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’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.