Who would win in a fight between Joe Lauzon and Jamie Varner?
Not too long ago, the question would have drawn a laugh from most MMA fans, or at least an eye roll and a reply to the effect of “Lauzon, easy.” The Bay Stater probably would have been a heavy favorite against Varner as recently as six months ago. But things change quickly in MMA, and by the time the pair met Saturday at UFC on Fox 4, bookmakers had the odds pegged nearly even.
No doubt Lauzon’s February knockout loss to Anthony Pettis -- which came just as the unassuming 28-year-old seemed to be on the brink of contention -- played a part in the closeness of the line. More significant, however, was Varner’s white-hot May reentry into the UFC. By punching out previously unbeaten striker Edson Barboza, Varner -- who was on the verge of retirement less than one year ago -- had already defied Vegas once. In the early going of Saturday’s bout, it seemed he might bag another improbable win.
A wrestler with an amateur boxing background, the prevailing wisdom was that Varner would want to keep the fight vertical early on. That he did, cutting angles and slugging Lauzon with hard body blows in the opening moments. Seventy-five seconds in, a right hand behind the ear sent Lauzon staggering; Varner tried to capitalize, but Lauzon quickly recovered and began firing back. Back and forth, the pair traded punches and kicks, with Lauzon landing more successfully to the head and Varner finding his mark on Lauzon’s ribs.
Even as Varner seemed to fatigue slightly late in the opening period, his punches came heavy. Another overhand right clipped Lauzon behind the ear, and this one sent him to the canvas for real. Varner tried to swarm, but the submission ace pulled guard and immediately tried for a straight armbar. After the bout, Lauzon asserted that a KO was never a concern, despite being knocked cold by Pettis for the first time in his 30-plus-fight career.
“I really wasn’t worried. I feel like the Pettis fight was just an isolated fight. I didn’t think it had any bearing on this fight,” Lauzon said at the post-fight press conference. “Boxing-wise, the only thing we worried about was his overhand right.”
That hand, one of Varner’s strongest weapons, would soon be taken out of the ex-WEC champ’s arsenal. Varner suffered an injury to his right paw early in the middle stanza -- a break, according to the fighter’s Twitter account -- and was forced to switch up his attack. While they came with considerable force, Varner’s jabs, leg kicks and standing elbows just didn’t have the oomph of his power hand.
Lauzon was able to cover up under fire and avoid any serious damage in round two. Having sniffed out the problem, “J-Lau” adjusted his game plan accordingly -- but he still had to be cautious.
“I knew he hurt his hand, so I had zero fear, zero worry about anything,” said Lauzon. “It ended up being a little more boxing, but I always want to get the fight on the ground. I’m a jiu-jitsu guy first. I love to ground-and-pound, I love to set up submissions. But for me to go out there and shoot a takedown right off the bat, he’s gonna see it coming and I’m gonna have to pay for it. So, I have to use my head to set up my takedowns.”
Despite taking Varner’s back two times late in the frame, Lauzon couldn’t finish. He didn’t make the same mistake in round three, when he managed to turn Varner’s strength against him.
Tiring as the third round wore on, and with limited offensive options, Varner reverted to his wrestling base and twice put Lauzon on his back. The second time would prove his undoing, as the fresher Lauzon easily swept out from underneath. Failing to secure Varner’s back in the scramble, Lauzon instead fell back into a perfect triangle choke position.
“I think I had an overhook on his right arm and I threw my legs up, caught him in a triangle, but it wasn’t deep. I wasn’t quite on his neck. It was across his face,” Lauzon recalled. “I knew he was gonna slip out, so the only thing I could do was throw elbows and try to get him to fight his way back in, and that’s exactly what happened. I threw some elbows and he kept trying to defend them... [he] pushed back in deeper, and I had him in the triangle.”
And that was that. Varner’s tap at 2:44 of the third round earned Lauzon not one, but two extra checks -- “Submission of the Night” and “Fight of the Night” -- netting him a total of $100,000 in extra cash and tying him with middleweight ace Anderson Silva for most UFC bonuses.
As for Jamie Varner, it remains to be seen whether his upset of Barboza was a fluke or the start of a mid-career resurgence. But on Saturday night, Joe Lauzon ensured that he won’t be part of Varner’s potential Cinderella highlight reel.