Joe Lauzon is on the short list of the most consistently entertaining and exciting fighters on the UFC roster. Statistically speaking, his 11 “Fight Night Bonuses” from 13 trips into the Octagon yields the highest percentage bonus returns of anyone in the company’s history. Overall, he’s one back of middleweight champion Anderson Silva for most bonuses ever, though “The Spider” has three more appearances to his name.
When the 28-year-old Bridgewater, Mass., native steps into cage, he puts on a show, regardless of the outcome. In three of his four UFC losses, Lauzon has shared “Fight of the Night” honours with his opponent, but while his entertaining brand of fighting has yielded upwards of $400,000 in supplemental income, one thing Lauzon hasn’t been able to do as of yet is break into the upper echelon of the lightweight division and position himself as a legitimate title contender.
He’s been on the fringe in the past, and is there once again heading into his UFC 155 meeting with Jim Miller, a great scrap on paper that has been elevated to co-main event status in the wake of injuries to Chris Weidman and Forrest Griffin. Unfortunately for Lauzon, every time he’s worked his way into a position to take the next step, he’s stumbled.
After bursting onto the scene with a shocking upset of former champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63, Lauzon competed on Team Penn opposite a team coached by “Lil’ Evil” on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter. Following a win over Brandon Melendez on the show’s finale, “J-Lau” added a victory over Jason Reinhardt to give himself a 3-0 start on the biggest stage in the sport. The solid run was accompanied by a step up in competition.
Lauzon headlined an April 2008 Fight Night event opposite Kenny Florian, who was three wins removed from losing to Sean Sherk at UFC 64 in a bout to crown a new lightweight champion. Midway through the middle frame of the three-round affair, Florian moved to mount, eventually earning the stoppage win with a string of unanswered strikes.
Losing to a former title challenger — and one who would go on to fight for UFC gold twice more in his career — isn’t all that bad. While Lauzon had more fights on his resume, Florian was the far more seasoned professional, and it showed that night in Broomfield, Colorado. Where it becomes problematic is when the pattern repeats itself, and that has been the case with Lauzon to date.
Following a thorough dismantling of Gabe Ruediger at UFC 118, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant was once again given an opportunity to advance to the upper tier of the lightweight division when he squared off with George Sotiropoulos at UFC 123 in November 2010. The Aussie had won six straight since coming off Season 6 of the UFC’s long-running reality TV competition, and seven consecutive overall.
Halting his climb could have pushed Lauzon into the mix. Instead, after a frenetic first round, Sotiropoulos gained the advantage in the second, and eventually earned the submission win when he forced Lauzon to tap to a kimura midway through the round.
His third kick at the can came last February in Japan.
Four months earlier, Lauzon brought Melvin Guillard’s five-fight winning streak to a screeching halt in Houston, putting “The Young Assassin” on rubber legs with a crisp left hand out of the gate before taking his back, and earning the submission win just 47 seconds into the bout.
Riding a tidy two-fight winning streak, Lauzon was paired with former WEC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis. With the division somewhat devoid of established challengers, whoever emerged from the Saitama Super Arena with a victory in hand would have an excellent case for being in the short list of potential title contenders. Just 81 seconds into the fight, Pettis dropped Lauzon with a head kick.
Three attempts to take the next step have resulted in three defeats.
As he’s done throughout his career, Lauzon rebounded with an outstanding performance opposite Jamie Varner in August, taking home both Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night bonuses for his third-round win. Originally slated to face former title challenger Gray Maynard at UFC 155, “The Bully” was forced to withdraw, and was replaced by perennial contender Miller.
Despite the change, the contest remains a fourth chance for Lauzon to earn the type of victory needed to break through to the next level of the division. This time, however, there may not be another opportunity waiting for him in the future if he’s unsuccessful.
Lightweight is the deepest, most talent-rich division in the UFC. In a way, Lauzon’s inability to stamp himself as a serious title contender highlights that fact perfectly. Where else can a fighter with such well-rounded talents and an ability to finish fights at any point, in any manner find himself constantly on the outside looking in?
That’s exactly where Lauzon is, and likely where he’ll remain in perpetuity if he’s unable to get by Miller.
Even though the division is in a state of flux with former champion Frankie Edgar and long-time contender Clay Guida departing for featherweight, there is still a reasonable queue of challengers ahead of Lauzon at this time, including his opponent on Saturday night.
With the impending arrival of Gilbert Melendez, a handful of additional Strikeforce stalwarts, and potentially Eddie Alvarez, the lightweight roster will be even more swollen with talent by mid-2013. Having thrice failed in his attempt to break into the upper tier of the 155-pound ranks, Lauzon’s window of opportunity for challenging for championship gold has already narrowed, and it will shrink even more once the aforementioned new additions join the likes of Pettis, Maynard, and Donald Cerrone in the push for a title shot next year.
As entertaining as he is, now is the time for him to start stringing together victories if he ever hopes to put himself within arm’s reach of the lightweight title. Even with a victory over Miller on Saturday night, he’d still be another win or two away from the top of the list, and with new contenders seemingly emerging every other card — and potentially arriving from other organizations shortly — Lauzon needs to assert himself as one of the best in the division this weekend or risk being relegated to “good-but-not-great” standing for the remainder of his career.
He’s made a very comfortable living residing in that neighborhood so far, and will always find himself somewhere between 15 and 20 in the rankings because of his ability to dominate weaker competition and pull off an upset from time-to-time. But if he’s looking to relocate into a more prestigious area, now is the time.