Joe Lauzon gets the reminder every time he fights. Before he walks out to the Octagon, coach Steve Maze gives him words of wisdom from a legendary boxing trainer, and Cus D’Amato’s words still hold true today and probably always will.
“When two men are fighting, what you’re watching is more a contest of wills than of skills, with the stronger will usually overcoming skill,” D’Amato, the mentor of former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Floyd Patterson, said. “The skill will prevail only when it is so superior to the other man’s skill that the will is not tested.”
“He (Maze) tells us that every night before we fight,” Lauzon, who makes his 20th Octagon appearance Friday night against Evan Dunham. “And it’s a hundred percent true. And for me, that quote’s powerful because it’s all about putting the work in advance. Put in the work and don’t let his skill overwhelm you. I should really train my ass off so that there doesn’t come a point where I have to be the tougher to guy to win or survive. I have to put in that hard work in advance.”
Luckily, Lauzon has come out on top on numerous occasions where he’s had to display both skill and will. The skill resulted in Submission or Knockout of the Night bonuses, the will in checks for Fight of the Night. At 31, Lauzon may not sit in the top 15 rankings, but he is the all-time bonus king in the UFC with 13 to his name so far. That’s more post-fight awards than Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones or any other Octagon great you can think of. But Lauzon isn’t ready to sit back and think “wow, that’s pretty cool.” He’s content in letting the rest of the MMA world talk about it.
“It’s pretty awesome, but I kind of leave it to everyone else,” he said. “Part of being humble is to keep hustling and not slow down. I just try to get after it every single time.”
But there is a method to the madness that often takes place on fight night, full of wild scrambles, submission attempts, blood spraying, and general mayhem. Lauzon is not simply strapping on the gloves and racing after an opponent in search of a fight. Far from it.
“I have a game plan every single fight,” he said. It sounds like a fairly simple and typical premise, but you would be surprised at how many fighters choose to just “wing it” once the cage door shuts and see what their opponent brings them before reacting. Lauzon is not one of those folks, and it’s why he’s been a part of the UFC roster since 2006.
“There are plenty of guys that are much better than me that went out and just fought,” he said. “And they’re not around anymore.”
Lauzon remains a fighter with job security though, and it comes down to taking a cerebral approach to the game. You may wonder how that happens, especially since the Massachusetts native is one of the sport’s great risk takers on fight night, but as he explains, those risks aren’t as risky to him as they may seem to us.
“When it comes to fighting, I’m pretty fearless as far as there’s no risk too big to take,” he said. “As long as it’s a calculated risk. I have no problem taking chances and going for stuff. I think that’s why I’ve had a lot of the finishes that I’ve had. But I think it comes down to making good, calculated risks. I’m not going for stuff I’ve never done before, I’m not reinventing stuff. But I do think there’s a lot of different transitions and game plans, and maybe I’m delusional in training camp, but I’m going to focus on this. And not that I visualize, but I firmly believe that there’s a high likelihood that it’s either going to help me now or help me later. I just believe in stuff, and a lot of times I’ll take a chance that other guys wouldn’t. They would sit in mount or sit in side control and just keep punching away, where I would go for that arm lock or something else. But I’m not going for something that I don’t do in the gym all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but because I’ve done it eight thousand times in the gym and I hit it six thousand, I think that’s a good risk to take.”
Yet sometimes, everything goes out the window. All the plans go haywire, you’re bleeding from a nasty cut, you’re getting hit with shots you have no right getting hit with, and then it’s simply time to fight. Lauzon has never been afraid of a scrap, with the most notable instance being his bloody three-round loss against Jim Miller in 2012, a Fight of the Night winner that also garnered plenty of votes for Fight of the Year. For Lauzon’s money, he prefers his third-round finish of Jamie Varner four months earlier, but what they both share is a willingness to dig deep to produce something that will always be remembered by those who saw it.
“Looking back at it, it’s awesome that it happened,” he said. “But I would never go into a fight looking for that. Sometimes Fight of the Night is a back and forth battle. The Miller fight, I really don’t think I got beat up that bad; I just had a huge cut that bled everywhere. When I think back at the Miller fight, obviously it was awesome. But I think the Jamie Varner fight was super awesome. When I think of Fight of the Night, that’s what I think of. The first two rounds are pretty close and then I come on and I was turning the tide a little bit. I felt like I did well in the first and second, but he might have edged me out in one or two of them. But then I come back. He takes me down, I sweep him, I triangle him. For me, that’s a cooler fight than two guys mindlessly swinging and bleeding everywhere.”
Everyone loves those wars though, and while it’s not Lauzon’s preference to be sore for weeks and walking around with some new scars from a prizefight, he does appreciate having a couple of them on his resume.
“It’s cool to have after the fact,” he said. “I don’t want to have those all the time. (Laughs) But here and there, sprinkled in, I think it’s okay. It’s not a test of manhood or heart, but just the ability to keep on pushing. It just shows you have a lot of fight. Some guys kind of pack it in early, and a fight like that shows who wants to be a fighter and who doesn’t.
“For me, it helps knowing that I’ve had that gut check where it was super tough and I kept on pushing the entire time,” Lauzon continues. “It automatically pushes your cardio way further in the future so you have way more confidence about it. I know that even if I’m tired, I’m not going to stop fighting. I’m not going to let up.”
Not now. Not ever. But Lauzon still prefers skill over will. And that skill gets honed far away from the bright lights of Las Vegas.
“I really feel like the fight’s won or lost long before weigh-ins, long before the fight,” he said. “If you put in the work in the gym, then it’s already decided. If I could watch two people’s training camp from start to finish, I can probably tell you exactly who’s going to win. Sometimes you can have a gutsy performance and someone can overcome it a little bit, but those are so few and far between. I think it’s way more about skills than guts and things like that, for the most part.”