Manny Lara’s (4-1) road to becoming a professional mixed martial artist isn’t your typical story. Lara didn’t wrestle in high school or college like so many others in the sport today. In fact, apart a little boxing as a kid, Lara didn’t have any specific combat sports training growing up. But, one year while attending the International Mixed Martial Arts Expo, Lara would unknowingly begin his journey that would ultimately take him from fan to fighter.
During some free time while working at Chuck Liddell’s Iceman RX booth, Lara decided to walk around the expo floor in hopes of spotting some fighters that he had watched on TV before. After seeing Josh Barnett and Tim Sylvia, Lara passed by a booth for a local MMA promotion where the owner flagged him down and asked if he was a fighter. Lara told him no, but the promoter gave him two tickets to an upcoming show and told him to come check it out.
“It was three days before my birthday and I decided to go check out the fights with one of my buddies,” Lara said. “When the guys came out that were in my weight class (heavyweight) and I saw them fight, I convinced myself that I could beat those guys with a little bit of training. I had fought so many times on the street and whatnot that I thought I was kind of a [expletive] and all that. So, I started training and that’s kind of how I got involved in MMA.”
The Southern California native would then start training in garages and on lawns until he joined a gym after being introduced to its owner by a friend. It was there where Lara soon found out just how different fighting on the street and MMA really are.
“My first jiu-jitsu coach was about 5 foot 5 inches tall and 140 pounds,” Lara said. “One day he told me to put some gloves on because we were going to spar, so I was like all right, I’ve got this. I thought I would walk right through his punches, and to make a long story short, he whipped my butt. He walked circles around me and hit me in places I’ve never been hit. After we were done I sat down and asked him if he could teach me to do that. I wanted to learn how he could move like that and throw such smooth combinations. Everything that he did I wanted to learn how to do, so I did that and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
After taking and winning his first professional fight, Lara would eventually join L.A. Boxing following a dispute over money that led to a split with his original gym. Then, two wins later, a coaching shakeup at L.A. Boxing led to Lara not having a coach just two months before his fourth fight. That’s when Lara got an email from an old training partner asking him to come and train at Mark Munoz’s Reign Training Center in Lake Forest, Calif.
“I had actually messaged Mark on Facebook and just kind of told him my story,” Lara said. “I told him that I had a fight coming up in two months, that I had nowhere to train and I had no money. I didn’t have anything then but I needed somewhere to train and I really wanted to fight and learn with the best. At the time Mark was teaching back to back wrestling classes at 5 and 6 p.m, but he took the six o’clock class off and had another coach teach it. He sat down with me for more than an hour and just kind of told me where he came from and how our stories are similar. He talked about how he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for Urijah Faber giving him a shot, and so I’ve been training there ever since.”
That would not be last time Munoz would help Lara through a tumultuous time of his career. During his first fight after joining Reign, Lara suffered his first professional loss after he dislocated his knee in the first round. The following months would turn out to be one of the most trying times both physically and mentally for the young fighter .
“It was tough,” Lara said. “I had a pretty active childhood and I never once broke anything. Once I got into fighting I started breaking things and bending ways that I’ve never been bent before. The [knee] injury was kind of drastic. To go from never being hurt to having a major injury like that where I tore my ACL and PCL because of the dislocation and having pretty major surgery was really hard. When it first happened it was kind of draining emotionally and mentally just because I have a family to take care of. I got depressed for about two or three weeks. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move and I talked to Mark and he told me that I was either going to sit and cry about it or I was going to get up, get better and recover from it.”
After going to rehab three days a week for six months, Lara was ready to start training again. Then, in August of 2011, 13 months after his original injury, Lara stepped back into the cage against former King of the Cage Super-Heavyweight Champion Neil Cooke.
“A lot of people didn’t want me to take the fight,” Lara said. “They said that I needed to take an easy fight since it was my comeback fight, but I took the fight anyway. I got in really good shape and I trained by butt off as hard as I could and the results speak for themselves.”
It took Lara just 21 seconds to knock Cooke out, but in the process he suffered another injury. This time, Lara broke his hand.
In the time since then, Lara has started a nonprofit to help at-risk youth in the Orange County, Calif. area. Now that the program is established and his hand is healed, Lara hopes to step back into the cage several times before the end of 2012.
“I want to fight three or four times before the year is over, with three being a realistic number,” Lara said. “I’ve had a couple offers to fight August 16 [outside of California]. I also have an offer to fight here locally in Orange County, but I don’t want to be comfortable in my next fight. I want to fight someone where I’ve never fought before out of the state. I want to fight somewhere where I’m uncomfortable, because that’s one of our biggest mottos at the gym, is to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
As for the future, Lara wants to continue to fight the best, keep improving and hopefully make it to the UFC one day.
“Obviously if you’re fighting and you don’t want to be the best then you probably shouldn’t be fighting, but I definitely want to get to the UFC,” Lara said. “I know that I have to prove myself and get there first, so whether it’s a local show or some of the bigger shows and challenge myself because that’s the only way that I’m going to get better.”
Manny Lara would like to thank his family, his friends, and his wife for all of their support and for the sacrifices that go with him being a professional fighter. Lara would also like to thank Kristi and Mark Munoz for giving him the opportunity to train at Reign Training Center and to be a part of that family. Also, Brett Cooper, Krzysztof Soszynski, Jay Silva, Emanuel Newton, Jason Manly and all of his training partners as well as Sacrifice Apparel and all of his fans.