Justin Willis has an elevated way of looking at things, which originates from a long-harnessed chip on his shoulder, a chip that goes back to his childhood growing up in East Palo Alto, California — a city that at one point in the early-1990s was known as the homicide capital of the United States. To understand Willis, the best-kept secret at the American Kickboxing Academy, you need to understand that he’s been through some stuff in his day. He’s seen a lot. He’s lived through a lot.
He has packed his experiences tightly into his being, and even tighter into his punches.
That’s why as the heavyweight gets ready for his fight with Mark Hunt out in Adelaide, Australia — a trap-fight for a 7-1 prospect if there ever was one — he has nothing but ice in his veins. He looks at it as a mission on the other side of the world, to take out the next man that the celestial governors have placed in front of him as he marches on — gloriously in-tune with each step — towards his ultimate destiny.
“The thing is, you keep what you kill,” Willis told MMA Fighting, shortly before flying across the Pacific. “I’m going there to destroy this man. I mean no ill will. I don’t hate him, I don’t dislike him. I’m sure he’s a great guy. But he’s in my way. He’s another guy I need to get past. There is no mercy, none of that, at least not in my book. I don’t give a damn who he is or what kind of name he has, it doesn’t really matter to me. Once you sign that dotted line, we’re mortal enemies.”
That is one side to Willis, who at 31 years old is making his run in the UFC’s heavyweight division. He tells it like it is. Or in the very least, he tells it like he sees it. He doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he care what the response might be to his opinions. His social media pages are filled with real life aggravations and concerns that have little to do with the fight game. As an African-American man, he voices injustice in real time, as he sees it.
And always, he philosophizes — little food-for-thought contemplatives that he leaves out there like a crumb trail to higher plains. The question marks he leaves on a post are always gravid with unrest. Is he angry? “I used to be,” he says, “when I’d think about my childhood.” Now he is a thinking man first, and a seeker foremost.
“I want to connect with some of the aboriginal people when down there, and see how they get down in Australia,” he says. “I want to see the differences in culture, the differences in how people are. I’m really excited to see the different sociological background of Australia.”
Not exactly the kind of thing you hear from your typical cagefighter. Nor is it common to hear a fighter dish out Zen-like proverbs when asked if he can learn anything from watching teammates like Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier reach such great heights.
“Only a fool would sit back and see two people accomplish great feats and not take notes,” he says. “That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been taking notes, writing down the pros and cons, and obviously it’s worked — I’m here now.”
Willis did have a rough-and-tumble childhood, growing up in an undesirable part of the country in the foster care system. By his own accounts, he moved from “group home to group home, foster home to foster home, homeless shelter to homeless shelter.” On the odd occasion, he’d end up in his mom’s house in East Palo Alto, but only for brief periods. He never had a sense of belonging. His was a childhood of transference and negligence, of itinerancy and uncertainty, all the way until he left for San Jose State to play collegiate football and earn a degree in sociology. He knew guns, dealers and liars, and all the dangling wires in the system. He saw firsthand how ugly things can be, and never got to stick around a single scene long enough to feel “at home.”
That’s why Willis says at some point he began to really form his own identity, and to protect his greater sense of purpose like it was a bright orange ember hidden deep inside his knapsack.
“I don’t get intimidated,” he says. “I’ve faced death. I’m black in America. It’s one of those things. I come from the streets. I’ve faced a lot of things before, so it’s nothing new to me to be honest. Yes, it’s a fight, but I’m not a fighter, I’m an artist. There’s a completely different mindset with me. I don’t know necessarily know how Cain and DC really see themselves — are they fighters, are they artists? — but all I can really do is talk about how I approach it. I approach it like an artist. I feel like a Picasso in there.”
Like Picasso, Willis has a knack for rearranging faces. He has five victories via TKO or KO in his young career, including a first-round rout of Allen Crowder at UFC 218 last December. Should he beat Hunt, he’ll be 4-0 in the UFC’s heavyweight division, with a real chance of making waves in the title picture in 2019. Numbers like those don’t faze him, nor color in any blank details about his relevance.
So when Willis says he’s going to do big things in fighting, it doesn’t sound like blowhardism. It sounds matter-of-fact, like he’s carried the idea with him for so long that it’s already cemented into a reality. And for him it’s not just about fighting.
“I will be the greatest fighter to ever walk this planet Earth,” he says. “And the thing is, being the greatest is not about the accolades. It’s about who you are. It’s about how you are. People really get fooled. They think it’s about the numbers, or this or that. It’s not. It’s about so much more. This is nothing more than a game.
“You can go out there and break every single record, but if you never change anything, what was your real purpose?”
That’s the very word that he likes the most: Purpose. He fights for a purpose, even if that purpose is too elusive — and too personal — for a brief discussion about it. His Cliff Notes on what his purpose is — on figuring out his path, on why he feels a need to speak his mind, on why he makes every fight against a man and “The Man” interchangeably — is that he understands his calling.
“This is just who I am, this is just higher circadian rhythm,” he says. “This is how God created me, and how the universe wants me to operate, and I do it with open arms. If I have something on my mind, I go and do my research, I dive in, and then I let the world know. The world should know.”
One thing you notice about Willis is that he has no practical use for conjunctions like “if.” They are too doubtful for his taste. When the hypothetical of if he gets by Mark Hunt is brought up, where that might leave him in the pecking order, he corrects it to “when” — as in, when he gets by Mark Hunt. And when the idea of going into enemy territory is brought up, with thousands of throaty partisans in Australia cheering on their hero, he says he won’t hear a thing.
“I couldn’t care less because they can’t save him once they lock the cage,” he says. “They can’t join him. I’ve fought in Japan. I’ve had practice. God has prepared me for this moment. I’ve had practice in Japan, I’ve had practice in Scotland, I’ve had practice in life. This is nothing but another moment.”
Willis has simplified his mission.
“I am just going there to win,” he says. “This is just me. I stay true to who I am, and who I am is a seeker and a destroyer. I’m going to go out there and do my job, and my job is to win. That’s it, that’s all.”
For Willis, his fight with Hunt is another experience on the grand scale, and another conquest for his MMA career. The platform raises, and so does his awareness. That’s how he sees it. Everyday is its own natural escalation, and it’s all about embracing it. That’s something of what he means when he uses the word “great.”
“We never stop becoming until the day we die,” he says. “All of us should be learners. All of us should be going out there and gaining as much information as possible so that we become the fullest person that we can be. We can express ourselves to the fullest. We can fulfill our potential, and our mind’s potential. I feel like a lot of people walk around as empty shells.”
So what’s been burning inside of himself, since those early days in East Palo Alto when he was being cast from place to place? The fight itself. And when he talks about fighting, it’s not just the man in front of him; it’s the fight within himself to see things as he should.
“I used to go to fights angry, I used to go to fights angry at the world, because boo-hoo how I grew up,” he says. “The older I get, the more I realize that fuel can be used in so many better ways. That’s why you see my approach. My approach is completely different when it comes to preparing for war. I’m one of those people who’s open. I want to talk to people. I train my ass off, but there’s so much more to it than me.”
“You have people who tell you these fancy quotes, that fighting is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental,” he says with a laugh. “And that motherfucker doesn’t even know who the hell he is.”