Interview with Justin 'The Executioner' Levens
by Scott Newman(MMA)
Posted on September 26, 2006, 7:14 AM
Like in any sport, every new year in MMA brings a plethora of new stars and talent looking to rise to the top. Look back at 2005, and witness the rise to fame of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua or Diego Sanchez. But for most fighters, the road to the top isn’t quite as smooth as Diego’s. It’s more like the world’s bumpiest, most dangerous rollercoaster, with a variety of added potholes along the way. Some are lucky – or skilled – enough to make it all the way to the top, but for many, it’s a long and tiring road, and once you’re at the top, it’s just as easy to come back down again.
One of the passengers on said rollercoaster in 2006 has been Laguna Niguel’s Justin Levens. Fighting out of Marco Ruas’ famed Ruas Vale Tudo camp, coming into 2006 Levens looked like a sure-fire bet to be one of the year’s breakthrough stars. Holding an unblemished 7-0 record, Levens was coming off an impressive victory in the WEC Light-Heavyweight Tournament over Chute Boxe’s Jorge ‘Van Damme’ Oliveira. After being unable to compete in the scheduled final match on the same night with Scott Smith for the title due to injury, the fight was re-scheduled for January, and for many fans it seemed only a matter of time before ‘The Executioner’ took Smith’s belt and made the move up the ladder to the ‘big show’.
Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. In one of the most exciting two-minute fights you’ll ever see, a fight that saw Levens knock Smith down within five seconds, and almost close things out with a toehold just moments later, Justin eventually found himself on the end of a vicious knockout. Still, the fight had been such an explosive one that both fighters found themselves squarely on the map, and when Jeremy Horn dropped out of his scheduled fight with Evan Tanner at UFC 59, the ‘big show’ indeed came calling, and on just two weeks notice, Levens took the unenviable task of facing the former Middleweight champion, with minimal training time, in his first bout at 185lbs. Despite a valiant effort, the odds were always against Levens, and eventually Tanner was able to avoid a Rampage Jackson-style powerbomb to close out a triangle choke, and hand Justin the second loss of his career. For the ‘Executioner’, in just four months, things had gone from smooth, to very bumpy indeed.
We’re now five months down the line from the Tanner fight, and after experiencing a second, equally devastating loss inside the UFC octagon, and even contemplating retirement, Levens is set to return to action, facing the 2-0 Jeff Hawk on September 30th, before likely making a return to his old stomping ground, the WEC, in October. Will Justin be able to get back on track, on the road back to the top? I was lucky enough to find out his thoughts on this, and more, in a really great interview with the man himself. So without further ado...
Scott Newman: First off, how did you get into MMA? Were you one of these guys who trained in Tae-Kwon-Do or whatever when you were a kid, or did you more or less stumble upon it as you grew up?
Justin Levens: Well, I am from the projects of Philly, I grew up watching violence, and I started fighting a lot growing up. So when I moved to Cali, I needed something to do besides get into trouble. There was a fight school called Extreme U. Allan Goes, Justin and Sean McCaully, Joe Moreira, Steve Hurley were the teachers there, and Mark Coleman, Kerr, Randleman, and Kimo would always come in and train. I grew up watching them, so I decided that this is what I wanted to do.
SN: How did you end up in the Marco Ruas camp? Did you know much about Marco and his UFC career before you started training with him?
JL: I was fresh out of the navy and I knew it was time for me to start training and fighting again (2003). So I went from school to school looking for the right trainer. I didn’t know Marco had a school here - I thought he was in Brazil. I came to his school because a friend of mine trained there. I walked into fight class, it was Babalu, Pedro Rizzo, Gustavo Machado, Joe Moreira, and Marco Ruas..Marco asked me “so, you want to fight?” I said “yes sir I do” He said “have you trained before?” I said “a little years ago” So here I am.
SN: I seem to recall reading a funny story somewhere about your first day of training with 'Babalu' Sobral. Do you mind retelling that here?
JL: The first time I trained with Babalu I had no idea who he was. This was the first time I walked into the gym. Marco said spar with him. Vale Tudo with open hand. So we started. The first thing he does is throw a hard head kick, I catch it and kick his back leg out from him. He flies in the air hits the ground and I jump on his back and started hitting him. Well we stood back up, and I think he was mad. He kneed me in the stomach so hard I thought I was going to die. He’s been a friend ever since that day.
SN: Let’s talk about your fights. Your pro career started off with a win over Hector Carrilo. Got many memories from that first fight, how you felt leading into it, nerves, etc?
JL: Hahaha I was pumped. Maybe a little too pumped. I started to talk trash to him after I beat him. I felt bad and said sorry to him later. But I felt like a million bucks man.
SN: You went on to build a 5-0 record, but MMA fans really started to notice you once you began fighting in the WEC organization, and WEC is pretty much your unofficial home at this point. What are your thoughts on WEC and how it compares with other organizations?
JL: I think WEC is a great company. They take care of their fighters. They don’t jack you around like a lot of other shows. Beautiful ring girls. They truly are good people. Total Combat is also a very good show like the WEC.
SN: Talk about the fight in the WEC tournament with Jorge Oliveira - at that point I think it was your toughest one to date, and I'd probably call it the most exciting fight you've had, too. Did you know you'd injured your shoulder when it actually happened, or was it a surprise when they pulled you from the tournament finals? How disappointing was that, to miss out on the Smith fight through injury that night?
JL: That was a great fight. I didn’t know my shoulder hurt till after the fight. I had a hard time lifting up my arm, so the doc pulled me. I was sad that I didn’t get to fight Smith, but that is how things work.
SN: Your fight with Scott Smith was one of those fights where even though you lost, the fight was such an exciting one that you didn't exactly come away looking bad. With that said, it must've been hard to deal with your first professional loss - how difficult was it, to come to terms with that defeat?
JL: Aaww...I thought I KOed him in 4 seconds..I was wrong. Hahaha. It was really hard. I went into depression for a while, and have never really got my head back on straight till now. I finally feel 100% again.
SN: Was the rumor about UFC contacting you to be a part of TUF 3 around that time true at all? Did you really turn down a slot on TUF? If so, why was that?
JL: Hahaha I never talk about this kinda stuff!
SN: In terms of the fights, the loss to Smith didn't derail you as you ended up fighting in the UFC against Evan Tanner. You took the fight on short notice, and the circumstances surrounding it made things even more difficult. How did you deal with dropping to 185lbs for the first time? And how did fighting for the UFC, the biggest show in the US, compare to the other organizations you've fought for?
JL: It was hard to drop the weight. I was walking around at 225 at the time of the call about 2 weeks before the fight. I felt like shit, but it was a dream come true. It has been my dream since I was a little kid to fight in the UFC. So there is nothing that could compare to it.
SN: If you were to fight that fight again, what things would you do differently?
JL: I would have trained more..hahah.
SN: Talk about the fight with Jorge Santiago, at the UFN show - what went wrong for you there? Was it a case of problems in dropping to 185lbs? Or more to do with your training going into it?
JL: I was not ready to fight again yet. I trained, but my heart was not there. I didn’t really want to fight. And fighting at 185lbs is not for me.
SN: After the Santiago loss, there were online rumors about your retirement. Was there any truth whatsoever to these rumors, did you really contemplate retirement? If so what made you change your mind?
JL: Yes, I did think about it....but not for very long. I just needed to take time off and get my head back on straight, and work the kinks out of my game.
SN: After a bit of a layoff you're set to return on September 30th, fighting Jeff Hawk, and then again in the WEC on October 12th, likely against Dan Molina. What do you know about your opponents in those two fights? You looking for the knockout, or the submission?
JL: Well, the Jeff Hawk fight will be good, we do not like each other. I will KO him fast! As for the WEC on the 12th, I don’t think I am fighting Dan now. He is a nice guy an a good fighter, but they are all going to Shamrock’s last fight (Newman: Molina is a Lion’s Den fighter). So he will not be fighting. I always look for the KO. Every time I get in that ring, I go for broke.
SN: After you've got a few more fights - and hopefully wins - under your belt, do you see yourself returning to UFC? With your personality and a couple of wins, I think you could become a legit star in UFC - do you ever look at guys like Liddell or Ortiz and think, hey, that could be me?
JL: After a couple wins I think I will be back. Do I think I could be a star? Well, I hope so. I am going to be fighting at 205lbs again. I would like to come back and bang it out with some of the 205 strikers.
SN: Well, good luck in your upcoming fights - before we finish, have you got any words for your fans out there that may be reading this?
JL: All the fans that stood by me...Thank you very much. We rose to the top very fast and hit some bumpy roads. Now I know what I want and I’m not going to stop till I get there. Thank you.
SN: And one last question - how do I (and any readers for that matter!) get hold of one of those cool Executioner masks you were wearing before the Tanner fight? Hahah.
JL: Hahah not sure that was from a sponsor that paid for me to wear it. (Newman: Damnit!)
And so, we ended there. I’d like to thank Justin for taking the time to do this interview – he actually had it back in my mailbox less than 12 hours after I posted it, showing again that MMA fighters are some of the most approachable and classy athletes out there. I wish Justin all the best with his comeback bouts, and here’s hoping for another run at the big show in 2007. For more information on Justin Levens, the best route is to head to WEC.tv and check out their forums, as Justin and many other fighters frequently post there.