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.”