Glance at a list of notable MMA performances in 2011 and you're bound to run into some familiar faces. Jon Jones' championship salvo, Dan Henderson's legendary wars, and the bloody trail of Nick Diaz. But lost amongst the usual suspects, one name may surprise you -- Lorenz Larkin.
A product of the Strikeforce Challengers series, Larkin has quietly treated 2011 as his own coming out party, catapulting himself from regional shows in his native Riverside, California, to a shot at the light heavyweight title picture against Muhammad Lawal early next month. The jump in competition may seem steep, but Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker understands the untapped potential he stumbled upon.
A typhoon of hyper-athleticism and flashy strikes, Larkin simultaneously typifies the new breed of mixed martial artist while evoking one of the fan-friendliest styles in the division. It only makes sense that with a new deal at their belt, the reinvigorated Strikeforce brass wasted no time tapping Larkin as an asset for their focus on building homemade stars.
As he prepares for the biggest fight of his career, the undefeated 25-year-old spoke to MMA Nation about training for "King Mo", the pressure of the bright lights, and the year that changed everything.
Shaun Al-Shatti: When we last talked you were getting ready for your first headlining gig in Challengers. Now you're fighting a former champion. What's this all been like for you?
Lorenz Larkin: Ah man, it's been crazy. First, in April, I'm just excited to finally make it into the big show. Not even having a contract, but just fighting in it. Then I get the contract, and the next time I'm in the main event. I'm like ‘God.' I don't know, it's a pretty good year (laughs). I'm pretty much going for the ride.
SA: What was your reaction when you first got the offer to fight King Mo?
LL: You know what, it's just one of those things where it's an honor that I'm even considered, because to me there's only three top people in my division. Feijao, King Mo, and Mousasi. Just to even be picked to fight one of them, it's crazy.
I would have never guessed this. I was still thinking they were going to keep me for maybe one more Challengers show. This was not even in the back of my head.
SA: Since this is such an unexpected jump in competition, are you feeling any extra sense of pressure to perform?
LL: No, I mean, people might put pressure as far as them worrying about it, but as far as me, I look at it like it's a win-win for me. It's so early in my career, and I only have three fights with the promotion. You know what I mean? So I feel like Mo has way more to lose than I have to lose.
It was one of those things where I really sat down and thought about it. What are the pros and what are the cons? And I had more pros than cons. It's my first time up on the big stage. I'm going against a former champion, the cream of the crop of my division. So if I win, it's great. I want to win as much as any other fight I've ever had. But if I lose, I took a big, big, big step up, and I just have to re-plan out everything and figure out who I'm going to fight next. I think that's the best thing. There's not too much pressure on me. I felt more pressure headlining the Challengers show than this.
SA: So what sort of things are you focusing on in camp this time around?
LL: We're focusing on a lot of takedowns, a lot of takedown defense. Still working on my striking and things like that. We're in a six day camp and I rest on Sundays, so we're going hard.
But it wouldn't surprise me if he tried to stand up with me. His striking is getting better compared to what it used to be. He knocked out Roger Gracie, who was considered to have decent standup. This is how I feel -- every wrestler that has decent standup will only try to stand until things don't go their way, then they'll resort to their strength. So it wouldn't surprise me at all if he came out and tried to bang.
SA: Is the worry of notching your first professional loss something you ever think about?
LL: No man, I've come to the idea that everybody's going to lose. I don't care who you are, everybody's going to have a loss on their record. That doesn't bother me at all, as long as I know I fought my heart out and I got beat with something legit. Just me not giving up. I think I would take that the hardest, if I was to give up in a fight and the ref called it.
But if I got beat, I got beat. This is MMA. Everybody's going to lose. Jon Jones -- that loss he had wasn't a loss -- but he's going to lose one day and that's just a part of the game. I'm growing just like how he was when he first got to the UFC. With every fight I see my game getting better and my skills raising.
SA: You had a long run of finishes, but they seem harder to come by lately. What do you think changed?
LL: You know, I feel like when I was in smaller shows, I never was really thinking that much. It was just like, go in there and tear his head off. Now I'm just maturing as a fighter. I fight smarter. I watch out for more things. Maybe it's that I'm a little more cautious. I guess it all depends on the fight.
If I don't want to risk anything, I'm going to pick my shots and be a smart fighter. If the opportunity comes, like when I fought Scott Lighty, then I'll finish the fight. It just all depends on the guys.
SA: I've seen you refer to the Nick Rossborough fight as "the fight that you needed at that point in your career." What do you mean by that?
LL: I needed somebody to be in my face and just show people that I can still get hit and still work. That I'm not just the wacky guy that can't get in the clinch or can't go to the ground. So I think it's one of those fights where you see a guy that was trying to dominate me, and then all of a sudden the fight turns. I kept pushing it and grinding to overall come out with the win. I think it showed where my heart was and what type of fighter I am to a lot of people.
SA: So what do you think you personally got out of that experience?
LL: Just heart, man. Just being able to get in there and stay relaxed. Pretty much just chopping down the tree. When me and Nick fought, he came into the fight at 232 (pounds). You know, when I fought Gian (Villante), I thought that was the biggest 205'er that I'll ever fight, then lo and behold they give me this guy and I'm like ‘God'. (laughs)
SA: With everything happening so quickly, where do you think you're going to be a few years from now?
LL: Man, I couldn't even tell you. I was just happy to be signed to Strikeforce, let alone be in title contention. I even was happy to be on TV or be on the undercard. So I have no idea. (laughs)
I felt like that in the first (Strikeforce) fight. I did all these fights and then when I got the call, that was the career-changing moment. I was like, ‘this is my time. I've got to see.' Because if you can't make it in the big show, then this sport is really not for you if you're really trying to create a career and a decent living. After that fight, I was like ‘I think I'm ready. I have what it takes to stay in this organization, stay relevant, and go somewhere.'
At first I was saying I wanted to take my time, but if I fight Mo, to me there's no progress in fighting somebody underneath him. If I was to beat him, then the sky's the limit. I want to fight for that belt.
SA: It's all far in the future, but if this works out, are you angling for a trip to the UFC? Is that something you would be open to at this moment?
LL: You know what... probably not. My reason behind that is, I feel like if I was to go to the UFC right now, I don't think I'd be getting as much attention as I'm getting in Strikeforce.
LL: Yeah, I feel like maybe because I'm just starting out, they would probably sit me in the undercard. That's just my opinion. And I feel like I earned all this buzz around Strikeforce, so it's like one of those things where fans want to see me fight on TV. They want to see my fights and they've created this buzz about me; made me relevant in Strikeforce.
So, I mean, would it be a good opportunity for me to fight a couple more times and then if I was to get the opportunity to go over? Yeah. Because then I could build a name, you know what I mean? But as far as right now, no.
SA: So then what is this like for you to finally get here and know you did it your own way?
LL: It's like one of those things where, I was just telling a buddy of mine, before you're in there, you watch all the fights. You watch all these people and you're like ‘dang man'. It's the normal fan questions. I wonder how much he's getting paid. I wonder what they do before the fight, and how things go. I wonder how tight the hotel is. Things like that.
Now to be there, remembering last year when you were thinking about people that were in there, and now you're meeting these people. I used to watch King Mo. I was just sitting there as a fan watching him fight Mousasi and Feijao, and now it's like ‘oh you're going to fight him.' I'm like... ‘what?' (laughs) It's kind of surreal. Crazy.
Strikeforce: Rockhold vs Jardine takes place on January 7th at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Follow MMA Nation for continuing coverage of the event.