Can Joe Lauzon Fight His Way to a UFC Title Shot?
Joe Lauzon’s ferocity, power — and mangled ears — have made him one of the most popular athletes in what may be the world’s fastest-growing sport: mixed martial arts. His string of spectacular upsets has already earned him tons of money and international respect, but can he do what no Massachusetts cage fighter before him has managed … win a UFC championship?
Joe Lauzon has had a pretty good day so far. He’s played a few hours of Call of Duty, passed an eye exam, and now he’s got some of his closest friends and family on the ground where he can hit them. At the moment, he’s whaling on his brother Dan, who’s on his back as Joe drops a looping left hook on his face, flips him over, and then starts choking him from behind. I love fighting, reads the back of Joe’s T-shirt, like a fat kid loves cake. And that pretty much sums it up. Still, everyone’s playing nice today. Nobody’s bleeding.
All the action is taking place inside a battered octagonal cage at Lauzon Mixed Martial Arts, the gym in Bridgewater that Lauzon co-owns with his longtime coach. Half a dozen heavy bags hang from the ceiling, and the place is littered with water bottles and stray mouth guards. Counting the 27-year-old Lauzon, there are 14 men training inside the cage tonight, and another eight are practicing on mats nearby. The place may look like one of those fight gyms from half a century ago, but these aren’t boxers. They’re actually a new breed of fighter competing in one of the hottest and fastest-growing sports in the world: mixed martial arts. Known as MMA, mixed martial arts does what the name says, mixes up a whole bunch of martial arts — Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, judo, and so on — and folds all of them into a fluid whole that’s fought standing up, on the ground, and everywhere in between, usually in the confines of the sport’s signature eight-sided cage.
Everybody in the gym tonight has the misshapen ears of an MMA fighter — knobbed and swollen from years of abuse delivered in the form of punches, kicks, and chokes — but no one’s are as remarkable as Lauzon’s. His are magnificent: bulbous and scarred, flaring out due east and west from his head. They are, in fact, so distinctive that someone has taken it upon himself to set up a Twitter account for Lauzon’s ears. (At press time, they had 258 followers, fewer than the 59,593 who follow the rest of Joe, but more than any other pair around.) Those ears, combined with a sunken set of eyes and a rangy-thin body, give him the sort of look that has at least some of his online fans calling for him to replace his current nickname — “J-Lau” — with “Creepy Joe.”
MMA looks rough, and it is. But it’s also safer than football and more physically demanding than boxing. And after a bungled beginning in this country, when the cage was marketed as the direct descendant of the Roman Colosseum (Two men enter. One man leaves.), it has in less than 20 years become a billion-dollar sport that’s staged and regulated in 44 states. And if you fight for a living, your goal is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, known to fans everywhere as simply the UFC. It’s the big leagues of MMA, where the real money and prestige lie — the NFL of the fighting world. In that sense, Joe Lauzon has already made it.
He’s known as one of the UFC’s most exciting athletes — one who doesn’t just fight, but who, from the moment the match starts, swarms fists first toward his opponent. He’s relentless, refusing to stop until he cracks through the other guy’s defenses and either lands a knockout shot or — more often — wrenches on his limbs and neck with such force that the opponent simply quits.
That’s been his style since the very beginning, since 2002, when, in his first-ever amateur fight, he went up against a guy so experienced he owned his own martial arts school. Lauzon defeated him in less than three minutes. That was also his style six years ago, when he made his UFC debut against a former champ and knocked the guy out in 48 seconds. And it was definitely his style a few months ago, when he dispatched Melvin “I Will Knock Out Joe Lauzon” Guillard in just 47 seconds. Lauzon’s technique is so entertaining, the UFC has given him performance bonuses on eight different occasions — a total of $365,000 that’s come on top of his paycheck. You can even download his character on a new Xbox video game, so everyone can fight like Joe Lauzon.
“The first time I remember one of Joe’s fights was when he fought three guys in one night and dropped [each of] them in under four minutes,” says Kevin MacDonald, a longtime Massachusetts MMA referee. “Nobody thought Joe was going to be Joe. He was just a computer dork who loves this sport and started smoking dudes left and right.”
“Joe’s a monster,” says Mat Santos, another local ref and jiu-jitsu trainer. “He’s tough as nails.”
“He gets better and better, every time I see him fight,” says Mark DellaGrotte, who runs the Somerville gym Sityodtong (where I have trained in the past) and is regarded as one of the best MMA coaches in the country. “Someone will say, ‘He doesn’t stand a chance, he’s going to lose,’ and I say, ‘He’s got the Joe factor. He always gets it done.’”
But there’s making it, and then there’s making it. For all his success, the truth is that experts still tend to rank Lauzon only in the top 20 in the UFC’s lightweight division. Not good enough if your dream is to be a champion. To get a shot at a title, Lauzon is going to have to crack the top 10, and to do that he’s going to have to keep beating some of the toughest guys in the world, in what is arguably the toughest division in the game right now. Which brings us back to his gym in Bridgewater on this outrageously warm night in early February. As Lauzon works over his brother inside the cage, a jerry-rigged number their father helped build, he’s training for a fight in Tokyo, Japan, that could change everything for him. On February 26 (or the 25th in the U.S.), less than four weeks from tonight, he’ll face off against a dangerous fighter named Anthony Pettis — a guy with championship dreams of his own.
If Lauzon can beat Pettis, it will shoot him up the ranks of contenders. Indeed, the speculation among insiders is that the winner of this bout will soon have the chance to fight for the title.
And that, when you get down to it, is the goal: Be the best in the world, no question. “Until I’m the best,” Lauzon says, “the best at every move, at every position, at every angle, then you just keep training. And that’s what it’s about for me.”
If you’ve watched TV in the past year, odds are you’ve stumbled across MMA. The cage, the crowd, the two guys pounding each other in the face or bending each other’s joints in painful ways. The sport had for the most part been confined to cable and pay-per-view — where it racked up impressive ratings and profits — but took a huge leap forward last summer when the UFC signed a $90-million-a-year deal with Fox that included showing select fights on the broadcast network. The first of those matches aired last November and drew 8.8 million viewers. UFC stars these days appear not just on SportsCenter, but also in Hollywood movies and advertisements.
MMA, in other words, is inching toward the mainstream. It’s true that a fair number of fighters fit the rough-and-tumble stereotype, but many others are college grads, teachers, and even former computer programmers like Joe Lauzon. And people from all walks of life now practice MMA at the amateur level — sometimes to get out their aggression, sometimes (like me) just to exercise. In many ways, then, it has surpassed boxing as the nation’s combat sport of choice.
The very first UFC pay-per-view show was held in 1993. At the time, four basic rules separated it from an anything-goes brawl — no eye-gouging; no biting; no groin shots; and if a fighter’s style involved punching in the head, he had to wear gloves (otherwise, by all means, have at it bare-knuckle). That first event was run as an elimination tournament featuring eight fighters — seven who specialized, like almost all American martial artists at the time, in punching and kicking, and one whose forte was bending and twisting his opponents’ limbs in a way that was so painful they eventually gave up. In the end, it was the submission specialist who won. His style was known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which almost no one had ever seen before.
“And once the cat was out of the bag, everybody wanted to train with the guy who was doing things that were different,” says Joseph Esposito, a commissioner with the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission. Fighters across the country set out in search of instruction in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other forms of ground fighting. Once trained, they took what they’d learned and folded it back into their earlier punching and kicking styles. The result: an entirely new hybrid sport — a mix of martial arts.
In Massachusetts, the same thing happened in miniature: Within months of the UFC event, gyms and instructors in places like Amherst, Watertown, and Swansea popped up to offer jiu-jitsu. Through word of mouth, demonstration, and secondhand VHS recordings of the UFC, the interest grew. By the turn of the century, MMA fights were taking place around the state.
At that point, though, the sport was still way out in left field as far as the nation was concerned. Most people, if they knew about it at all, saw it as straight-up bloody barbarism. When Doug Calenda, a trainer with one of the early fight teams in the area, used to describe to people what he did, the most common response he got was, “What’s wrong with you?” At least some of that reaction can be blamed on the way the UFC was marketing itself. Fights were promoted in a way that all but promised death…with a side helping of gore. The country was horrified, and Senator John McCain launched a crusade against MMA. It was banned outright in 36 states, and yanked from most pay-per-view outlets.
Desperate, the UFC added rules for fighter safety — no stomping a downed opponent, for example — but it was too late. The company was hemorrhaging money, and continued to do so even after a pair of casino titans and a former South Boston boxercise coach named Dana White picked it up in 2001 for $2 million. It kept on losing money — $44 million, according to some estimates — over the next four years, this despite finding its way back to pay-per-view and getting authorized in states like New Jersey and Nevada. Then, in 2005, everything changed.
In that year, the UFC launched a reality show on the obscure Spike TV cable network. The Ultimate Fighter involved a bunch of fighters living in a house together. When they weren’t feuding in the living room, they were training in the gym and fighting each other in the cage, with the losers of the bouts kicked off the show. Suddenly, the UFC began making money. After the show’s season finale, the UFC held a pay-per-view event that generated 280,000 buys — nearly double the promotion’s previous record of 150,000. Today, UFC events can get more than a million buys (at about $50 a pop), and since a rising tide lifts all boats, even the shows of smaller competitors can generate more than 100,000 viewers.
And it’s not just the MMA’s big leagues that are doing well. Owing in part to the success of people like Lauzon and Kenny Florian — a trailblazing Massachusetts cage fighter who appeared on that first season of The Ultimate Fighter — the local scene has exploded: Last year there were nearly 30 MMA events across the state, six times the number for boxing. Massachusetts, in fact, has produced or trained about a dozen UFC fighters, and many others in smaller professional organizations such as Bellator and Strikeforce. It’s also home to a number of renowned gyms, places like Sityodtong in Somerville and Team Link in Ludlow that draw top fighters from across the world to train.
For all this, though, the one thing Massachusetts has never had is a homegrown UFC titleholder. Joe Lauzon is certain he’s going to change that.
Lauzon grew up in East Bridgewater, just five miles up the road from where his gym is located today. When his family moved to town in 1993, he was just a scrawny nine-year-old with big ears who rode horses and liked to fix computers for fun. By the time he reached high school, he’d developed another passion: pro wrestling. He and his friends would bounce around on his backyard trampoline and reenact the moves they saw on TV, usually as violently as possible. “It would be a brawl,” his mother, Debbie, recalls. “One of his friends showed up with a metal chair one day. They were going to do a Tower of Power, and I was like, ‘That’s not going on the trampoline.’”