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Free agent Lorenz Larkin seeking more than just a worthy contract — he wants a proper marketing push

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With 2016 playing out as the year of fighter awakening in the UFC, free agency has emerged as one of the key stories. Top-flight welterweight Rory MacDonald gambled on himself pretty heavily when he fought Stephen Thompson back in June on the last fight of his UFC contract. He lost, yet he landed on his feet in Bellator. Former lightweight champion Benson Henderson gambled on himself in two quick fights as a welterweight, won them both, and then signed a deal with Bellator, as well. Bantamweight up-and-comer Aljamain Sterling dipped his toe in the free-agent waters, too, before re-upping with the UFC.

Another fighter who quietly entered this exploratory world of free agency was Lorenz Larkin, who notched the biggest win of his career at UFC 202 in August, scoring a TKO victory over Neil Magny. Now with two wins in a row (the other against Jorge Masvidal), and having won four out of five overall, Larkin entered free agency at the highest moment of his career.

He gambled on himself, and now he is finding out exactly what he’s worth on the open market.

"It was a big gamble man, I know that," he told MMA Fighting. "I’m pretty sure anybody who follows MMA knows that. Especially the last fight, and especially the guy I won it against. It’s a really big gamble, but it’s something that at this point in my career I was willing to take to see what I’m really worth. I think maybe a lot of fighters should find out what they’re worth, because you never know."

For now, Larkin is in the three-month non-negotiation window, which ends on Nov. 20 — three months after his bout with Magny on Aug. 20. At that time, he can sign with whatever organization he wants, and the UFC will have a period of fights rights to either match the offer, or decline it.

The 30-year-old Larkin, who like a growing number of others, felt compelled to see gauge how much he’s worth.

"At the end of the day, we’re all independent contractors," he says. "I want what’s best for me in my career. There’s not the same longevity in an MMA career. A long, long career is like, what, 10 years? That’s pretty legit, especially in the same organization. I don’t know the life span of basketball or football players, but I feel like they can play and be in the league a lot longer than we can. So everything is for the best decision on my career. We don’t have that much time to do anything. It’s a lot better for guys coming up now who are like 20 years old. Coming into the UFC at 20 years old. Guys who got in a little later in life, time’s ticking."

On a typical four-fight contract, the UFC likes to negotiate with the fighter after the third bout is fulfilled. Yet, between his split-decision victory over Jorge Masvidal and stepping up on short notice to face Magny when Dong Hyun Kim was forced out with an injury, he didn’t like the numbers that were put on the table.

Moreover, he didn’t like the marketing push (or lack thereof) that UFC had given him to this point.

"We pretty much didn’t see eye-to-eye on the re-negotiations after my third fight," he says. "Then the opportunity came for Magny, and they decided to let me fight it out. That’s why I rolled the dice.

"It’s just two things I’m looking for, and it’s not like I have a vendetta against [the UFC], it’s just whoever can meet my two needs. It’s pretty much me getting the money I deserve, and the marketing. I feel like I’m an exciting fighter. Fans like to see me fight, and I’m not boring. I feel like I have personality. You can put me around people and I’m not like a Cro-Magnon or anything. So my thing is, they just never use me. I want to work. And that’s my thing. I’m not just being selfish, being like I want this and that’s it."

Larkin spent 15 months fighting in Strikeforce before the merger back in 2012, posting a 4-0-(1) record, including a victory over former UFC champion Robbie Lawler. He had a rocky go of it in his early UFC days, going 1-4 out of the gate, with three losses in a row against Brad Tavares, Costas Philippou and Derek Brunson at UFC 177.

Since that time Larkin has emerged as a radar prospect, scoring TKO victories over John Howard and Santiago Ponzinibbio, as well as Magny. During his rise, the UFC hasn’t leaned on him much in the marketing game.

"It’s like, you guys could have made me work for this stuff," he says. "But you guys never used me. I see all these other guys you’re using, but you don’t use me for anything — to meet fans, to do appearances, or just anything. I’m willing to. I don’t just want to fight. I love to fight, but some things between fights I don’t mind doing some stuff for the company. But they never can use me."

Larkin, who fought on the same card that Conor McGregor did (UFC 202) in his last fight, says he pays attention to the sport as an outsider looking in. He sees himself stuck in relative obscurity, and he's ready for that to change.

"It’s crazy because, when I fight, I look at social media and things like that," he says. "I guess you can call me a lurker, because I look and I don’t say anything. I see so many people like, who is that? What fight is that? What guy is fighting against Magny? Who is that? And I like, what the f*ck? Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m not no household name, but it’s just like, what the hell? It’s like, seriously, it’s only straight MMA fans that know who I am.

"At the end of the day it all boils down to marketing, and the only marketing I get — and I get the same thing that every other fighter gets — it’s the week of the fight. The little PR that we do and stuff like that. But other than that, just nothing. Only diehard fans know who I am and look for my fights."

Between now and Nov. 20, the UFC can strike a deal with Larkin without competition. He says if the UFC came to him and met his needs, "that would be an ideal situation for sure."

But he feels that the process of gauging fighter worth on the open market is a new frontier that more fighters should explore.

"Don’t get me wrong, I would love to come back to the UFC and keep it going," he says. "But, I’m just at a point where, if they can’t meet my needs, then it’s not for me. Anybody should be like that. Especially when I give you guys 110 percent. There’s no half-ass with me. If I give you all that, give me something in return."

One thing Larkin emphasizes is that he’s willing to take big fights — the bigger the name, the better — and that he feels it’s his time to shine.

"I’m not ever shying away from big fights or opportunities like that," he says. "It would just so happen to be that Magny was the first big name that got thrown at me. I had to take it on short notice and that’s the type of stuff you have to do to get an opportunity like that when you’re not even ranked. I want these fights.

"I would love to fight like a [Donald] Cerrone or a [Johny] Hendricks. I like exciting fights, and that’s what gets me fired up and gets me going. Not saying other guys aren’t exciting, but I guess I would say I like fan-favorite fights. Fights that get them talking like, ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to see this fight.’ Those are the fights I want."

All that remains to be seen is where those fights take place.