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?

MMA fighter Joe Lauzon

(Photo by Laura Barisonzi)

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.”

Lauzon works punch combinations in his Bridgewater gym with boxing coach Steve Maze. (Photo by Laura Barisonzi)

“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.’”

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.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/05/joe-lauzon-mma-fighter/