The last time Matt Hughes and BJ Penn fought, Joe Lauzon was a virtual unknown in the sport of mixed martial arts who had made his first big statement to the world with a 47 second knockout of Jens Pulver at UFC 63 in 2006. When Hughes and Penn meet again this Saturday at UFC 123 in Detroit, Lauzon’s place in the game is a lot different than it was over four years ago.
“I didn’t imagine when I took the Pulver fight that I’d be where I am right now,” said Lauzon, who takes on George Sotiropoulos at The Palace of Auburn Hills. “As a fighter, as a person, my whole life has been completely changed and flipped on its head.”
In 2006, Lauzon’s knockout of Pulver wasn’t followed by weeks of partying and living the life of a newly minted star. Instead, two days after the bout, Lauzon was back at work as a network administrator, waiting to find out what his next opportunity was going to be. What resulted was a stint on The Ultimate Fighter’s fifth season, and five UFC wins in his next seven tries. None was more impressive than his most recent, a destruction of TUF5 teammate Gabe Ruediger that took slightly more than two minutes. To add to this performance was the fact that he did it in his hometown of Boston while not showing an ounce of trepidation under the spotlight.
“I just didn’t let the pressure get to me,” he said of his submission victory. “I had to understand that it was just another fight. Obviously it was in Boston and I wanted to have a good showing, but there wasn’t any more pressure than there was in any of my other fights. I put a good amount of pressure on myself, but I don’t let it get to me. You’ve got to use it so it’s positive. If I let it get to me, it’s just gonna have a negative effect, so I try to stay calm and use it productively. There’s always gonna be pressure, but when you let it get to you, bad things happen.”
Nothing bad happened against Ruediger, and the win not only cemented Lauzon’s place among the top lightweights in the UFC, but it marked him as a prime-time player, a fighter who brings his best game to the Octagon and doesn’t leave it in the gym. At this level of the game, that’s what separates the top guys from the also rans, and Lauzon knows that being able to subdue the various demons nerves and pressure can be the difference between one day fighting for – and winning – a title and sitting in the middle of the pack.
“Some guys roll with it and they use it productively and other guys let it eat them up inside,” he said. “That’s the big difference. I just try to think that I don’t want this (the pressure) to affect me negatively and understanding how important it was for me to win. (Against Ruediger) It’s just another fight and I don’t want to lose any of them, whether the fight was in Boston or anywhere else. I just play down in my mind how big of a deal it was.”
And like the aftermath of his win over Pulver, which was one of 2006’s biggest upsets, Lauzon was back to work as soon as it was over; only this time, work wasn’t behind a desk, but in his gym – Lauzon MMA in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
“I texted (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva on Monday to thank him for finding me a replacement and putting me on the Boston card, and right off the bat they were talking Sotiropoulos,” said Lauzon, who faced Ruediger at UFC 118 after original opponent Terry Etim withdrew due to injury. “So I didn’t get out of fight camp at all. It’s just an extension. I got right back into it and I really had zero down time. But it wasn’t that tough of a switch, and I was so eager to get back in there because I had a long layoff with my knee, and I had a long layoff after the (Sam) Stout fight because I wanted to get on the Boston card. There was a whole bunch of things that slowed me down a little bit so I was eager to get back in there. It would have been different if I had been fighting regularly all the time; it would have been easier to take it easy, but I got right back into it.”
Much of 2009 and the first half of 2010 had been forgettable for Lauzon, who was on the sidelines for much of last year due to an injury to his knee. In January of this year he returned, but after a strong start he gassed out against Sam Stout and lost an exciting, but unanimous, decision. He remained idle until UFC 118 in order to fight in front of his hometown fans, and it was worth the wait.
Now it’s safe to say that after finishing Ruediger, getting back in the win column, and earning his third Submission of the Night award, momentum is on his side when he takes on Sotiropoulos, who is on a pretty impressive hot streak of his own after 2010 wins over Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino. Needless to say, the winner will be high on the list of prospective title challengers in 2011, and Lauzon would be happy to take a deep gulp of that rarefied air.
“Whenever they’re ready, I’m ready,” he said. “I’m anxious to get into it and I would love that opportunity.”
Of course he’ll have to wait until the dust settles between the winners of the upcoming Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard and Ben Henderson-Anthony Pettis bouts, and in the meantime, he’s more than happy to take on all comers, including the soon-to-arrive WEC lightweight standouts.
“I think it’s great for everyone,” said Lauzon of the recently announced UFC-WEC merge. “It’s good for all the lightweights because it did just make the division stronger all the way around. We’ve got a lot more guys now. The ‘45ers and ‘35ers are new to the UFC. The ‘55ers already had a pretty stacked division, and now we’re just getting more, so it’s pretty crazy how much stronger the division got. It definitely makes things more difficult, but we’re in the UFC because we want to fight the best guys. We’re not here because we want an easy road to the title.”
When Lauzon does get his shot, he’ll certainly be well-prepared for it, just like he’s well-prepared for Aussie standout Sotiropoulos, who has garnered a reputation for himself as a Spartan worker who is a dedicated student of the game. So how does it feel for Lauzon to be the man in the crosshairs of a man who prepares for battle in a similar fashion in and out of the gym?
“That’s what I want, and I’m the same way,” said Lauzon. “I’m thinking about him, I’m planning and it goes both ways. I like the fact that there’s someone who’s thinking about that and I’m doing the same thing and giving him the same respect.”
This adds even more intrigue to a battle that is already exciting stylistically, because now you’re adding a chess match between two strategists to the mix, and both fighters have to juggle work in the gym on what they do best with the addition of new wrinkles to throw off their opponent’s scouting report. Not surprisingly, Lauzon enjoys that part of the game.
“For George there are certain things that I did already that we thought would work pretty well, and then there are other things that I didn’t do yet that we had to work on to get better at, so it really depends on the fight and you definitely have to find that happy balance between the two.”
A happy balance. It’s something Joe Lauzon, at the ripe old age of 26, seems to have figured out. Before, it used to be the balance between his fighting life and his day job. These days, it’s between having the right amount of nervous energy while not letting it overwhelm his performance.
“I was always pretty good in pressure situations and it’s a general mindset,” he says, almost matter of factly. “It’s only gonna affect you as much as you let it, so I try to take control of it as best I can and just go with it.”
So far, so good.
For Lauzon, Not Everything Has Changed
"I put a good amount of pressure on myself, but I don’t let it get to me. You’ve got to use it so it’s positive. If I let it get to me, it’s just gonna have a negative effect, so I try to stay calm and use it productively."