UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon is up in bonus money, down in formidability, and right at home as the underdog.
Six weeks before his UFC 136 fight on Oct. 8, Joe Lauzon sprained the same ankle that he jacked up on the night his brother Dan got stabbed. He was unable to train for a week, just as the weeks were becoming precious. What did he do? He texted Joe Silva and ran a little bit of cold blood down the matchmaker’s body, saying not to worry, he’s hopeful he can still go.
A tough bastard, Lauzon does recover, but then some over-sized training partner—a new guy that he entreated to go easy on him—rolls the same knee that he had ACL surgery on a couple of years back, and now Joe’s right back to modified training. Nothing’s going right. If that weren’t enough, a sparring partner pops him in the mouth and sets his front tooth at an incline that his tongue plays over with a sinking feeling.
But Lauzon is nothing if not a resourceful fellow. Luckily, he knows somebody in the Bridgewater area, a guy who runs a jiu-jitsu school and also happens to be a dentist. In Boston, everybody has a second trade. He goes over there at 9:30 p.m., only a few weeks out from the biggest fight of his career and has his tooth bonded. With the bond, he cannot spar because he can’t wear a mouthpiece. It’s another week compromised.
All of this can be gotten over, but when Lauzon takes a knee to the hamstring that sets his tailbone on fire just 12 days out, it’s the last straw. He can’t pinch his legs together. For a guy who relies so heavily on jiu-jitsu, this is the white flag moment—he types out a text to Joe Silva saying that, regrettably, he’s out. Finito. But he doesn’t send it. He decides to sleep on it and see how it feels the next day. And with 11 days to go before his fight, it feels better, not good, but better. He can move his leg a smidge. He deletes the text and leaves the whole goddamn thing to chance.
Come hell or high water, he’ll fight.
It’s a fragmented, injury-riddled training camp for a guy who’s already a 5-to-1 underdog without any public knowledge of these travails.
White flag you say?
No, Joe Lauzon has Melvin Guillard right where he wants him.
Why do people sleep on a guy who’s been in the UFC since 2006 and has eight end-of-the-night bonuses? “I don’t know,” Lauzon says. “I buzz my hair, I guess. And I have these ears.” He does have some ears. Lauzon’s sort of pale and skinny and indoorsy, not fighterly at all. He’s a former IT guy who worked at Charles River Analytics in Cambridge, Mass., making decent coin before turning to fighting full time. While attending East Bridgewater High School, he was on the school’s payroll because he could fix its antiquated computers. He then went to the Wentworth Institute of Technology and got a degree in computer science. Looking around, there are a dozen network jacks in his basement for gaming—earlier in life it was StarCraft, but these days it’s Xbox and Call of Duty is his primary fetish—with a server room where things buzz with electronic wiring.
Geek, dork, nerd, call him whatever, but it’s misleading to read too much into simple veneers. As he says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
It took Lauzon 47 seconds to submit the UFC lightweight division’s most explosive contender. Houston knew it had a problem when a short, left counter jab slipped through Guillard’s bulrush. Lauzon doesn’t have stand-up (admittedly), but he’s analytical and timed something out. Down went Guillard. Following like vapor was Lauzon, who might have the most immediate go-for-the-kill instincts in MMA when a gazelle is wounded. An anticipatory sprawl furthered Guillard’s danger, and Lauzon was squeezing the life from him seconds later.
Boom. Make that nine end-of-the-night bonuses. Only Anderson Silva and Chris Lytle have as many. Just like that, a number one contender is vanquished via the most embarrassing way possible—that of looking past his opponent. And this is the position that Lauzon feels most at home in.
Nobody loves to throw a monkey wrench into predestined plans like the scrappy dude with the ears, J-Lau.
In his first amateur fight, Lauzon took on a guy he’d never heard of named Greg Mendes. The nearby town of Taunton, Mass., knew Mendes plenty. He had a school there where he taught Tang Soo Do, a crossbreed of Taekwondo and karate. Come fight night, Lauzon and his longtime confrere Joe Pomfret—a former Marine and karate and grappling instructor who owned Reality Self Defense— showed up unaware that he was being set up to get annihilated by a local karate chopper.
“All of a sudden, they made our fight the main event,” Lauzon says. “They didn’t want Mendes to fight early and have all of his fans leave, and there were thousands of them. So, I’m going from fighting in my first fight to becoming the main event, and I’m starting to realize what’s going on.”
The crowd got behind Mendes the whole way, and Mendes dropped the 18-year-old Lauzon with the first punch he threw. “But I got up, tried to take him down, failed, and tried again…I shot from so far away. I shot from like 15 feet away, way too far,” Lauzon says. “So I got up, got in closer, waited until I could feel like he was going to hit me and then took him down, landing in his half-guard.”
Not long after, Mendes was tapping from an armbar. “I had all these people yelling that they were going to fuck me up. I am the skinniest, palest white kid you’ve ever seen. No muscle on me at all. But I beat him.”
Nine years later, Guillard’s Houston felt Taunton’s pain. Lauzon turned a similar trick on Guillard, knowing full well that he was being treated as a particularly nonthreatening challenge to be walked right through—not unlike a hologram. And this has always been the story.
When the UFC caught wind of his underground grappling highlights circa 2005, they called Lauzon for the express purpose of being a live body for former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver to crush at UFC 63, just ahead of his coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter 5. At the time, Lauzon was installed as a 7-to-1 underdog while working on a senior project in college and holding down a regular job.
“If you look at tapes, back then I had zero stand-up and I never wrestled,” he says. “I had pretty good jiu-jitsu, but I think I was tailor-made to make Jens Pulver look good— me trying to take him down, and him stuffing my takedowns. Me looking like a lost puppy.”
Instead, Lauzon beat Pulver. Not only did he beat him, but he knocked him out in 48 seconds. The Guillard and Pulver fights—held 73 pay-per-views apart—are a single second away from becoming duplicates of one another. Maybe not in method—one was a knockout, one a submission— but in improbability.
With Lauzon finding himself in the situation frequently enough, just what is it that goes through his mind when he’s the dime store underdog to his opponent’s happy story?
“That it’s a win-win situation,” Lauzon says. “If you lose, okay. But if you win? Hey. If I had lost the Pulver fight, I’d still have had the chance to do something a lot of people don’t get to do. I’m fighting the former champ, fighting on pay-per-view in front of 20,000 people. That’s a big fucking deal. I have a lot of friends who will never do that. And the Melvin fight was kind of the same deal. Melvin might beat you, but you might beat him. If you lose to Melvin, not a big deal. If you beat Melvin, that’s a huge fucking deal.”
He did. And it is. Which brings us around to the thing that makes Joe Lauzon tick—stick him in an impossible situation, and he smiles. Joe Lauzon, for better or for worse, gets off on your underestimation.
“When I fought Sam Stout, I was coming back from ACL surgery,” he says. “I had it in March and fought in January—did the entire camp at 80%. I wanted to be that big story, the guy who fought back from ACL surgery on a short turnaround. I almost did it too! I took him down, I cut him. I got a hold of his arm and almost Kimura’d him. And theeeen, it all went down hill.”
It was the story he was after, as much as the win. Oh, and the Fight of the Night bonus, which he was still able to procure.
Lauzon has collected what he estimates around $365,000 in bonus money. It’s a lot of kibble for a 27-year-old cusp lightweight. We’re sitting around his Bridgewater house and it’s very comfortable. He has UFC paraphernalia everywhere. His trunks and gloves are displayed in a shadowbox from his fight against Gabe Ruediger at UFC 118 in Boston. This is the highlight of his career, fighting in his hometown. He has a poster of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and a curious police shield in what feels like a Bostonian’s forethought of riots. He has all kinds of action figures and four televisions in his man cave. He has a couple of dogs, one of them a Renascence Bulldog named Bruschi—after New England’s own Tedy Bruschi— that is unfathomably flatulent for the hours that we talk.
“All of these dogs look exactly the same,” he says, pulling up the web page to show the clone similarities between these muscular dogs. “They are bred by this hick in Tampa. A guy at the gym gave him to me.”
When Lauzon fought Guillard, he made $18,000 to show, and picked up the $18,000 win bonus. This is good for a fighter of his tenure, but not great. As a strategist who has a penchant for breaking down long-term deals, though, his contract is just as it should be.
“I could have negotiated $30,000 / $30,000, but you get a badass every single time,” he says. “You’d get B.J. Penn, Diego Sanchez, Jim Miller every single time. This way, I’m more flexible. They gave me Curt Warburton coming off a loss to George Sotiropoulos. In the way I’ve done so well on bonuses, it makes sense.”
In other words, while Lauzon ultimately is in it for the belt, he doesn’t have any illusions. It’s been that way since before he beat Pulver, and well before he ended up on TUF 5, where he trained under B.J. Penn. It was Penn and his coaching staff that pounded home this sort of reality for him.
“One thing B.J. and those guys told me was that they didn’t think I was good at anything,” he says. “They told me, ‘You’re not good at jiu-jitsu, you’re not good at standup, you’re not good at wrestling, you’re not good at anything.’ When they asked what I thought I was good at, I said, ‘I think my stand-up is not good, I think my wrestling is okay, and I think my jiu-jitsu is pretty good.’ And they said, ‘Your jiu-jitsu is not good.’”
Yet, somehow, if you add up all these subpar elements and mix it with his meticulous smarts, adaptive abilities, and ready aggression, you find there’s something more complex in play than the mastery of a single discipline.
“They said that the area I was good at was hurting people, blending jiu-jitsu with my punches, going from one thing to another, and then exploding,” he says. “That’s one thing that I do really well. I’ve beaten guys with better wrestling, better jiu-jitsu, and better striking.”
In two of the three categories, Guillard had the upper hand heading into UFC 136. But Lauzon’s mind is analytical, and he talks of Guillard like a video game that he’s solved.
“We watched a ton of tape on Melvin, and he only throws like four shots,” he says. “The thing is, he throws them randomly, and he throws them quickly. He’ll circle left, plant, and throw an overhand right. He’ll circle, plant, and throw a straight right. He’ll run at you from far away and throw a knee. He’ll circle to the left, load up, and come back with a hook. Those are the only four things he does.”
On fight night, in the very brief interlude between walkouts and walk-backs, Lauzon saw all four.
“We looked at his tendencies, and we learned how to counter. If he throws four shots and we can counter all those shots, we’ve got to guess which one he’s going to throw and counter at the same time. As long as we know we’re not going to get hit by a stupid shot, we’re okay. He threw them all. When he threw his hook, I beat him to the punch with that jab.”
Simple as that. Just a game of Team Deathmatch with his buddies on a Sunday afternoon Black Ops session. Only…those can last for 12 hours. Guillard lasted less than a minute.
Lauzon is a likeable guy. His Boston accent acts up in fits and pockets, but it’s usually pretty undetectable. He gets along with just about everybody in Massachusetts, except maybe Kenny Florian, who beat him in 2008. It wasn’t so much Florian as the illegal elbows that he took to the back of the head in the fight—which he has evidence of in the form of tiny half-inch scars—and Herb Dean for starting them standing after halting the action on the ground to check the cuts. These are bitter topics.
And then there’s the more-public-than-necessary contentions he has with his younger brother, Dan, who is also a professional fighter (0-3 in the UFC, 15-1 otherwise). Dan’s nickname tells you everything that you need to know about the sibling rivalry— he’s “The Upgrade.” He fought in the UFC for the first time at 18 years old, a loss to Spencer Fisher at UFC 64.
“It’s been well documented that we don’t get along,” Joe says, pointing out the time that Dan went on record with the “My team abandoned me” line ahead of his bout with Efrain Escudero. “Really, it’s just typical brother bullshit.” The YouTube image of the two brothers fighting in the front lawn at a family pig roast comes to mind, when the sober elder brother took it to the drunken younger brother. Twice. And all the time, their father— who runs a bait shop that services greater Cape Cod—kicking back a few brews and enjoying the spectacle. It’s a unique family.
Even still, the older brother can’t help but shake his head at some of the stuff that’s happened—like the time he was at home getting prepared for a UFC-sponsored goodwill trip to the Middle East when he got a call at 2 a.m. that his brother was stabbed in a bar fight. Fearing the worst, Joe panicked.
“I got dressed quick, ran out the front door, slipped on the walkway, and fucked up my ankle,” he says. “It was super-swollen, a high-ankle sprain. I got to the hospital, and Danny’s fine, two stitches on his shoulder. He was stabbed with a Swiss Army Knife in a bar fight. He didn’t even realize he was stabbed until he got over to the bouncers. It was a lot of blood, but he was fine. I’m in the emergency room maybe 30 minutes. So I hobbled back, and then I noticed that my ankle had grown to the size of a softball. It sucked. In the morning, when I was supposed to be flying to Iraq and jumping out of helicopters and all that, it was way worse. I had to call off the trip.”
It’s this sort of thing that causes the rift. Joe is a teetotaler, who has sipped alcohol once—a “blue fruity thing that I tried at a strip club when I was 18 years old”—while Dan is more like a typical 23-year-old. They both train at Lauzon MMA, which Joe owns with the original owner Pomfret (in the same Reality Self Defense building). These brotherly quarrels continue, but they’ve soothed a little since then. In fact, Joe has mostly positive things to say about Dan, and if there’s resentment, it’s more based on lingering frustration than any one incident.
“He’s super-talented,” says Lauzon. “He is so talented, and nobody has any idea because no one’s seen his full potential. He hasn’t looked it in any of his fights.” If Dan hasn’t lived up to his potential, Joe has always exceeded his. And you can see how that would spice up a family pig roast.
In his room of contrary things, there’s a poster on Lauzon’s wall of his fight with Jeremy Stephens, where Lauzon is reclining back to end the fight with an armbar, and Stephens is making a face like bloody murder. It depicts everything. Lauzon has a hole in his head, and through his look of determination, he’s bleeding profusely, blood spidering down over his face. “The cut was so deep you
could see my skull,” he says.
In the background, fellow Bostonian Dana White is there looking down at his monitor. What is he thinking? Maybe that this is his ideal fighter—a guy who he could refer to when cautioning up-and-coming fighters in never letting an outcome depend on the judge’s scorecards. Out of 27 professional fights, only one of Lauzon’s has ended in a decision. That was Stout at UFC 108. That was the one that he hurried back from an ACL injury to take. Otherwise, he has finished 21 guys, and has gone down swinging five times. There is no gray area in a Lauzon fight. Somehow, this image captures all of that, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s a favorite of his.
“I’m pissed though,” he says. “There’s a scratch on the frame.” He may not think so, but even that feels like it belongs. There’s nothing glamorous about Joe Lauzon. He wears his ordinariness like a cloak. But just under the surface, beyond the blemishes and scratches, there’s a right-living, overachieving everyman, and that’s a picture that most men want of themselves.