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."
Mike Rogers, head trainer at St. Charles Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & Mixed Martial Arts, describes cage fighting in St. Louis in the 1990s in similar terms.
"Guys would wear shoes and no gloves," Rogers says. "One show you couldn't punch in the face on the ground, the next there'd be no rules at all. It was crazy."
Voyles was part of a small cadre of early devotees who helped pioneer the sport in the St. Louis area. Tall and barrel-chested, with long sideburns that connect to form a mustache, the 46-year-old was reared in Gray Summit. He wrestled in high school and dabbled in martial arts, particularly kickboxing. His close friend at the time, Scott Fiedler, shared his passion for cross-training, and together the pair began to study multiple fighting styles.
"We were mixing standup and ground fighting when we were seventeen, eighteen years old," Voyles recounts. "We wanted to be well-rounded. So, just like we do now, we'd change it up and learn something new every year."
Fiedler (who drowned in a boating accident in 2004) went on to fight in UFC 10; Voyles eventually turned pro as a kickboxer.
"He was tough as nails," remembers Ted Welch, a promoter of some of Voyles' early fights and the co-director of Kick International, an MMA sanctioning body. "He bled a lot, but you just had to tell the ring doctor, 'When you see blood, don't worry. Just wipe it off.' He was one heck of a good fighter and a good person too."
The blood that often accompanies cage fights — a byproduct of elbow strikes and the lightweight, fingerless gloves fighters favor — frightened squeamish spectators and only added to the sport's reputation for brutality. In 1996 Arizona Senator John McCain nearly dealt MMA a deathblow when he dubbed it "human cockfighting" and sent a letter to the governors of all 50 states calling for a ban on the competitions.
Thirty-six states, including Missouri, responded by outlawing cage fighting. UFC persevered thanks to savvy marketing, shrewd business decisions and the adoption of (slightly) stricter rules. In January 2005 the league went mainstream with the launch of the cable reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter and hasn't looked back since.
MMA is now widely touted as the fastest-growing sport in the world, an assertion bolstered by more than 1.7 million pay-per-view buys for UFC events in 2009 and an ever-increasing legion of aspiring young fighters.
Missouri repealed its ban on MMA in 2007. According to Tim Lueckenhoff, commissioner of the state's Office of Athletics, Missouri hosted 22 professional MMA events in 2009 and was home to 313 professional fighters. In the amateur ranks, the unofficial tally was 104 contests with more than 1,000 combatants.
Lueckenhoff, who also serves as president of the national Association of Boxing Commission, says Missouri and other states have partnered with mixedmartialarts.com to issue identification cards to help keep track of the plethora of fighters.
"In a year and a half, we issued over 13,000 ID cards," Lueckenhoff says. "And that's out of 25 or so states that regulate both professional and amateur MMA, so we're not getting everybody. That's a heck of a bunch of fighters in a short period of time."
In some communities MMA has almost become its own religion. Last year a pastor in Arnold made national headlines when he held a special service entitled "Easter in the Octagon" that included a sermon predicated on the notion that "Jesus did not tap out, he was an ultimate fighter."
In Pacific the Voyleses freely mix spirituality with their favorite sport. A picture of Christ dressed to do battle inside a boxing ring with the caption "undefeated" hangs in their gym. The family is a fixture at a local Lutheran church, and Lawrence's mother calls her husband "an evangelist in the field of MMA" because over the years he has recruited several pews' worth of parishioners from the gym.
"You never pray to go destroy somebody," Benny Voyles says. "You make sure that both athletes are safe, and you perform to the best of your ability. I don't want people to think we're a brutal group, because we're not. This is a sport. It ain't about anger."
Lawrence's third fight took place this past May against Nick Pope, a featherweight stepping into the octagon for the first time. Lawrence caught Pope almost immediately after the opening bell with a kick to the solar plexus. Pope dodged a pair of spinning kicks, then whiffed with two wild haymakers. After ducking the second punch, Lawrence countered with a left cross to the jaw that sent Pope staggering. Lawrence pounced, wrapping his legs around his opponent's abdomen and strangling him into submission with a maneuver known as the "rear naked choke."
When Lawrence fights, he wears trunks with the words "Jesus Saves" emblazoned in bold white letters. He counts former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, known to sport Bible verses on his eye black, among the athletes he admires most. Asked to name the professional fighters he hopes to emulate, he rattles off a list — including BJ Penn, Georges St-Pierre and Fedor Emelianenko — that runs the gamut in terms of nationalities, weight classes and fighting styles.
"I like those guys because they can beat other fighters at their own game," he explains. "That's what I want to do: I want to beat the best at their best."
He had better be well rounded if he hopes to thrive at the highest levels of MMA.
"Mixed martial arts has become its own style," says Steve "The Red Nosed Pitbull" Berger, a UFC veteran who operates an MMA school out of the Arnold Boxing Gym. "Guys got smart: They trained in multiple styles and figured out you can't just be a jiu-jitsu guy, you can't just be a boxer or wrestler and win fights. You have to be everything."
The success of grapplers was an unexpected revelation in MMA. Fighters capable of taking down opponents and forcing them into submission — either by raining blows on their head, a tactic known as "ground and pound," or with highly technical jiu-jitsu maneuvers — have largely dominated the sport.
"You see a guy who has no jiu-jitsu skills, whether doing it or defending against it, it's going to be a quick fight," Berger says. "As soon as he hits the mat, he'll be arm-barred, triangled, leg-locked, choked, that's it. You have to know how to do it and how to defend against it."
To hone his jiu-jitsu skills, Lawrence plans to visit an academy in Brazil in the coming year.
"I don't want a bunch of people knowing about that," he says, declining to reveal his precise destination. "I kind of want to sneak up on my opponents. I'd rather bring back something new that they don't know I have."
For now he trains part-time at St. Charles MMA, with Mike Rogers. A former wrestler at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, the 36-year-old Rogers sports a bushy beard and bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Zach Galifianakis. Rogers' reputation belies his easygoing exterior. He is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and he trains some of the top-rated young fighters in the area, including Josh Sampo, Matt Ricehouse and Lance Benoist.
"I don't know if Justin is the best or not, but he's got as good a chance as anybody to move up to the next level," Rogers says. "He's exciting, he's fast, and he's really good at wrestling. If you want to beat him, you better be a better wrestler than him. If not, you're going to get yourself knocked out."
Wrestling, as Rogers points out, has become an integral part of MMA. In Missouri and the Midwest, the swelling ranks of amateur fighters can be attributed partially to the popularity of high school and collegiate grappling. Lawrence wrestled varsity during all four of his years at Pacific High School, finishing fourth in the state his senior year. But after graduation even the most elite freestyle wrestlers are left with few options.
A prime example is Tyron Woodley. An undefeated, state-champion wrestler at McCluer High School in Florissant (where Rogers was formerly head coach), Woodley moved on to the University of Missouri and was a two-time All-American. Now he is a rising star in the welterweight division of Strikeforce, a rival league to UFC whose bouts are televised on Showtime.
"I have an explosive style [of wrestling] that allows me to pick people up and put them down hard," Woodley writes in an e-mail. "I like the fact that [MMA] is one-on-one. Most of the time it is the sport that doesn't get much respect or money, so you have to be doing it for the love."
Unless they ink lucrative sponsorship deals, most professional MMA fighters make meager livings. While UFC champions earn up to $500,000 per fight, inexperienced undercard fighters are still paid as little as $5,000, with a small bonus if they win.
Locally the wages are pitiful. According to the Missouri Athletic Commission, the going rate among the state's promoters last year was $300 to "place" plus another $300 to win, but that has dipped recently to flat rates as low as $200 per bout.
Marc Fiore, head trainer for the Hughes Intensive Training Squad and UFC superstar Matt Hughes, says despite the low pay and exhausting training regimen that comes with being a pro MMA fighter, his academy in Granite City attracts recruits from around the globe. Students pay more than $1,000 to live nearby in a converted army barracks and train full-time for three months with the H.I.T. Squad, a group that includes UFC fighter Matt Veach and Strikeforce's Robbie Lawler.
"Chasing the dream," Fiore says. "My guys are going for the same thing a million other guys are. The word is sacrifice. You have to be willing to live off noodles and bread and water. It's the glory. It's on TV every night. These guys want to be able to say they're one of those fighters."
Lawrence fought most recently in December, against Seth Basler in Jesse Finney's Xtreme Fight League. Basler was 4-1 in MMA at the time and a titleholder in the 135-pound weight class in his home state of Illinois. Lawrence wrestled him to the ground and used an arm-bar submission to end the bout in one minute and twenty seconds.
"Justin just ate him alive," Voyles says proudly. "When it comes to total package — striking, ground game, submission — Justin has got everything."
Lawrence was born in Corona, California. His mother says she never dreamed her son would grow up to be a fighter. "I thought maybe soccer," she says, laughing. "That was just getting popular in California back then."
Her relationship with Lawrence's biological father ended when Justin was two. She returned home to Pacific to be closer to her family, met Voyles on a blind date, and before she knew it she was watching her eldest son trade kicks with kids twice his size.
The couple married in 1999. They have two other children, both of whom compete in martial arts. Thirteen-year-old Dalton is already a decorated kickboxer, but everyone in the family agrees that nine-year-old Demi is "the meanest one of the bunch."
"I didn't ever not want them to fight," Dawn Voyles says. "I get why people wouldn't like it, but my kids are good kids because of the discipline of the martial arts. They know respect — that's a hard thing to find these days."
Benny Voyles was quick to recognize that his adopted son had a gift.
"I realized when he was twelve years old," says Voyles. "You could just tell from the intensity. He was starting to put combinations together, and with the angles he was using he looked like a little pro."
Voyles is close friends with Jesse Finney, president of Shamrock Promotions, a company that stages MMA, boxing and kickboxing events in St. Louis. Finney soon booked Lawrence as a crowd-pleasing opening act on the undercard of professional fights.
"He was just a little guy," recalls Kevin "Boom Boom" Bozada, a former professional boxer and kickboxer from St. Louis. "He'd go across the ring with a flying side kick. Every kid he fought knew what was coming, but they still couldn't stop it. He was a cute kid."
Like many young MMA fighters, Lawrence cross-trained in Golden Gloves. He won St. Louis' prestigious tournament in 2000 and 2001 and trained with Kenny Loehr at the venerated coach's 12th and Park gym on Tucker Boulevard, a few blocks south of downtown.
Loehr, a boxing purist, has little respect for MMA. The grizzled 78-year-old derisively dismisses the sport as "wrastlin'" and says it's partly to blame for the decline of St. Louis' storied boxing tradition. (Click here for accompanying sidebar.) Still, Loehr recalls Lawrence fondly. The last time the kid lost a fight — at any level, in any style — was a split decision in the championship of the 2003 Golden Gloves. His opponent was Jamie Hernandez, a fighter from Loehr's stable.
"We had to fight our asses off to beat him," Loehr says of that bout. "Jamie was just a little more experienced than him. [Lawrence] is a good kid and a good fighter."
By the time Lawrence turned sixteen, he was gunning for his fifth consecutive International Kickboxing Federation U.S. championship. When no one at the junior level entered the tournament to challenge him, he competed in the adult division and knocked out a 24-year-old in the first round of the championship match.
"That was when I knew he could be a pro," Benny Voyles beams.
Listening to Lawrence describe his training regimen leading up to a fight is enough to make one's muscles ache.
"We have a hill by my house," he says. "It's gravel. It's the hill from Hell. It's straight up and down, about 80 yards. We do it fifteen times, and every time after you jog down you do 30 pushups."
In addition to sparring and jiu-jitsu, his afternoon routine includes kicking pads with a rubber inner tube tied between his ankles and sprinting with a 50-pound sled strapped to his shoulders.
"There's no such thing as natural talent," Lawrence says. "Everybody tells me, 'Oh, you have natural talent.' You forget all the summers I didn't go to the pool with my buddies because I was running hills.'"
Finney says Lawrence is on the verge of reaping the rewards for his hard work. He works as the local representative for Strikeforce and says he has been in talks with Scott Coker, the league's CEO, about Lawrence's future as a pro.
"If there's no injury, he'll be the Strikeforce 155-pound champ next year," Finney says. "I guarantee it. He has the will to win."
Lawrence, though, has other plans.
"UFC is the goal," he says. "Strikeforce is there if I want, it's cool. But if you walk around the mall, do you see Strikeforce and WEC T-shirts? No. You see UFC. Everyone knows it, and everyone watches it. That's where I want to be."
Missouri legalized and began regulating professional cage fighting in 2007. But lawmakers left the handling of amateur MMA to six independent sanctioning bodies, a system in use in three other states.
All but one of the sanctioning bodies are private, for-profit companies. They are responsible for establishing and enforcing the rules of amateur fights and for preventing wrongdoing by amateur-bout promoters. Nearly everyone involved with the sport believes the arrangement is deeply flawed.
"It is an absolute failure," says Dustin Severs, an MMA referee and the head trainer of St. Charles-based Domain MMA. "The state is really not holding their feet to the fire, they're not watching them close enough, and they're basically getting away with murder."
The problem, say Severs and other advocates for reform, is that the sanctioning bodies are loath to crack down on crooked conduct for fear a promoter will take his business elsewhere for the next event.
"It's like you own a meatpacking company but you also work for the FDA and you get to come inspect your own meat," Severs explains. "You're not going to be very stringent. It's their job to regulate and pull the plug on the show, but they also work and have financial interest. It's making a mockery of the sport. It's an absolute joke."
Even officials from the sanctioning bodies concede that change is necessary.
"We can be undercut by another company who says, 'We only require this, this and this,'" says Cory Schafer, president of the International Sport Karate Association. "It actually encourages a lower standard, which is not a good thing."
Others complain about the lack of rules to prevent promoters and officials from doubling as matchmakers, the key figures who decide which fighters face one another.
Jayson Cooper, chief representative for the Combat Sports Commission, a sanctioning body based in Dexter, says this loophole often results in dangerous mismatches when a fighter drops out at the last minute.
"They just throw somebody [in the octagon]," Cooper says. "Throw them to the lions, basically. That's how kids get hurt. People like to see fast knockouts, but there's a limit to what's safe. It definitely happens. It happens a lot."
Lueckenhoff says a fight earlier this year in Poplar Bluff that matched a 26-year-old against a 63-year-old particularly disturbed him. The younger man won by a knockout fifteen seconds into the first round. "We just want to make sure the fight is fair," he says. "I could go crazy thinking about this stuff sometimes."
The hands-off policy has had one positive, though unintended, consequence: It is very cheap to stage an amateur event. The fighters are unpaid and, unlike professional shows, the state does not tax ticket sales. This has led to an abundance of amateur contests that often feature topnotch fighters.
The flipside is that once talented young fighters like Justin Lawrence move to the next level, they have few options in their home state.
"You've got to have an outlet for pro fighting," says Severs. "Guys can fight amateur every weekend, but the second they turn pro — say goodbye to friends and family coming to watch your fight, because you have to fly somewhere."
There have been few attempts to change the way business is conducted.
Lueckenhoff says he pushed for legislation each of the past three years that would have done away with sanctioning bodies. State representative Bryan Stevenson, a Republican from Webb City, introduced a bill modeled after Lueckenhoff's suggestions that failed last year in the Missouri House.
Tracey Joyce, Stevenson's legislative assistant, says the proposal was precipitated by a gym in Carthage, Missouri, that was staging fights with children as young as six years old, drawing spectators and trainers from Oklahoma and Kansas, where amateur MMA is more restricted. (It is illegal in Missouri to sell tickets to a show featuring fighters younger than eighteen, but kids can begin training at any age.)
"They flock to Carthage because they can do whatever they want to do," Joyce says, adding that Stevenson's bill failed when rumors spread that lawmakers were trying to ban amateur MMA outright: "The legislators were just bombarded with phone calls and e-mails."
Despite the flaws in the system, Lawrence is determined to remain an amateur for the time being. He says he is accustomed to people — especially promoters — pressing him to do too much too soon. His biological father, with whom he's had infrequent contact over the years, even called from California to offer career advice.
"He's trying to get on the bandwagon now," says Lawrence, who legally changed his name to Lawrence-Voyles as a Christmas present to his stepfather. "My old man, he'll let me know when I'm ready."
For Voyles that means waiting at least until Lawrence earns his associate's degree. "There are a lot of pros that he would destroy right now, but I won't let him do it yet," he says. "College is first."
Some local promoters believe Lawrence fights too infrequently and against inferior foes.
"He hasn't fought any of the top guys yet," says one, who asked that his name not be published. "He's the toughest guy coming up, but they don't let him fight anybody. The kid is golden. They're bringing him along slow, but he's ready. All the guys in this town know he's ready."
"Really, I don't give a shit if he's a good fighter," counters Jesse Finney. "I'd rather he be a good person. I'm tired of everyone telling him he's going to be a good pro. It only takes one blown [knee ligament], and you're done. Take care of your family and school, and the rest will work out."
Lawrence says he is willing to heed the advice of promoter and stepfather. If fighting doesn't pan out, his backup plan is to become a police officer or federal drug agent.
"Any nineteen-year-old punk kid with a pretty good fight record and decent hands is going to want to turn pro right away," he says. "I want to be able to do this for a while. I don't want to be some up-and-coming star that you never hear about again."