At its core, fighting is a brutal and primal thing.
When two combatants step inside the cage to handle business for the sake of sport, technique, timing and skill all come into play, but perhaps the largest variable that separates them is the will to fight.
A fighter's skill set—either shining or fading when the pressure is on—will often dictate the outcome of the battle, but in a sport as rigorous as mixed martial arts has proved to be, the ability to "fight" can also be a valuable commodity.
Few have proved this more than Joe Lauzon.
The scrappy lightweight has carved out his place as one of the gamest fighters on the UFC roster, using his mixture of cerebral savvy, technique and outright willingness to get to business. In his seven years under the UFC banner, the 29-year-old Massachusetts native has experienced his fair share of peaks and valleys, but he has never been a fighter to miss when his name is on the event card.
"J-Lau's" ability to put on memorable and entertaining tilts has made him a long-standing fixture in the ultra-competitive lightweight fold and has yielded rewards in the form of an impressive run of "fight night" bonuses in the process.
Only pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva can match the Bridgewater-based fighter's 12 post-fight bonus awards (the most in UFC history). Lauzon will be looking to add another notch in that column when he returns to action against Michael Johnson this weekend at UFC Fight Night 26: Shogun vs. Sonnen in his backyard of Boston.
Facing the challenges that Johnson presents will be the task at hand on Saturday night, and Lauzon is looking forward to putting on a show for "Beantown's" fighting faithful.
"It's awesome to fight in Boston, but it's also a lot more stressful," Lauzon told Bleacher Report. "Everyone is trying to get me to do this or that, with all kinds of PR things and local media. I love to do all that stuff but I have to put the fight first. I have to make sure I'm getting to the gym. I have to make sure I'm doing all the things I need to do in order to do my job on the 17th. If I weren't on the card I would be doing whatever the UFC needed me to do, but I'm a fighter first and I have to tend to business.
"It's also good to be fighting in Boston because I have a great support system. I have tons of people who come with me for all my fights. Every one of my fights, except maybe Japan, I've had anywhere from 50-120 fly out to watch my fight. I have a great support system made up of my coaches, family, friends, training partners who are keeping me sharp and honest in the gym. For me, fighting in Boston is awesome because I get to make it convenient for them. They don't have to spend money on flights or hotels. It's basically just an event ticket and they are good to go. That's probably the coolest part of the whole thing for me."
When Lauzon steps into the Octagon at TD Garden, he will be facing an opponent who is standing on shaky ground. The Team Blackzilians fighter has experienced a drastic change in momentum over this past year, when a three-fight winning streak turned into a two-fight skid for the 27-year-old Missouri native.
A potential loss to Lauzon would make it three in a row for The Ultimate Fighter alumnus. With that number typically being the catalyst for unemployment in the UFC, Johnson will be fighting for more than just a paycheck in Boston.
Being a veteran in the sport, Lauzon knows what it is like to fight uphill and is prepared for everything Johnson will bring to the fight this Saturday.
"It's definitely not a comfortable position when you are coming off a couple losses," Lauzon said. "We are at different points in our careers, but I've been the guy who has been fighting up, where people thought I was going to lose, and then I came out and won fights. I try not to sleep on anyone.
"I make sure I get down to the gym, get sharp, and make sure I'm ready to fight. I'm sure he's doing the same thing. I know he's training hard and I'm not doubting that at all. At this point, everyone trains hard all the time. I don't imagine he's training all that much harder for this fight than he has his past few and he still came up short.
"I think striking and wrestling-wise we are pretty comparable," Lauzon added in regard to the stylistic matchup. "Jiu-jitsu-wise, I think I have a pretty big advantage, but the fight starts on the feet. He probably knows I have the advantage on the ground and it's going to be my job to get the fight there. I think he does a great job of moving around and controlling the cage, but if it hits the ground, I think he's going to be in a world of hurt."
Lauzon's bout with Johnson at UFC Fight Night 26 will mark the submission artist's 15th appearance inside the Octagon. From his shocking upset debut of former lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63 back in 2006, to his blood-soaked three-round "Fight of the Year" against Jim Miller at UFC 155, Lauzon has consistently given MMA fans something to talk about in the aftermath of fight night.
The talented grappler has zero issues with mixing it up inside the cage, and where other fighters credit that moxie to heart and an unbreakable spirit, Lauzon believes his style comes from somewhat of a different place.
"Part of it is that I'm impatient," Lauzon said. "Even going back to before I was getting paid to fight, I was doing NAGA grappling tournaments and things like that. When it was going on, I would be in side control, and feel like I was there forever. It felt like I was in that position for a minute or more and would feel the need to do something because it felt like I was stalling. Then I would go back and watch the tape and see I was only in that position for maybe two or three seconds.
"Everything slows down for me so much in there, and when I train, it's the same thing. It's always push, push, push, go, go, go when I'm in the gym. Twelve years of training and fighting like that where you are constantly pushing, trying to improve position, and going for submissions, when I fight it's extremely difficult to turn that off. It would be so tough for me to take someone down, go slow, and just hold them. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I would have to push the pace. It's kind of strange, but it has worked out really well for me."
While Lauzon has been heralded and rewarded for his level of determination when the cage door closes, he also understands the level of danger that is involved with walking through the fire. With MMA drawing close to its 20th year in existence, examples are beginning to arise of the long-term damage that fighters can suffer. Fighters who have made their living going through "wars" and "battles" are staring down a potentially dark future.
"A lot of times when you have guys like that, they are big strikers," Lauzon said. "They are guys who go out there looking to knock guys out every single fight. They are never going to have a fight where they are not knocking someone down and getting punched in return. I've had a lot of fights where I haven't been hit at all, especially earlier in my career. I would take people down and submit them quickly.
"Even in the UFC I've had fights where I didn't get hit. I think that definitely helps longevity, and it's better in that sense for grapplers when they can get the fight to the ground. It's really tough if you are a kickboxer because the only way you are going to win is by punching the other guy in the head or him punching you."
With Lauzon's knack for the squabble, danger of that nature is front and center. If the time comes when it is best for him to walk away from the sport, he is confident the people he trusts will help in that decision-making process.
"I like to think I'm pretty smart about things," Lauzon said. "I like to think I wouldn't hang on longer than I should. If it's time to walk away, I have such a good support system, they will let me know. I'm fully confident my coaches would let me know. Even if I think I'm still good, I'm confident they would address the issue and say maybe we should be calling it a day and moving on to something else.
"I like to think I'm a smart kid. I have a computer science degree. I have a successful gym. I have a lot of other ways to support myself. Obviously fighting is a great way to make money, and really good when I'm successful and winning bonuses. But if I have to do something else, I'll be fine with that too."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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