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At age nineteen, Justin Lawrence does not sport an intimidating physique. Barefoot on a wrestling mat, he stands a stocky five-foot-eight, if you measure to the tippy top of his spiked blond flattop. His voice cracks, and his post-adolescent countenance is disarmingly innocent, save for a half-inch scar above his left eyelid.
Don't be fooled by the baby face. Lawrence just might be the most fearsome amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in the St. Louis area. Nicknamed "The Hammer," he is a six-time national kickboxing champion, two-time winner of St. Louis' Golden Gloves boxing tournament and an accomplished high school wrestler. In his brief career as a cage fighter, Lawrence is 4-0. None of his opponents has made it through the first round.
Lawrence recalls a series of moves that helped him obliterate one foe. "I kicked over his head on purpose," he says, pivoting on his left heel and throwing a high, looping roundhouse to demonstrate. "He thought I missed, so he came into me. I was waiting. I hit him with a spinning side kick. Boom! He just crumpled."
He's barely moving at half speed, but there's a grace and power even in the re-enactment that hints at the crippling blows Lawrence's 165-pound frame is capable of inflicting.
"I watched a video of the fight," he goes on, breaking into a grin.
"You could see the ribs in the kid's back breaking. It was pretty gnarly."
Lawrence was raised to be a fighter. He grew up in Pacific, a community of about 6,000 located 40 miles southwest of St. Louis. His stepfather, Benny Voyles, owns 21st Century Self-Defense, a popular gym in town that offers instruction to gladiators of all ages but is also home to a handful of professional MMA fighters. Voyles started giving Lawrence kickboxing lessons when the boy was in first grade.
"He's pretty much been training hardcore since he was seven," says his mother, Dawn Voyles.
"Hardcore, that's a bad word," her husband interjects. "He picked up the intensity at seven."
Today Lawrence aspires to the highest level of mixed martial arts competition: UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In order to reach the top, he must continue to hone his skills at the amateur level. That means several more unpaid, no-holds-barred bouts that mirror the brutality of professional fighting but are largely unregulated in many states, including Missouri and Illinois.
Voyles grumbles that promoters often try to pit overmatched or untrained "independent" fighters against the local hero, hoping to produce fast, fan-pleasing knockouts that could have potentially fatal consequences.
Case in point: In January 2009 Lawrence took on Justin Smith, an independent fighter from Hannibal. The fight lasted less than a minute. Lawrence landed a kick to Smith's head and a flurry of punches before slamming his foe into the ground with a football-style tackle. When Smith flopped on his belly and feebly covered the back of his head, Lawrence straddled his opponent and pummeled the sides of his skull until he lost consciousness.
"In regular boxing and kickboxing, the promoter calls the trainer to make a match," Voyles explains. "These promoters, they call the fighter. What fighter will say no? They'll fight King Kong if you ask them to. I don't work with guys I don't know, because of that fact. If he ain't from a recognized gym, it ain't doing nobody no good to beat up some bum."
The young phenom himself is in no hurry to turn pro. He maintains a grueling training regimen, works part-time selling life insurance and takes criminal-justice classes at East Central College in nearby Union. Friends say he's still down-to-earth despite the expectations heaped on his teenage shoulders.
"He's always been the badass of the gym," says his roommate, Jordan Moore. "The only thing that's changed about him since I've known him is he's more of a ladies' man now."
At this Lawrence actually blushes. He says he has been dating his high school sweetheart for nearly three years. Their quarrels are mostly over her opinion that he's too wrapped up in his fighting career to have a good time.
"When I sign a six-year contract with UFC and I win my first pro fight, then we can go out," Lawrence says. "I need to stay focused and keep my head straight. If she doesn't want to do that, then she won't be with me."
The first-ever UFC competition was held in Denver in 1993. Promoters recruited eight of the world's top martial artists and pitted them against one another in bare-knuckle bouts modeled after the vale tudo ("anything goes") competitions that had been popular in Brazil for decades. The marketing campaign touted the "no rules" aspect of the competition and pledged that contestants would fight in an octagonal chainlink cage until "knockout, submission, doctor's intervention or death."
"UFC allowed, even promoted, all notions of bad sportsmanship," David Plotz wrote in a piece for Slate that detailed the early days of the competition. "Kicking a man when he's down, hitting him in the groin, choking. Four-hundred-pound men were sent into the octagon to maul guys half their size. Only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden."