. Always has.
"I'm the kind of person, a little bit is never enough," she told MMA Fighting on Wednesday, just before boarding a plane to Kansas City, Missouri, where she'll fight Sarah D'Alelio at Invicta FC 6. "Everything I've ever done, I've run it 'til the wheels fall off. Everything I've ever done, it's 140 percent."
For a time, that was booze and drugs.
Taylor grew up in a little town called Eagle River, Alaska, just a short drive northeast of Anchorage. She hated it. She wanted to be anywhere else. She wanted to be where the action was. And when she couldn't leave, she created that place.
She was 14 when she first started using drugs, and in accordance with her personality, it was off to the races. She began with pot, and she moved to alcohol, and cocaine, and on and on it went.
There were overdoses, a couple of them. No need to count them up because even one is too many. During one, her friends got her to the hospital in time to save her. As she recovered there in the E.R., she distinctly remembers the looks of disgust from the nursing staff, and when she looked at herself, she couldn't blame them. She had abscesses on her arms from using dirty needles. She was filthy and bleeding. She couldn't remember the last time she'd showered.
In that moment, a time when she couldn't sleep but didn't want to be awake, she told herself and even promised God that if she found her way out, she would never again touch a drug or drink. Yet within 12 hours of being released, she was using again.
Every once in a while, she'd find some clarity. She'd look at herself and wonder what she was doing, and why she was doing it.
"I'd say, "I don't want to be here. My life sucks, but I'm going to change it tomorrow,'" she said. "But tonight, I'm going to drink the rest of this bottle and use this pile of cocaine or whatever it was.' And as soon as you start drinking and using again, it's on. And then a week later, you'd find yourself in the same situation, and you'd say, 'tomorrow,' again. And 'tomorrow' just never comes."
It was like that for a long time, the vicious cycle repeating itself.
It was not until her mid-20s when things began changing. When Taylor was 17 years old, she'd become a mom, and by 2009, her son Max was eight. Like many mothers, she was looking for some activities for her child to try when she thought of the martial arts.
That had been something of an unrequited love for her. When she was about Max's age, she joined a karate gym and liked it, but her attendance was sporadic because of her "crazy household." To her parents, sports was not a priority. They, too, had abuse problems, mainly with alcohol, and it often caused problems with everyday life. One day, after missing a series of practices, her instructor told her she couldn't receive her yellow belt. She was devastated and soon afterward stopped going.
In some way she was giving Max the opportunity she never had, even if he wasn't particularly interested. In order to prod him into it, she decided to try it, too. She chose jiu-jitsu, even though she didn't know much about it or the sport -- mixed martial arts -- that it helped build.
"Max did not like it," she said. "But I loved it. I loved it from the beginning."
Since Taylor did not grow up playing sports, it came as something of a shock to her that she was naturally athletic. She had always been broad-shouldered and muscular, but she was strong.
"I couldn't go to a jiu-jitsu class without someone saying, 'You're so strong, surprisingly strong,'" she said. "It was only then that I started to realize I might not only be an athlete, but I could be an elite athlete."
Taylor's early results only solidified the belief. Taking a fight just for the experience of it, she blitzed her first opponent in a 17-second TKO. Emboldened, she continued. Of her next four opponents, not one made it past the second round. The last of those fights, a brutal first-round TKO of Jennifer Scott in Houston, was dubbed "The Texas Elbow Massacre" by announcer Michael Schiavello.
In April, she stepped up on short notice to face her most experienced opponent, the veteran Kaitlin Young, who had been fighting professionally since before the time Taylor ever even knew such a sport existed. She'd once knocked out Miesha Tate. She'd fought Gina Carano and beaten Julie Kedzie. The matchup wasn't just a fight; it was a measuring stick, and after dropping the first round, Taylor rallied back to earn a solid unanimous decision.
D'Alelio is another step in the progression. She is ranked No. 9 in the Unified Women's Mixed Martial Arts Rankings.
To Taylor, it is the next logical challenge, even if it more about the experience than about the result. To her, a win would be great, but a loss would be a lesson. For someone with only four years in the sport, either result has intrinsic value. For someone whose life could have ended up so differently, or simply could have ended, the result of an athletic competition has different meaning.
She is here trying. She is competing. She is fighting for something positive. She's even back in school, working towards a bachelor's degree in exercise science. Her mom -- clean for years -- and her son Max and her boyfriend Joe are in her corner, her friends have seen her come through the tunnel of darkness and emerge on the other side, somehow more full of life than she's ever been. That's more important than what happens on Saturday.
"You know," she said, "there was a little bit of resentment there for a while. Like, damn, I could’ve been a world champion if I just started this sooner. And I think for a while, I was pretty pissed off about it. But what I've come to realize is if I started martial arts sooner, who knows? Maybe I would've been sick of it by now. Maybe I would have burnt out and not be interested in it at all. The fact is, I didn't have the drive or the commitment to do this kind of stuff. I had to go through all the stuff that I did to realize, I’m really blessed to have the genetic gifts I have, and to also have the mental ability to stay focused on what I'm doing. In my early 20's, there was no way to focus on it. I was chasing after boys. I had to go through that stuff with the drugs and alcohol to appreciate how precious life is, and realize, you only live once. I better not waste it."