Ever since the UFC instituted the Fight Night award system, the powers that be have gotten into a rhythm of signing those bonus checks to top lightweight Joe Lauzon and middleweight champion Anderson Silva. As if Fortuna herself had a part to play in this, both organization fixtures started their Octagon careers that same year. It’s said the “bold” are favored, and in-cage boldness is about taking risks to end the fight then and not waiting for a scorecard to be read later. For submission magician Lauzon, his almost over-willingness to try for finishes is equal parts fearlessness and calculated confidence.
“I think the big thing is that I'm not afraid to lose,” reveals Lauzon. “I think some other guys are so concerned with not losing the fight that they don't go for things and they play it safe. That's just not me. No matter how big or important the fight was, it is really tough for me to lay off something that I thought was there. Since I started doing jiu-jitsu, I've always went for things. I attack. In the beginning, I think I was attacking blindly a little bit, but over time I've done a really good job. Some people think I take crazy risks and things like that, but they're very calculated risks. I make a split-second decision, but I've put myself in those kinds of situations all the time in training, so I have a pretty good idea if it is going to work out or not. Other people, they would play it a lot safer, but I don't want to go out there and win by decision. I really don't. I want to go out there and submit guys.”
And submit guys, he has.
At 28 years old, the born and bred Massachusetts native tapped or napped his opponent in 18 of his 22 wins. A professional career that began only two years prior to his UFC debut in 2006, “J-Lau” is an overall 22-7, with all wins and losses by stoppage except for one outlier decision defeat to Sam Stout, which, naturally, won Fight of the Night at UFC 108. All told, Lauzon has 13 Octagon appearances and 11 bonuses - four Fight of the Night, six Submission of the Night, and one Knockout of the Night - including two from his most recent tangle, which ended with a third round triangle choke of Jamie Varner at UFC on FOX in August. While the money is certainly great, Lauzon’s impetus for clear-cut winners and losers in his scraps stems a peace of mind.
“People talk all the time about how there are such discrepancies with judges, but there are no discrepancies with a knockout or a submission,” states Lauzon. “When you go out there and finish somebody, you're making a statement: 'I'm the better fighter. That other guy gave up or I put his lights out.’ In a judges' decision, you have to pick a winner because you've run out of time - it's a logistics thing. There's nothing clearer to me than tapping someone out or knocking someone out. If I'm going to train for months on end, I'm going to do my best so there is no question at the end. Sometimes that might end with me losing the fight, but I can say that I'm happy because I went for it. It would drive me crazy to play it safe and have all these wins go to decision. That wouldn't be satisfying for me.”
As far as the “risks” that he takes in the Octagon, the biggest gamble Lauzon ever made was on himself to be a full-time fighter. After going 13-3 on the Massachusetts local scene, Lauzon got that fateful call from the UFC and was scheduled to take on former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63 in Anaheim, California. At the time, Lauzon was balancing 25-30 hours a week as a network administrator while finishing up his computer science degree at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and as almost a glorified hobby was cagefighting people in his off-time. In 48 seconds, Lauzon shocked the MMA world by knocking out the veteran Pulver and earning his first of many Fight Night bonuses.
“I really didn't sleep a whole lot,” admits Lauzon. “At the beginning it was super scary because I was doing so much. I like the fact that I was still working because I wasn't putting all my eggs into one basket, but as time went on I realized that if I don't put all my eggs into this one basket then it was not going to work. Work would always be there, but if I didn't dedicate myself 100% to training, then fighting was going to pass me by. I didn't want to kick myself forever knowing that I could have been fighting in the UFC. All those what could have beens. So I said, 'screw it'. I quit my job. I went to Hawaii and did some training and gave it a full-time go. I can say 100% it was the best decision I have ever made. I can say I'm super happy and super thankful that I went that direction.”
If it sounds like Lauzon is used to carrying a lot of weight squarely on his own shoulders, good, because he does. While the TUF 5 alum did have instructors throughout the early goings of his career, Lauzon has relied on his own abilities as a fighter and as his own coach to see him through. It wasn’t until the Pulver bout that Lauzon brought on a boxing coach, Steve Maze, whom he has been with ever since. Nowadays, “J-Lau” runs his own team named Team Aggression, owns his own gym named Lauzon MMA in Easton, and is surrounded by coaches and fighters the way he should.
The first and longest tenured coach in Lauzon’s circle is the one in charge of the standup: Maze. “From the ground up, Steve has helped me with everything,” asserts Lauzon, who can easily point out the memorable Pulver knockout or that on the button counter left that dropped Melvin Guillard at UFC 136. “I work with Steve six days a week boxing, hitting mitts, sparring or whatever we have to do, whether we have a fight or not. Steve and I are so connected it's like we're sharing a brain half the time - we really click. For the past six or seven years, we're together pretty much every day boxing; he's been there for all my UFC fights, and he's an amazing boxing coach.”
To sharpen the already vaunted ground game, Lauzon has grappling guru to the stars Ricky Lundell. Besides “J-Lau”, Lundell has been found imparting his wisdom on the likes of former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, welterweight fan favorite Dan Hardy, and, most recently, current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, to name a few. Strangely enough, Lundell and Lauzon began working together about two years ago because of the friendship between Lauzon’s boxing coach Maze and Mir’s boxing coach Jimmy Gifford. While Lauzon hit mitts with Gifford in Las Vegas during some off hours from the UFC Summit, Gifford implored Lauzon to work with Lundell as Mir had been doing, and it has been a perfect match ever since.
“Ricky is phenomenal at breaking things down,” explains Lauzon. “He's got great wrestling and he's a Pedro Sauer black belt. He's been doing jiu-jitsu since he was like 14. He's way ahead of Americans as far as jiu-jitsu and grappling. Ricky is like THE MAN. He makes you feel like a little kid. He's not only a great competitor, but he's an amazing instructor. He's amazing at breaking things down. Pretty complex movements he can simplify them down to where you can understand them, use them, adjust them, and adapt them. Ricky has been my ace in a hole for a while. My style works out perfectly with his style. I'm very much attack-attack-attack and he's very much position oriented and really locking things down while still being aggressive. We kind of meet in the middle and it has really worked out well for me.”
The final piece of the puzzle is Kyle Holland at Mike Boyle’s Strength & Conditioning. Apparently, Holland is also “the man” and was the one to change Lauzon’s previous uninterest in weights around. Holland’s job isn’t to turn the lanky Lauzon into a 155-pound ball of muscle like former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk; it’s more about functional strength, overall fitness, and durability without impeding Lauzon’s other training.
“He's not about more weight, more reps, or personal records,” says Lauzon. “What he cares about is making me stronger to keep me healthier in the gym, so I can take more damage and more abuse. Being able to do more weight in the gym is secondary. They're all about stability and balance and rounding you out to keep you healthy. It's good to get strong, but not if you're sacrificing flexibility and so on. It's definitely worked with helping with injuries; I've been able to bounce back a lot faster.”
Now, all of these coaches, training, and the fighter himself are focused on December 29th and UFC 155, when Lauzon collides with the top prospect of AMA Fight Club in Whippany, New Jersey: Jim Miller. At 21-4, the ultra-aggressive BJJ black belt is stepping up to replace an injured Gray Maynard. It’s not often someone as high profile as Maynard can exit a bout and be replaced with an equally exciting opponent like Miller. The 29-year-old Miller poses problems in all facets of a fight, having shown many times over his submission skills, ability to grind out victories, and a vicious striking attack like in the TKO win over Kamal Shalorus at UFC 128.
“I think that Gray was a little bit more high-profile fight because I think Gray is ranked a little higher, but I think that Jim is more dangerous,” affirms Lauzon. “I think that Jim is a constant submission threat. Looking at the fight with Gray, he has the wrestling advantage and I have the jiu-jitsu advantage. He probably had the boxing advantage. But it was clear that I had the jiu-jitsu advantage and he had the strength, size, and wrestling advantage, so it was a little clearer how to approach that fight. With Jim, you're dealing with murky water. I think our wrestling is pretty comparable, I think our jiu-jitsu is pretty comparable, and I think our standup is pretty comparable. We both go for submissions, we both push a high pace. There are a lot of similarities between us. I don't have to worry about wrestling as much as I did with Gray, but my jiu-jitsu advantage is much much smaller, if at all. It's a really interesting fight.”
Whoever walks out on top of this Lauzon/Miller fight will be undeniably a big step closer to a possible title shot against current lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Both Miller and Lauzon have been within an arm’s reach of a title fight before. For Lauzon, looking past Miller or looking past the opponent in front of him is simply not an option because “J-Lau” has earned every ounce of his credibility through the entertainment he has provided fight fans from inside the Octagon.
“My place is producing exciting fights,” maintains Lauzon. “More often than not it ends in me winning, but sometimes I'm losing. I'm going out there to put on exciting fights. I'm going out there to put on the types of fights that I want to watch. There are far too many variables to figure out what is going to happen after. I try to keep my nose down, stay as healthy as I can, prepare as best as I can, train as hard as I can, and take the fights one at a time and let them happen. I feel like a lot of times these guys are getting title shots and put into big fights because of injuries, so it's a case of staying healthy, staying in-shape, and sooner than later the stars will align for everyone and they'll get their big opportunity. And you need to take advantage of that big opportunity. You can't be out of shape, you can't be banged up. When the UFC calls, you have to be ready to go.”
This Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, two lightweights are on a collision course without a second thought to what the judges think, as Lauzon takes on Miller. “Whoever makes the mistake first is going to pay for it and is probably going to lose the fight,” says Lauzon, who knows the equally advantageous Miller will be a fireworks-ready foil for his risk and reward style. “We're both looking to push the pace. Neither one of us is looking to play it safe and looking to win by decision.”
If this scrap goes as everyone expects, fortune will favor the fight fans.
Joe Lauzon - The Art of Never Playing It Safe
"People talk all the time about how there are such discrepancies with judges, but there are no discrepancies with a knockout or a submission." - Joe Lauzon