LAS VEGAS — A little more than 82 years ago, a once great baseball player slowed by the awful effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) slowly made his way onto the field at Yankee Stadium.
Less than two years from his death at just 38 years old, Lou Gehrig stood behind a microphone and said, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this Earth.”
Lauren Murphy, one of the top flyweight fighters in the world, considers herself lucky, too, even though as she makes her way to the cage on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena for the co-main event of UFC 266, there will be plenty of folks concerned for her safety.
Murphy will fight flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, arguably the most fearsome female fighting machine ever in the UFC, in the culmination of a journey that began in obscurity in Alaska.
Murphy never believed she’d be a fighter, and she’d gotten into the martial arts because she was looking for something for her young son, Max, to do. One thing led to another and she thought she’d take a fight for fun.
She finished her opponent in just 17 seconds. She was a student in nursing school and just wanted the experience of one fight, and then would go on with her life. Seventeen seconds didn’t do it for her, so she fought once more.
So she fought a second fight and it went into the second round. When it was over, that was it for Murphy. But then Willow Bailey, the featherweight champion of the Alaska Fighting Championship, grabbed the microphone.
“She said, ‘Oh you think you’re tough? Why don’t you fight me?’” said Murphy, who had no plans to fight again.
But Murphy wasn’t going to come off looking bad by slinking away and saying no.
“We were in this big arena, and it felt like there were thousands of people watching, and here is this woman calling me out to fight,” Murphy told Yahoo Sports. “I literally probably never would have done it except she called me out in front of everybody. But I didn’t want to look like a wuss. So I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can fight.’”
Bailey was tough, but not tough enough to defeat Murphy, who stopped her to win the AFC featherweight championship and led her on a path that will culminate when she squares off against Shevchenko.
And like Gehrig, who knew he was dying, Murphy feels lucky to get to challenge one of the greatest fighters in the history of the UFC.
She overcame much in her life, including drug and alcohol addiction, to get to the top of the UFC. She’s won five in a row and six of her last seven to vault to the top of a sport she never planned to pursue. Had Bailey called out someone else on that night in Anchorage in 2010, Shevchenko would be fighting someone else Saturday and the world would never have heard of Murphy.
But she’s lucky because she discovered how much she loves the job and the life it’s brought her and her husband, Joe.
“I love being a fighter [and] I love the life that I get to live,” she said. “It’s been a gratifying experience to spend most of my adult life being a professional athlete. It’s not something I ever dreamed for myself 20 years ago. Even 15 years ago, I would not have imagined this for myself. To see this is how my life has unfolded, it’s pretty incredible.
“And I do feel lucky to fight Valentina. All fighters dream of fighting the best and there are a million fighters who dream of being in the position I’m in now.”
Shevchenko is an overwhelming favorite at BetMGM to defeat Murphy. Shevchenko is -1500 to win while Murphy is +850. That means to make a $100 profit betting on Shevchenko to win, a bettor would have to put up $1,500.
If Murphy wins, it would be one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, alongside Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69 in 2007 and Holly Holm over Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 in 2015.
Some may look at Murphy’s relentless optimism and positive attitude and believe she’s whistling past the graveyard.
Murphy, though, has fought much bigger battles than another fighter in a cage, and she’s come out on top. She knows she can be a beacon of hope for those struggling with all manner of problems if she upsets Shevchenko to become the UFC champion.
“Perseverance counts for so much, and it’s a more valuable attribute than money,” she said. “It’s a more valuable attribute than talent. Perseverance and toughness can take you further in life than anything else. The beautiful thing about that is that anyone can have it. Anyone can persevere. Anybody can teach themselves to be tough. Perseverance counts for so much more than people give it credit for, you know.
“There are a lot of really talented people out there, not just in the athletic world, but in life. There are talented people everywhere: Talented artists, talented musicians, talented students, talented doctors. There are going to be other people in those fields who want to make it so far and who want to get those accolades and who want to be lifted up like that. They don’t have the same amount of talent as the other person, but with perseverance, they can make it to the same place. That’s what I hope people take from [my journey].”