Lauren Murphy may be one win away from becoming the UFC women’s flyweight champion, but before Saturday night’s UFC 266 co-main event rolls around, she looks at the current champion, Valentina Shevchenko, and sees exactly what we do from outside the Octagon.
“When I look at Valentina, I see an incredible champion and I feel honored that I get to share the stage with her,” said Murphy. “I'm one of the best and I've earned my spot across from the champion. And I'm glad that she's a dominant champion. I'm happy to face somebody that is so good.
"I never dreamed about beating average fighters. I always dreamed about beating the best and now I have an opportunity to do that.”
That opportunity seemed to be elusive for a long time when it came to the 38-year-old challenger, who has been a dues-paying member of the School of Hard Knocks even before she put on gloves and a mouthpiece and started punching for pay.
But even as she turned a 2-4 start to her UFC career into a five-fight winning streak, she kept her hands up, chin down, and eyes focused on what was directly in front of her, and not what could be in the future.
“I tried not to think about it,” said Murphy. “I tried to just really stay focused on the fights that were in front of me at the time. I think everybody's goal is to one day be the champion, so even now, I try not to think of it as, 'Oh, I made it, I'm here.' Because that kind of implies that it's a done deal, and I just have to stay focused on the fight that's in front of me, and if I start really relaxing into this idea that my journey is over, for me, that's not the mindset that I want to be in.”
It's a wise decision, because outside of the Team Murphy circle, many do look at her first UFC title fight as the culmination of a journey that began not with her pro MMA debut in 2010, but when she put the demons of her early years to rest and began on the road to something that could ultimately end up being greater than herself. And yes, Murphy’s tale is an inspiring one of perseverance and triumph over the odds, but it’s not over yet, and no one knows that better than “Lucky”.
“Yes, it's a big fight and yes, it means a lot, but it's also just another tough fight with another tough girl, just like I've been doing for the last ten years, and what I have to keep doing is the same thing that's got me here and that's just keep focusing on what's in front of me, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not getting overwhelmed by the moment,” said Murphy, who nonetheless has noticed that her story is hitting the right notes with people who want to see her succeed.
“I don't know if it's true or if I'm just focusing on the positive more these days (Laughs), but yeah, it feels like people are happy for me and I like that because it shows people that hard work does pay off,” she said. “And you can struggle and strive and fail and get back up and fail again and get back up again and it doesn't mean that failure is so permanent. I think people like the idea that they can work hard and keep trying and that will eventually pay off for them.
"Because sometimes it's hard to see it, and not just in athletics. It's everywhere in life where you see people that are getting promoted that maybe aren't doing the same things that you're doing; you see people step ahead of you in line that maybe haven't worked as hard as you have and that gets frustrating for people. Everybody has a story like that at some point in their life, no matter what they're doing, and I think it's encouraging for people to see that yes, hard work does pay off, and it can pay for anybody.”
For Murphy, the payoff came after a winning streak that began in August 2019 with a stoppage of Mara Romero Borella. Victories over Andrea Lee, Roxanne Modafferi, Liliya Shakirova and Joanne Calderwood followed, and just like that, Murphy couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be denied a shot at perhaps the most dominant champion in the UFC today. But title defenses, dominant wins, and a seemingly impenetrable armor doesn’t make Murphy blink. She’s about to get into a fistfight with Shevchenko on Saturday night, and she’s well aware that in a fistfight, anything can happen. And, as always, the Alaska native likes her chances in a fistfight.
“I've always had that tenacity,” she said. “It's like, we're here, we're gonna throw down and it’s not over until the bell rings. And I've always felt that way since the beginning of my career, and I think that's what makes me such a standout fighter. That's what made the career that I've had and that's why people are rooting for me now. I will fight until the very end, and I never give up, no matter how hard it gets, and I've shown that in my career and in my life. I think it's something I've practiced through my whole life, and I don't think everybody has it, but I am one of the few who does and I'm grateful that that is a part of me.”
That’s a fighter talking. So while Murphy would love to land one punch on Shevchenko and end the fight in 30 seconds, there is something in the back of her head where she welcomes a war, the kind of fight where it’s not decided until the final minute of the final round, and that when the dust settles, she’s the last one standing.
“When I first started fighting, that was kind of my dream, to find out exactly how much heart do I have, how deep can I dig?” she said. “I wanted to know how much I could take and how tough I could be. Even very early in my career, when I visualized fighting, I visualized having wars like that, and that was what I really wanted, somebody to test me hard and somebody to push me. I really wanted to find out how much heart that I had. I've had fights that go both ways; I've had fights where I get a knockout in under a minute, and I've had fights that were knock down, drag out wars to the end, and the ones that were the knock down, drag out wars to the end were the ones that are far more gratifying.
"Those are the ones that I remember the most fondly and proudly, and those are the ones that the crowd loved the most. Of course, I would be happy to go out and get a finish right away, that would be incredible. But I don't know if it would be as gratifying as that feeling of having to really dig deep and show who you are and show your whole heart to the world. That's a cool feeling on a whole other level.”
If we’re talking cool, Lauren Murphy already earned that title. Next up, she wouldn’t mind adding “champion” next to her name. On Saturday, she gets her opportunity, and that’s all she’s ever needed. The rest gets settled by two pairs of fists, and she will gladly take her chances there.