Lauren Murphy busted out of quarantine and into a top-5 UFC ranking a week ago at a sparsely populated arena in Las Vegas, where no fans were allowed and things were so quiet she could hear what the other corner was telling her opponent to do.
It was a surreal way to return to competition, but the Anchorage woman is loving her new normal — which predates the pandemic by about year.
Murphy picked up her third victory in a span of 10 months by scoring a unanimous decision last Saturday over Roxanne Modafferi. The win sent her rocketing up the women’s flyweight rankings, from No. 7 to a share of the No. 4 spot.
All three victories have come since Murphy, 36, moved her training from Phoenix to Houston last June. In Texas, she reunited with coaches she worked with before she turned pro and found a nutritionist who made her more buff than she already was by letting her eat steaks and carbs.
The result: a 5-4 record — the first time she’s been above .500 since making her UFC debut in 2014 — and legitimate thoughts of a UFC title fight.
“It’s crazy,” said Murphy, who grew up in Eagle River and got her start in mixed martial arts with the Alaska Fighting Championship. “I’m just a regular person from a small town in Alaska, and this hobby has now become my life and that’s so … cool.”
Even while quarantined, things were cool.
Murphy’s home in Houston, which includes a workout room filled with mats, became her training camp. She kept her coronavirus bubble small by picking one or two training partners — “usually I have a lot,” she said — and she relied heavily on husband Joe Murphy, a black belt in jiu-jitsu who she said “was born to coach.”
Fight night was at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, where no fans were allowed because of the pandemic. The room is about the size of a ballroom and the octagon is smaller than normal, but in many ways it was a routine night with Bruce Buffer announcing things and walk-out music playing as fighters entered the arena.
“There was no crowd, it was super-controlled and really quiet,” Murphy said. “The commentators sat away from the cage behind partitions. There were judges, commissioners, medical (staff), referees and one ring girl. All in all it was about 20 people.
“I could hear everything. I could hear my corner, I could hear her corner. I could hear what they were telling her to do and get an idea of what to expect.”
That means Modafferi’s corner could hear Murphy’s corner, but that didn’t matter much.
“We use a lot of code words,” Murphy said, including one that pays homage to Benson Henderson, one of her favorite fighters who is known his takedowns. “When my corner says, ‘Benson! Benson!’ that means they want me to get a takedown.”
UFC fighters were the first pro athletes to return to competition during the global pandemic, and Murphy said she never felt at risk in Las Vegas.
“I was tested twice and all of my corners were tested,” she said. “It was really well done. I didn’t have any concerns during fight week. The UFC does it right. I feel fortunate that we get to work this whole year — that’s amazing to me.”
Murphy emerged from the octagon with a fat lip and renewed dreams of a championship. At her post-fight press conference, she said she hopes her next fight is against second-ranked Cynthia Calvillo.
“Hopefully it will be a fight for title contendership,” she said. “I really hope I’ll fight for a UFC title.”
If she does, it will be a long time coming for a fighter who went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat before stalling.
Murphy wasn’t into sports until she took her son to jiu-jitsu lessons and got hooked. She made a rapid rise — she started fighting in 2010 and made her UFC debut four years later — but it’s taken much of the last decade for her to become an athlete.
She lost three of her first four fights while getting valuable on-the-job training. She learned how to win, how to lose, how to compete, even how to eat, something she did with the help of nutritionist Mateo Capodaglio, who taught her to eat like an athlete.
“It’s more calories than I’m used to but I can tell the difference in my physique, in my performance, in my win streak,” she said.
“Life has never been better. I have a job I love, I’m crazy in love with my husband, and I wake up every day and think I can’t believe this is my life.”
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