For Justin Lawrence, growing his game has been as much a focus as anything since being bounced from the UFC.
Lawrence (6-2 MMA) was a cast member on Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” where he caught the attention of many MMA fans with his flashy striking style. He went on to score a knockout of John Cofer on the undercard of the show’s live finale but suffered back-to-back losses to Max Holloway and Daniel Pineda, which led to his release.
The 24-year-old signed on with RFA, where he’s won two straight and picked up the featherweight title in his previous fight, a unanimous-decision victory over Mark Dickman. He defends that title on Friday at RFA 25 against undefeated Sam Toomer (9-0). The event takes place at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. and airs on AXS TV at 10 p.m. ET (7 p.m. PT).
Lawrence’s primary focus in the past few years has been improving as a fighter while not losing touch with his strengths as a striker.
“Mixing in your takedowns with your combinations,” Lawrence told MMAjunkie Radio about his training focus. “Hiding those takedowns behind your combinations or your punches. When it does get down to the ground, wrestling and staying in good position, not leaving things out there too long, not touching the mat with your arms, posting on certain positions where your opponent can wrap that up and take that arm with him, or leaving your neck out there.
“I moved out here to Alliance MMA in San Diego about three years ago, and I’ve been training with Dominick Cruz day in and day out. Jeremy Stephens, Myles Jury, Phil Davis, Michael Chandler – the list goes on. It’s great to see. (I’m) bringing my striking to the next level but also mix in the wrestling, mix in the jiu-jitsu all in one. I’ve had a blast doing it, and I love fighting. Getting up every day and going to training is my job, and there’s nothing more fun than waking up and doing what you love every day.”
Lawrence isn’t a stranger to the grappling arts; he’s wrestled most of his life. But he’s aware that it isn’t the strongest part of his game.
“If I were to say if I had a weakness – or not a weakness, more or less not necessarily my strength – it would be my ground (skills),” Lawrence said. “But I have worked day in and day out with Neil Melanson. I’m sure you guys have all heard, he’s Randy Couture’s coach at Xtreme Couture. He moved out here about two years ago, and he’s been spending a lot of time with me. What I like about his style is that it’s wrestling then jiu-jitsu. So, it really flows well with me because I’ve been wrestling since third grade. So, I really like what he does, and he puts you in a wrestling position to finish with a submission, if that makes sense.”
Toomer has yet to taste defeat in his pro career and has stopped seven of his nine opponents since turning pro in 2011.
Lawrence insists that handing someone his first loss isn’t at the front of his mind when facing an undefeated fighter.
“At the end of the day, records don’t mean a whole lot to me,” Lawrence said. “I feel like Sam Toomer is a very respectable fighter. He’s a really good striker. He’s real long. But, honestly, I feel like I’ll be his first test. He’s fought some all right guys, but I feel like I’m going to be his toughest opponent thus far. It’s going to be a good challenge for him.
“Yeah, I’ll be happy to give him his first loss, no doubt in my mind. But, at the end of the day, I don’t really look at records. I’ve been at the highest level. I’ve been there. Sam Toomer hasn’t. I’ve been five rounds. Sam Toomer hasn’t. I’m super excited just to get locked in the cage and showcase my skills and do what I love.”