How fast do things change in the UFC’s lightweight division? As quickly as the weather changes in Colorado.
Since Frankie Edgar became the champion nearly two years ago, the road to the title has been a course of trip wires, booby hatches and rabbit holes. People have a tendency to disappear as fast as they show up in the title picture.
Former WEC titlist Anthony Pettis is one who knows all about it. He was next in line a year ago after crossing into the UFC. Then he wasn’t. Now he is again.
At least -- possibly.
And the same goes for Joe Lauzon, who is Pettis’ opponent at UFC 144 this weekend in Saitama, Japan. Lauzon might be the unlikeliest of title contenders we’ve seen since Dan Hardy’s meteoric flash through the welterweights.
Difference being, Lauzon -- a former IT guy -- has been hovering in the gray middle of the division ever since knocking out Jens Pulver at UFC 63. That was five and a half years ago. Lauzon is the quietest contender to have ever been so long in the making.
Yet there he is. For once in his career, Lauzon is in focus in the title picture. If he beats Pettis, that would be a truly compelling argument for his cause -- especially after Lauzon's defeat of Melvin Guillard. Remember that, as of October, Guillard was right there at the top of the division too -- as the most feared striker in the 155-pound division riding a five-fight winning streak. That night, Lauzon proved fighting acumen overcomes brute strength. Couple that with a win over a far more well-rounded Anthony Pettis, and Lauzon becomes hard to ignore.
What’s strange is that Lauzon has never exactly been about title contention (though he is happy to find himself in it). When I spoke to him after he submitted Guillard at UFC 136, he said he was happy to be in the $18,000/$18,000 range, rather than a higher pay bracket of, say, $30,000/$30,000.
Why? Two reasons.
One, Lauzon is a smart long-term planner who has earned seven end-of-the-night bonuses. He estimates he’s made $365,000 in bonus money in his career so far. Not shabby. And part of how he did that plays into the second reason: On the lower scale pay bracket, he gets the occasional Curt Warburton. He has never lost two in a row in the UFC, and if you look at his opponents after a loss, you’ll get an idea why. After losing to Kenny Florian, he fought Kyle Bradley -- a significant dip in quality of opposition. After dropping a tough bout with Sam Stout, Lauzon drew Gabe Ruediger -- in Lauzon's hometown of Boston. After George Sotiropoulos tapped him with a Kimura, he got Warburton.
If he’s in a higher pay bracket, he gets monsters. Every time. And he is well aware of the fact.
Yet a head of steam is a head of steam. Should Lauzon beat Pettis, he will be the forerunner for a shot at the title with three wins in a row. The only hitch might be if the UFC decides to wait on Nate Diaz/Jim Miller in May. Diaz is coming off a victory over a top-ranked Donald Cerrone, while Miller piled on Guillard after dropping a fight to Benson Henderson. Arguably, the winner of that fight has a pretty righteous claim to a title shot, too. Both the Diaz and Miller camps are prepping for the UFC on FOX 3 card as if it’s a title eliminator. As well they should.
But everybody knows matchmaking is half about schedule alignments, and that’s why the winner of Lauzon/Pettis has a trump card: timing. They fight on the same card as Edgar/Henderson, meaning meshing schedules could play a factor. Diaz/Miller is more than two months off. People who follow the fight game want immediacy. If the Pettis/Lauzon fight ends emphatically either way, there’s a good chance that the winner looks like the top contender.
If it’s Lauzon? That makes for a fun case. Here would be a guy we never saw coming -- yet who was always there.
In that way, his rise in the ranks would feel just as stealthy as his jiu-jitsu.