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?
“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.