After four years and just seven pro fights, Holly “Lil’ Bear” Lawson’s pro boxing journey has come to an end. It’s a quiet closure that’s cleared the way for a grand reinvention, as she steps into the MMA cage for her debut this Friday (October 17) on Bellator 129. The card, which airs on Spike TV, represents the highest level of exposure in Lawson’s career — aside from airing on a national outlet, she’ll step in the cage as the lone female member of Team Bodyshop, and as the student of trainer and former lightweight champion Antonio McKee.
In this exclusive interview for BeatsBoxingMayhem, Lawson details her decision to sign with Bellator, her continued passion for boxing, and how the Sweet Science has prepared her for MMA.
BEATSBOXINGMAYHEM: For you first opponent, you’re paired with another striker in Jozette Cotton who also seems to be a strong grappler. What do think of her skill set?
LAWSON: She’s definitely a striker. Without giving away too much, let’s just say there’s a lot of “gaps” in her approach — chinks in the armor if you will.
BBM: Now that you’re signed long-term with Bellator, does this effectively end your boxing career?
LAWSON: I definitely would [go back to boxing] if the opportunity came up. I love boxing, absolutely love it. In theory, I’d love to do both. But the way MMA is structured and with boxing being a contact sport as well, I don’t see that working out. Even now, I still don’t feel like I’m not a boxer.
BBM: All things considered, signing and getting a fight within MMA seems a lot easier for women than with boxing. Why is that?
Lawson: MMA is much more structured. There is already a system in place for all fighters, so women are not treated differently. That’s a huge difference. If I were a man, I would have gotten many more opportunities in boxing. With Bellator, [President] Scott [Coker] had a clear vision of what he wants to do with the women’s division. A lot of my teammates fight for Bellator so he’s already familiar with my them (Team Bodyshop). He also knows my trainer Antonio McKee really well.
I went out of my way to introduce myself. I was working the door at an amateur event Rampage Jackson was running. Scott walked up and I was like, “Hey I’m Holly, when are you going to put women back on your cards?” He was like “Really, what weight?” I told him “145.” He said, “We’ll talk.” He spoke with my trainer that night, next week I had a meeting with them that went well, and the rest is history.
BBM: How was was you’re learning curve in adapting to takedowns, kicks wrestling etc?
LAWSON: Before I tried it, a lot of my people were telling me in the gym that I’d be really good at MMA. I told myself I’d give it a month to see if I can pick it up quickly. I had to be really honest with myself as well as the coaches I picked. So far, everyone, especially Antonio, said I’m picking up things well. We started with wrestling. It’s a lot more difficult to teach a wrestler about boxing if they don’t have that background. But with a boxer, we can pick up the fundamentals of wrestling easier because it’s about knowing when to shift your body weight. That is already ingrained in your boxing DNA. For me, they are not as different as I thought it’d be.
BBM: It’s recommended to seek out mentors and role models when you come to a new field. How do you look up to in the world of MMA?
LAWSON: I’ve been surrounded by greatness. In boxing, I was surrounded by great fighters at the Wildcard Gym. The same thing applies in MMA training at The Body Shop. At this stage, it’s very important for me to surround myself with good people over those with ok character but good fighting skills. I want to be with people who are good athletes and are also good human beings who contribute to society. I’m the only female fighting for the team, but I’m really blessed to be around such a good group of guys.
Antonio is a godsend. He’s one of my best friends and biggest supporters. I confide in him so much. I want to be like everyone on my team. I value all of them as friends and athletes.
Of course, I follow women’s MMA now that I’m in it. But, I’m not a huge follower of anyone. There are people I definitely respect within it, but I don’t agree with a lot of people’s lifestyles and how they carry themselves.
BBM: How has your old Wildcard Gym crew taken to the news of you leaving boxing?
LAWSON: It’s funny because I haven’t made a big announcement to anyone. Only the people I’m close with know all the details. Every single one that knows sees the opportunity and value in it for me as a female athlete.
BBM: Is there currently a champion in your division?
LAWSON: 145 pounds (featherweight) is where Cyborg fights at normally. She’s trying to come down to 135 for a fight in Invicta, I think in December. She’s technically still the champ. Other than her, Bellator signed Marloes Coenen, who’s had a pretty lengthy career and close to 30 fights. They’ve signed a few women with 10 or fewer fights so far. The division itself is open and up for grabs.
BBM: What about the weight of 145? Is that comfortable for you as a former boxing welterweight (147 pounds)?
LAWSON: I’m strong and ripped at that weight. I boxed at 147 but came in 145 because I had a lot of catchweights. The MMA featherweight division is natural for me. So 152 pounds is a weight I’ll be strong and comfortable without having to do weight cutting.
UPDATE – The catchweight of 152 was changed yesterday due to Cotton coming in overweight at 168 pounds. Both fighters agreed to new terms to salvage the fight. Lawson weighed in later at 163.
Holly Lawson vs. Jozette Cotton with air exclusively on Spike.com as a part of Bellator 129’s preliminary card. The event begins at 7 p.m. ET.