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?
It was all just a way to pass the time until the day Joe Pomfret, who owned a local karate gym, put on a jiu-jitsu demonstration at the high school. That’s what we’ve been trying to do! Lauzon thought to himself. He signed up for classes at the karate school not long after.
His first night of training, Lauzon nearly caught Pomfret in a submission. (Pomfret has been Lauzon’s coach ever since.) After the first month, he’d defeated almost everyone in his class. “I had a checklist,” Lauzon recalls. “Got him, got him, got him.” After a couple years of training, he decided to try a real MMA fight. “I had no idea what I was getting into. None,” he says. “But I won. So I had another fight.” And another, and another. After high school, Lauzon, still the computers guy, attended the Wentworth Institute of Technology. “I went through my crazy party phase in college, but Joe never did,” says Lauzon’s manager and training partner, Chris Palmquist, who also attended Wentworth. “He fought all through college. He came home on the commuter rail four nights a week just to go to jiu-jitsu.” By the time Lauzon was ready to graduate in 2006 with a degree in computer networking information systems and a new job at Charles Rivers Analytics, he had 24 fights under his belt.
That was when the phone rang. Did Joe Lauzon want to sign on with the UFC and fight a guy named Jens Pulver?
“I thought it was a joke, “ Lauzon says. Only a week earlier, while talking shop with Palmquist, the subject had gotten around to who, stylistically, would be the worst possible matchup for Lauzon. Their conclusion? Jens Pulver — a legendary former UFC champ who’d also dabbled in boxing. Not exactly the most promising way to start a pro career, but where others might have focused on the risk, Lauzon concentrated on the opportunity. “If it didn’t work out, I went back to my job on Monday,” he says. “ But if I won, huge upside.”
Five months later, on September 23, 2006, he was in Anaheim, California, climbing into the UFC octagon in front of 12,000 people, while 3,000 miles away, the promoters of an MMA card at Club Lido in Revere paused the action so the crowd could watch their friend on TV. No one had given Lauzon much of a chance — he was a 7-to-1 underdog — but in the span of 48 seconds, he took Pulver down twice, caught him with a left hook, followed it with a knee, and ended the fight. Club Lido exploded with cheers. “I mean, we all loved him, and it was like, Dude, this is Jens Pulver,” recalls Kevin MacDonald, who was refereeing at the club that night. “People were just running around that building. To this day — it sounds tacky — but you choke up. That was our guy.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Lauzon and some of his coaches — Pomfret, boxer Steve Maze, and strength and conditioning trainer Steve Baccari — have gathered in the basement of Lauzon’s Bridgewater home.
They’re watching replays of an Anthony Pettis fight against Jeremy Stephens. On the TV screen, Pettis lands a shot just after Stephens has brought his leg back in from a kick. Minutes later, the same thing happens again. “I think that drill you were doing with Joe and Andy is just right on the freaking money,” Pomfret says to Maze. “Jab, and reacting to that right hand coming right back at you. That’s what Pettis does on his feet — really counter-fights with that right hand.”
“He’s definitely a counter-puncher,” Maze agrees, then turns to Lauzon and says, “You want to keep him off balance. But you can’t be too aggressive. You don’t want to run into something.”
For a pro fighter, Lauzon has a lot of Ninja Turtles and electronics lying around his basement. Between the computers and the 53-inch TV on the wall, there are at least four different monitors within reach (with more on standby in a closet) for marathon Xbox parties. On the bookshelves are copies of all the Call of Duty games, plus old favorites like Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and Halo, and also a pair of samurai swords and a Captain America Frisbee.
Behind me, someone laughs. On the screen, Pettis has just thrown a wild, flashy kick that involves him dropping onto his hands and cartwheeling his legs over his head.
“I thought it was just a gimmick, but that’s the third one he’s thrown,” Lauzon says. “I guess he likes that.”
“He does it ’cause he’s Showtime,” Pomfret says.
Pettis’s legs are dangerous, fast, and effective. He’s good on the ground, and even better standing up. He’ll definitely be one of the most innovative and dynamic fighters Lauzon has faced.
Pettis, in fact, seemed well on his way to a championship fight until an unexpected defeat last year set him back. Now Pettis, like Lauzon, sees the match in Tokyo as an opportunity to finally lay claim to a shot at the title. He began agitating for the fight immediately after Lauzon knocked out Melvin Guillard at the end of last year. And Pettis has already been established as the prefight favorite.
Still, as Lauzon watches the film of his next opponent, he is higher ranked and more respected than he’s ever been before. The chance to fight for the championship is tantalizingly near. Lauzon would like to do something not even the fearsome Kenny Florian could — win a UFC title. Florian has actually had three title fights, but he lost each time. Kirik Jenness, the cofounder of mixedmartialarts.com, says Massachusetts fighters can be a little defensive about the state’s inability so far to produce a champion. “There’s a slight sense here that there are regions of the country, like southern California, northern California, Vegas, that are producing all these champs, and we’re one step down from there,” Jenness says. If Lauzon brought home a belt, he says, “It would be like New England has finally grown up.”
“That’s it, Joey. That a boy,” Maze calls as Lauzon, back in the gym, spars against his training partners. “Good right hand!” In the cage, Lauzon slips his head to the side, moves toward his opponent, and drives forward to take him down.
Maze nods at another fighter, a smaller guy named Andy, who bounds into the fray, replacing the downed opponent. Andy unleashes an onslaught of fists on Lauzon’s head and body. The assault marks the beginning of Lauzon’s third round of the evening, coming on the heels of an earlier boxing session with Maze, which had been preceded by jiu-jitsu practice. A fatigued Lauzon fights back, but without his usual ferocity. “Time!” barks Maze. The action stops, and Lauzon collapses onto the mat. Andy, Lauzon says, is “like a little fuckin’ mosquito.” (He’s also Lauzon’s housemate.) “He comes in like eeeeeee” — and here he flails his hands in exhausted demonstration. “I mean, I’m glad he’s like that, but…” He shakes his head.
As the fight nears, Lauzon has been spending countless hours training in the gym. The intensity of his workouts has been building, and now, four weeks until the fight, he’s approaching the crescendo of his training. The sparring rounds are just short of all-out war. It will be like this for another two weeks, and then taper off, timed to the precise moment when he’ll still be at peak conditioning but have had enough recovery time to no longer be sapped.
The training, of course, is meant to enhance Lauzon’s natural strength and speed, which he’ll need to win. But there’s always the chance that all the conditioning could be for naught, that he or Pettis will connect with a shot that ends it all in seconds, before anyone’s even broken a sweat. That kind of unpredictability helps define the sport — and also means that sometimes the hungrier and harder-working fighter leaves the cage with nothing.
On the night of the big fight, I drive to Joe Pomfret’s house in North Easton to watch the show. Pomfret wasn’t able to make the trip to Japan — only the second time he’s missed one of Lauzon’s fights — so he’s invited the gym crew, Dan Lauzon, and some neighbors to watch at his place.
“Oh my God, I’m so nervous,” he says. If Joe loses, he says, he’ll be crushed. “Like take the Patriots versus the Giants and then multiply it by 10.” The fight is set to start at 10, and right now it’s 9:59. “Oh, Jesus!” Pomfret cries as he takes his seat. “Here we go!”
On screen, Lauzon walks out first, eyes down, face blank. He makes his way through the crowd and down to the cage, his entrance song — “Move” by Thousand Foot Krutch — pounding through the speakers. The refs pat him down, check his gloves, and then he’s inside the octagon, bounding toward his corner to wait as Pettis, looking solemn, makes his way to the cage.
“They look nervous,” Pomfret says.
“Yeah,” Dan says. “Should be.”
The fight starts, and Lauzon, playing it safe, doesn’t come out with his signature aggression. He moves carefully, staking out the center of the cage. Pettis throws a kick, which Lauzon catches on his arms. They circle, each throwing a few punches. Eighty seconds in, Pettis throws a few shots, and follows with a kick at Lauzon’s head. This time, it isn’t blocked. Pettis’s shin connects on Lauzon’s face, and Lauzon falls backward. The fight is over.
In North Easton, the room freezes. Pomfret has gone ashen. “Wow!” yell the UFC commentators. “That left high kick came out of nowhere! Let’s look at that again here.” Everyone watches the knockout, this time in slow motion. Pettis’s leg arcing upward, Lauzon’s hand flying down, and crack. “Spectacular,” say the commentators. “Perfect technique by Anthony Pettis. … Huge victory for Anthony Pettis.”
Pomfret slaps his hands on his thighs and stands. “All right, that’s it,” he announces to no one in particular.
“One step back.” And he strides out of the room.
Perhaps hoping to ease the anguish of his many fans, Lauzon took to Twitter the day after losing thanks to a kick to the head. “I’m in Japan for a few more days and was gonna look at buying a sword,” he tweeted, “but I think I’m gonna invest in a helmet instead.” The message seemed clear: The loss wasn’t the end of the world, and Lauzon would be back. He struck the same theme in a video blog he made after returning to the States. “I think everyone’s more devastated than me,” he told his fans in the post. “I’m obviously upset, but I know that’s just the way it goes.”
The way it goes for Joe Lauzon now is that he’s a top-20 fighter at the moment, not a top-10. And he’s going to have to rebuild everything he spent the last year creating. That starts with his next fight, a late-summer match against the British lightweight Terry Etim. Training is already under way.
“Joe doesn’t get as much respect as he should,” says Mark DellaGrotte, the legendary Somerville MMA coach. “He’s a sleeper. I think you’ve yet to see some of the best of Joe Lauzon.”