When Justin Lawrence walked on to the set of TUF Live, little was known about him. He was just 21 years old and had fought just three times professionally. Within weeks, though, he had made quite an impression on the mixed martial arts world.
After knockout wins over WEC veteran James Krause and PRIDE vet Cristiano Marcello, Lawrence suddenly rocketed from unknown to favorite. To meet that fate, he'll have to go through the emotionally charged Michael Chiesa on Friday night in the quarterfinals of TUF Live.
Chiesa's story has been a sad but inspirational one, as he lost his father just weeks ago, flying home for the funeral and returning to Las Vegas within 24 hours. He's fighting partly for the memory of his father and partly for his own dream.
Even though the wound is still fairly fresh, Chiesa can already look back and gauge his resilience by his own actions and behavior in the midst of the crisis. About three weeks after learning his dad died, Chiesa fought and won.
"I've proven how tough of an individual I am just by staying here, but as far as my fights go, I wasn't happy with my win at all," he said during a recent conference call. "I only showed a fraction of my skills. I had a lot of things I had to overcome. Just to get in there and fight, there were a lot of things I had to mentally overcome. I think a lot of the guys here would understand that."
Despite more time behind him, he's still considered the underdog this time around. That's fine with him, though opponent Lawrence says his own designation as tournament "favorite" means nothing.
"Honestly, I don't really even think about that," he said. "Once we get in that cage, we’re 0-0. We don't have records anymore. It's my skill-set vs. his skill set, and whoever can strategize and execute their game plan the best is going to win that victory. I don't really think about who is the underdog or who is the favorite, especially if I'm the favorite. Michael Chiesa is no joke, and he's going to be a top-level Michael Chiesa when he comes into that cage, so I've got to be ready and prepared and execute my game plan."
Chiesa isn't shying away from the tags.
"I like the matchup," Chiesa said. "Justin's a very tough guy. I've got a lot of respect for him. He's done a lot of great things in his career. He's got a very bright future ahead of him. A lot of people outside the house have him favored as the No. 1 pick. That’s what I want, man. I came here to test myself against the best. There's no cupcakes here. Justin's definitely far from that. But I only showed a very small fraction of my skill set after I've overcame a lot of mental things. I look forward to getting out there and showing how good of a fighter I really am and putting on a good show for the fans."
Many have been impressed with Lawrence's poise and maturity at such a young age. It's something that comes from a lifetime in the martial arts. He says he was "born and raised" in the gym, and in a way, it's all he knows, having trained twice a day for most of his young life.
Lawrence is good enough that he's already spent considerable time training with Team Blackhouse, including longtime UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Not surprisingly, an experience like that is certainly a confidence booster when you're going into a tense competition like TUF Live.
"The fight to get in the house, I remember in the locker room, I said, 'All these guys are tough, real good, but I guarantee you none of them stood toe-to-toe with Anderson Silva before,'" he said. "It helped me to get into the house. When we had the fight to get in, there were so many emotions flying around. It's one of most pressured fights I’ve ever been in because you've seen other fighters come back so happy with the win, the others come back crying because they end up losing. So it is a confidence booster, but you can't overlook anyone in MMA. Once you start doing that, the outcome is not going to be pretty, I promise you that."
This season of TUF has been marked by the professionalism in the house. The hijinks have been kept to a minimum and most, if not all of the fighters have been very serious about progressing their careers.
That's been a welcome development for the fighters in the house, but it also means the competition is about to be turned up a notch or two with every passing round.
"We kind of lucked out," Lawrence said. "We’ve got a great group of guys here that are all very determined and want one thing. The life that we want is out there, we’ve just got to go grab it now."