Fighter of the Month: A.J. Lavarias

By Joe Wilhelm
Photos by Meghan Wonder, Stephanie Drews, and Mitch Viquez  

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AJ Lavarias with the million-dollar smile. (Photo by Meghan Wonder)

When AJ Lavarias smiles, it’s difficult not to return the gesture.

But when the cage closes and the doors lock, it’s difficult not to notice a sudden change.

Preceding his debut at ‘University of MMA: Fight Night’ in March 2013, Lavarias was an unknown quantity, even for fight coach Ian Harris.

“AJ surprised the hell out of me,” Harris said. “The first time he fought with the U of MMA we had four people fighting. We had a couple of guys who I had no worries about. The only guy I was worried about that night was AJ because I didn’t know how AJ was going to respond.”

“Before the fight, he was training hard and he was clearly talented. But he’s a really nice guy who’s not really intense in the gym.”

Lavarias, whose supporters hailed not only from Los Angeles, but the Bay Area, Seattle and Chicago, asserted his dominance early in the bout with Angel Cordova, taking the action to the ground several times before cementing his victory with a triangle in the waning seconds of the third round.

“It was pretty cool when I came out and heard everyone chanting my name,” Lavarias said. “But I was pretty focused on the fight, so I heard it, but I didn’t really hear it. After the fight, when I was enjoying the moment, and hearing everyone chant my name, I looked into the crowd and saw those familiar faces. It was an amazing feeling.”

In spite of the warm feelings, Lavarias had little time to celebrate his victory over Cordova, as he turned his attention to his looming fight with Daniel Shin.

AJ Lavarias lands a solid right on Daniel Shin. (Photo by Stephanie Drews)

AJ Lavarias lands a solid right on Daniel Shin. (Photo by Stephanie Drews)

Shin, standing at 5’10, possessed considerable length for a lightweight fighter, owning a four inch height advantage over the 5’6 Lavarias. This advantage made Shin a dangerous opponent for Lavarias, who wanted to test his striking ability in his second fight.

“This might sound really funny, but because I didn’t get to really punch or kick in my first fight I really wanted to stand-up and bang a little bit,” Lavarias said.

“But I was able to see footage of some of his fights, and in the fight immediately preceding ours, he knocked someone out. And that really got into my head. Realizing that he could actually knock me out was mentally challenging. Not only did I have to mentally prepare for the fight I had to sit there and think to myself, ‘he knocked out his last opponent.’”

Lavarias’ concerns were indeed valid, as several blows from the rangy Shin, including a vicious left hook in the second round, nearly overwhelmed the thirty-one-year-old fighter.

But once more, Lavarias relied upon his strength and compact frame, recovering from a thunderous slam to smother Shin in the third round.

AJ Lavarias after winning a shot at the University of MMA lightweight championship.

AJ Lavarias after winning a shot at the University of MMA lightweight championship. (Photo by Stephanie Drews)

With chants of “AJ” filling the Club Nokia crowd, it was announced that Lavarias won the fight by majority decision.

“As soon as the bell rang he went right after this guy and took him down,” Harris said, “AJ is more of a striker and he just took him down ,out-wrestled him, and beat the crap out him. He just remained calm and listened to everything we said.”

“He’s the kind of guy you want on your team; I don’t worry about him anymore.”

Though his early success has been a pleasant surprise for Harris and the members of his Systems Training Center team, contact sports and martial arts have long been an important part of Lavarias’ life.

Lavarias grew-up in the small city of Richland, Washington, where at the age of eight he was begrudgingly introduced to his first love.

“My sister was a figure skater and my mom put me in figure skating at first. I had to do everything my sister had to do,” Lavarias said, “She was a tap-dancer, so I even had to try tap-dancing. During the figure-skating season I’d see all of the hockey players, and say to myself, ‘wow, I’d love to try that!’ So luckily, I transitioned to hockey and played until the end of high school.”

The ice provided Lavarias a medium through which he could channel his aggression and competitive spirit, a release that he found difficult to obtain in his daily running and weight lifting.

Once more, Lavarias, at twenty-five and living in Los Angeles, was forced outside his comfort zone and begrudgingly urged to try a life-changing sport.

“A friend invited me to try Krav Maga,” Lavarias said. “I thought it was cheesy because it’s self-defense, but he kept inviting me and inviting me, until one day he asked me what I would do if I were with my girlfriend and somebody attacked me.”

“We were throwing knees to a pad for thirty seconds and I basically passed-out. I had low blood-sugar, I was seeing stars, I was out of breath, and I realized that this was exactly what I was looking for. I signed up that day, and I’ve been doing it ever since then.”

As a self-defense martial art, Krav Maga is a true mixed martial art, implementing assorted grapples, takedowns and strikes to debilitate potential assailants.

But Lavarias craved competition, drawing him to MMA in October of 2012, opting to join the fight team of Systems Training Center, seizing the opportunity to work under renown cornerman Ian Harris.

AJ Lavarias (center), at work with coach Ian Harris and  (Photo by Meghan Wonder)

AJ Lavarias (center), at work with coach Ian Harris (kneeling) and teammate John Robles. (Photo by Meghan Wonder)

“Ian brought in about 15-20 of his own guys and he invited me to train with the guys. Systems really took it to the next level in terms of my competitive fighting,” Lavarias said.

“It’s been a great experience. Our fight team has been on a winning streak. The camaraderie we have on our fight team is like no other. Guys are in here Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings training together. It’s truly like a brotherhood. It’s unlike any experience I’ve had before.”

But camaraderie and training weren’t enough for Lavarias, who scheduled his bout with Cordova just five months after taking up MMA.

In the months preceding the fight, Lavarias gathered a following of nearly a hundred friends and family, temporarily omitting one crucial member of his inner-circle from the guest list.

“He was really scared to tell me about his first fight,” Lavarias’ wife Cheryl Lavarias said, “In fact, he told a whole bunch of our friends before telling me because he was scared to see what I would say. I told him it wasn’t the first thing I’d choose for him to pursue, but of course I support him. It’s his passion.”

Regardless of her uneasiness about her husband’s career choice, Cheryl attends all of her husband’s bouts, adding her own cries of “AJ!” to the ever-growing chorus of Lavarias’ fan-base.

The next test? August 25th at Club Nokia, where Lavarias will make his third consecutive appearance at ‘University of MMA: Fight Night 3.’

The stakes? The U of MMA lightweight title.

“I have to close my eyes and tell myself to enjoy the experience, because these are the moments you train for,” Lavarias said “I’ve had nothing but great experiences with the University of MMA. On top of that, the show is so professional.”

“To be able to fight at Club Nokia and say I fight across the street from the Staples Center is amazing. Until I go the pro level, I don’t think that I’m going to fight anywhere else.”

Time will tell if once more, Lavarias will stand victorious, all smiles.

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