PHOENIX – When longtime fan favorite Joe Lauzon steps into the UFC's famed octagon on Saturday night, it will be the first time he's done so since October 2019.
During the two-and-a-half year layoff, many wondered if the 27-time UFC veteran was done with the sport, but Lauzon said competing again remained a priority the entire time.
"Every single day," Lauzon told MMA Underground. "COVID threw us so many curveballs, right? Because first we weren't allowed to have the gym open at all, and then we could have the gym open and we were training together, and then we had to separate into cohorts. It was just like there's been so many changing rules and regulations and things that we had to follow, so it's just been kind of a little bit of a roller coaster. I had no interest whatsoever in trying to fight during all of that."
And so "J-Lau" waited on the sidelines.
There were moments he wondered if he had made the wrong call. After all, Lauzon's 2019 appearance came in his hometown of Boston, and the 93-second victory simply could not have gone better. More importantly, it broke a three-fight losing streak and could have offered him an opportunity to walk out on top, a relative rarity in combat sports.
"My last fight could have been the last fight," Lauzon admitted. "That could have been the last one, right? It was at home in Boston. It was a flawless fight. Didn't get hurt at all. Beat a tough kid. So everything about it was ideal and perfect and maybe it should have been the last one."
But it wasn't.
More than 15 years after his UFC debut – a stunning knockout of former lightweight champion Jens Pulver – Lauzon (28-15 MMA, 15-12 UFC) returns to the octagon for Saturday's UFC 274 event, where he opens up the night's pay-per-view main card against fellow grizzled vet Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (36-16 MMA, 23-13 UFC) at Footprint Center.
Lauzon, who turns 38 later this month, said he's excited by the prospect of fighting Cerrone, 39, in what seems like a pretty brilliant piece of matchmaking.
"I mean, we're both similar age," Lauzon said. "You know, neither of us wants to fight a 22-year-old kid, right? It's nice to be on an even playing ground, so to speak.
"We both have similar experience, right? I think he has better standup, but I think I've got better jiu-jitsu. But we've both been in all kinds of different fights and wars and bonuses and everything else. I think that I train more consistently than him. I think I'm at kind of like a dull burn all the time. whereas I think for him, it's like crazy sparring and then time off – and then out on the lake, and then in the gym really hard. Then riding a bull, and then in a gym, you know? I mean, like, I think we both beat our bodies down in slightly different ways, but I think it's very comparable all the way."
But the reason fan interest is high in the matchup isn't simply the tenure each man has on the roster. As Lauzon mentioned, the number of performance bonuses earned by the two is astonishing, with Cerrone taking home a UFC-record 18 such awards and Lauzon third all-time with 15 recognitions.
While both Lauzon, a former cast member on "The Ultimate Fighter 5," and Cerrone are certainly nearing the end of their fighting careers, each has a real penchant for putting on crowd-pleasing efforts.
"I think that, you know, short of Conor McGregor, 'Cowboy' is probably the most well-known fighter there is," Lauzon said. "I mean, he's in all kinds of stuff, and he's just got a great Instagram and great social media presence. He's doing movies. He's doing this, he's doing that, you know, so he's a very, very popular fighter, so that part's kind of cool, you know?"
After such a lengthy layoff, is Lauzon planning on making this one his farewell UFC appearance? After all, Cerrone has openly mentioned he's not so sure how much longer he'll keep competing, and UFC president Dana White told MMA Underground that whoever comes up short in the contest is going to have a real difficult decision to make.
But Lauzon said he's not ready to make any call until Saturday night.
"I mean, results definitely play into it," Lauzon said. "I told my wife that if I get beat up again, we're done, right? So I figure I got one more, you know – so if I don't get beat up by 'Cowboy' and we win, we can roll that forward next time, so I don't know.
"I think it comes down just to wear and tear and how many times do I get hit in the head? I mean, like, I don't want to get hit in the head at all, ever. I mean, I try to have good defense, but sometimes you get cracked and you've got to keep on pushing through and you've got to go through it. Once you come out and you're in there, you're in there. It'd be very easy to like, 'Oh, that was a good one. We're done. We're done,' and that's that's just not how it goes, you know? So it's just kind of like a long-term health and safety and everything else."
Fortunately, Lauzon said he doesn't financially need to compete after Saturday. He spent the time away fighting to focus on his gym, Lauzon Mixed Martial Arts in Raynham, Mass., where he says business is booming and gives him plenty on which to focus in his day-to-day life.
For Lauzon, UFC 274 isn't about the paycheck. It's not about proving a point. It's simply about returning to the sport he loves, and if it winds up being the last time he ever does it, there will be no regrets – and while newer fans of the sport might not remember some of his legendary scraps with the likes of Kenny Florian, Jim Miller, George Sotiropoulos, Sam Stout and Jame Varner, he hopes his reputation is secure in the minds old-school UFC watchers.
"I hope people just remember being excited for my fights," Lauzon said. "I know there's certain fights where you're getting ready to watch, you're excited for a fight, and, like, the fight is getting to start and you start to kind of sweat a little bit. You kind of get into it, super into it, and I hope people feel like that about my fights sometimes. Like, I understand they're not always going to be the best for me, but they're pretty much always exciting fights, you know, win or lose, so I think that's the way I want to be remembered."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.