Joe Lauzon (top): Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
He had been through a knee injury, invasive surgery, grueling rehab, a tough loss, an opponent’s withdrawal, a falling out with his brother and the most intense victory of his career. That was now behind him. Joe Lauzon plopped down on his couch in his hometown, about an hour’s drive south of Boston, where the night before he had manhandled Gabe Ruediger in a leading candidate for “Beatdown of the Year.”
“That day, on Sunday, was the first day I really just relaxed in like a year and a half,” Lauzon said, recalling the day after UFC 118 in August. “I had one day to kind of be happy and just rest and be stress-free.”
Rest, however, was not what the bosses had in mind for Lauzon, who, with the Ruediger win, tied Nate Diaz for the second-most career UFC performance bonuses earned behind Chris Lytle. Lauzon shot off an appreciative text message to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva for the opportunity to fight on home turf, especially after his originally scheduled opponent, Terry Etim, fell through late. Silva’s response was punctuated by a proposal that shook Lauzon out of any complacency that was setting in.
“‘Hey, no problem, you know, you put on a great fight, things like that,” Lauzon recalled the text reading. “Then he was, like, ‘What do you think about Sotiropoulos?’”
Ah, stress. Welcome back. It’s as if you never left.
Before he could fully digest the celebratory sandwiches he picked up from Burger King at 3 a.m. on the drive back from the TD Garden, Lauzon was booked at UFC 123 on Saturday against George Sotiropoulos -- the Australian grappler riding a seven-fight winning streak and thought to be a fight or two away from lightweight title contention. It was quite a step up for Lauzon, who had lost soundly to Sam Stout prior to the win over Ruediger.
“It’s a bigger jump than what I was expecting, but I’m all for it,” Lauzon said in a phone conversation from his hotel room in Detroit, the city outside of which UFC 123 will take place. “It’s not an opportunity I’m going to squander.”
Lauzon, 26, wracked up a reputation on the New England fight scene for aggressive and hard-nosed floor work, as adept at pounding foes from the top as snatching ill-intended leg locks. Then, he famously received an abrupt call to face former lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63 and knocked out the former champion with a perfectly timed left hook. The 7-to-1 underdog upset earned Lauzon a spot on “The Ultimate Fighter 5” as a member of Team B.J. Penn, as it opposed Team Pulver.
A subsequent loss to Kenny Florian set him on a new course, one that skidded during and after his win over Jeremy Stephens in the UFC Fight Night 17 main event in February 2009. Lauzon felt his knee give out a bit as he shot for a takedown during the fight, and it locked during training a few days later. Friends carried him from the gym and drove him to the hospital, where righting his ailment proved so challenging he had to undergo anesthesia.
“It’s real tough when your leg is stuck at a specific angle and you can’t do much about it,” he said. “I had two nurses, two big dudes, basically one pulling my heel out and the other guy basically jumping on my knee to get my leg straight.”
Weeks after the emphatic armbar win over Stephens, Lauzon found he could barely move. He went under the knife to repair his torn anterior-cruciate ligament, the third knee surgery of his career. He could not walk for about a month and a half.
“I was in complete shock,” he said. “A month earlier I’m fighting in the main event on a Fight Night, a packed place down in Tampa, [Fla.], in great shape. And then a month later, I’m sitting in a bed unable to turn my leg in my bed because the weight of the covers and the sheet is too heavy on my foot.”
Cognizant of athletes who re-aggravate ACL injuries by training too hard too early, Lauzon took his time. He rehabbed hard, doing double circuits to the point he would sweat as hard as he does in camp. He worked from March to August until he started to feel sufficiently comfortable in training. Still, he had to be careful to not overexert himself, as he fought off takedowns and scrambled. He felt he had to halt training as soon as he fatigued and hoped it would not cost him against Stout at UFC 108 in January.
“We were pretty good skill-wise, but the conditioning aspect just wasn’t there,” Lauzon said. “But we figured for the Stout fight [we] we’re going to take him down early. We thought we were 100 times better than him on the ground, and we can take advantage and catch a submission. And that was almost how the fight went.”
Stout escaped a close kimura, one Lauzon claims had his corner grabbing his sponsor banner and preparing to enter the cage in celebration until a crowd eruption let them know the deal was far from sealed. Lauzon was spent shortly after that, taking bruising strikes from the sharp kickboxer for the remainder of their bout.
The New Year was hardly off to a smooth start, and it certainly was not where Lauzon expected to be in 2010 after beating Stephens on Spike TV. Then, a public spat with his temperamental younger brother, Dan Lauzon, provided another distraction. Joe, citing what he said was his brother’s lax training habits, withdrew as his corner man for his fight against Efrain Escudero at UFC 114 in May. They are blood, so they eventually made up, but their identity as brothers-in-arms needed to be adjusted going forward.
“If he specifically asks me for input on something, then I’ll let him know what I think,” Lauzon said. “If he doesn’t, then I’m cool letting him go down his own path and making his own decisions.”
Dan was cut from the UFC after he lost to Escudero. Lauzon will corner his younger brother for his next fight on Dec. 2 in Rhode Island.
His knee and personal issues patched, Lauzon has sights set firmly on Sotiropoulos in a battle between two of the division’s most interesting grapplers. Sotiropoulos is renowned for perfecting his spider guard-heavy game with names like Enson Inoue, Matt Serra and Eddie Bravo. For the past year, Lauzon has worked with the lesser-known but equally credentialed Abmar Barbosa. A black belt under Robert Drysdale, Barbosa shocked the sport jiu-jitsu world in April, when he dismantled heavily favored Kron Graice in the Pan American Games, winning an 11-0 romp and taking silver.
Sizing up Lauzon’s gritty, home-grown grappling to that of Sotiropoulos, Barbosa believes the differences are clear and work to his charge’s advantage. Instead of free rolling and experimentation, Lauzon said the pair worked specific positions time and again until he was improving his position consistently.
“Joe Lauzon is explosive,” Barbosa said. “I respect [Sotiropoulos] a lot. I know his jiu-jitsu is good ... [but] his is only good for half guard or only closed guard. [Lauzon] can stay comfortable; I make him comfortable in every position.”
Fellow Lauzon cornerman Steve Baccari, a longtime New England circuit boxer who also has competitive experience in kenpo karate, kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, sees a similar contrast.
“Their games are opposite,” said Baccari, whose gift for gab led Lauzon to tab him his “Director of Motivational Quotes.” “Sotiropoulos’ game is very good on the bottom; he’s got a rubber guard. Joe doesn’t really use the rubber guard; that’s not really his game. Sotiropoulos seems to move well on the outside when he’s boxing; Joe’s more of a banger on the inside. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but I say their games are opposite, and they’ll make for a good fight.”
If Lauzon has his way, it will be as fair a fight as possible. He has generated some headlines with comments about Sotiropoulos’ compressed shorts and knee and ankle braces, which some have accused the Australian of using to gain unfair traction with his guard. Lauzon intends to inquire with Michigan athletic commission officials about the legality of such wear. If it is up to him -- which, when it comes to opponent’s gear, it has been in some states in which he has competed -- Lauzon said he will not allow the equipment in the cage.
“I would give it a lot more thought if it was someone that, you know, he’s got a bad knee or he’s had surgery on his knee,” Lauzon said. “This is, well, you know what, it’s going to be to my advantage to have a better grip, so I’m going to wear these and I’m going to take advantage of a gray area in the rules to give myself that added advantage. And I’m all for getting every added advantage you can, but at the same time, it’s going to be my advantage if he doesn’t wear them. And if I can stop him from wearing those, why should I let him?”
Keep that stress at bay.