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Tom Lawlor gets thrown onto a pool table by opponent Brody King during a no-ring, bar wrestling match in Los Angeles back in July.
Esther Lin

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He’s back: ‘Filthy’ Tom Lawlor on wrestling, fighting, and the next extreme

Tom Lawlor loves the fight game’s margins. He likes watching the 7-foot-2 Hong Man Choi fight a 150-pound monk like Yi Long in a stand-up rules, single nine-minute round in China, with the specification that a KO is the only way to win it. He gets positively high when Long lands a spinning back kick to Choi’s nuts, and that’s how the story ends. There’s something about the absurd that belongs in the fight game, when the lunatic’s laughter drowns out all other noise in the theater. That’s what Tom likes.

“It’s awesome,” he says. “I’m not sure you’ll find footage of that [Long-Choi] fight, it was a MAS fight, but you can find the KO. It’s worth it.”

Lawlor has always been a colorful figure in the world of MMA. Part of the reason for that is that he was a pro wrestler first, and was therefore versed in the histrionics that go into being a character. Before UFC 154 in Montreal, sporting an adult diaper for a loincloth, he and some training partners put on a sumo demonstration at the open workouts. Nine years ago, for his fight against C.B. Dollaway at UFC 100, Lawlor walked out to “Who Let the Dogs Out,” with Seth Petruzelli tagging along beside him on all fours, on a leash, with a bone in his mouth.

Lawlor putting a triangle submission on Brody King in a bar-room wrestling match over the summer.
Esther Lin

If he didn’t steal the show, he certainly left a lasting impression — “Filthy” Tom Lawlor got submission of the night and took home an extra $100,000. Better yet, he had people barking.

On Saturday night, Lawlor is returning to the realm of literal fighting — against a literal wrestler in Deron Winn — for Golden Boy Promotions, after serving the last of a two-year USADA suspension. If his suspension was odd (he got busted for Ostarine, a muscle booster that he says had phantom origins into his system), his time away was odder. Lawlor flew all over the country working the independent pro wrestling circuit, getting thrown through tables and having large, dull items crash into his head. He was biding his time until he could return back to the UFC. During his wrestling road show, the throaty shouts from a couple hundred egger-ons was the closest he came to glory.

It was a decent enough stand-in gig until in August, just two months before he was eligible to fight again, the UFC informed him that he was being released. It turns out Lawlor was biding his time for nothing. He’s not sure if it was because he signed the Project Spearhead card, or if it was because he lost his last fight against Corey Anderson back in 2016 (which was the excuse the UFC ended up giving him). All he knows is that he has genuine “contempt” for the UFC, who dangled a carrot and then pulled it away just as he was in range to swipe it.

“Honestly I think the way the UFC handled it and then cut me right before I was able to come back really f*cked things up for my whole life,” Lawlor says. “I had spoken to people there and asked for my release and had been told ‘no,’ multiple times. So I was assuming there was some sort of plan and when my suspension was up I’d be able to come back.”

Gallery Photo: UFC 154 Weigh-in Photos

Lawlor, who at the time of this interview had just gotten back from Chicago where he engaged Sami Callihan in a street fight as part of a Major League Wrestling broadcast, sounds exhausted. He says he might have quit fighting altogether if he knew the UFC was going to pull the rug out from under him. That he might have found a different profession.

“And let’s not get things twisted here, the independent wrestling doesn’t exactly pad my bank account a great deal,” he says. “So I was kind of in a holding pattern, holding off on certain things, and they kind of screwed me in the end. I would have made different choices had I known the outcome during that two-year period. I thought I was doing the right thing in keeping my name out there and promoting myself. The UFC isn’t going to promote anybody. I could have sat there on my ass and done nothing for two years, but I chose to go out there and represent MMA in the independent wrestling world, and at the end of the day it hasn’t meant a whole lot.”

Still, as a man who was forced underground and found a way to embrace it, there were some epic and intimate nights in which Lawlor let the madman roam. He went against Brody King in a bar in Los Angeles over the summer, a wrestling bout that spilled onto the pool table, into a photo booth, and eventually onto the bar itself. He’s faced the “King of Bros” Matt Riddle, and had a bloody encounter with Jimmy Havoc in Orlando, which involved plywood, chairs, a staple gun and a bag of lemons.

“The matches are brutal, but it’s also the travel,” he says. “I just wrestled Callihan, and went through some tables. Not exactly the easiest match. A trash can unprotected to the head. I got caned. So it wasn’t the easiest match for my body, but what really ended up wrecking me was the 12-hour travel day back home — sitting in an airplane three hours slumped over, driving an hour back and forth from the venue. Really you’re being paid to travel.”

Not many fighters have a wrestling engagement right smack dab in the middle of a fight camp, but for Lawlor it’s been a very strange ride the whole way. He’d already made his commitment before he signed up to fight with Golden Boy, and didn’t want to break it. In the meantime he has been training in Las Vegas, readying himself for a fight that itself has been in and out of focus. Originally, Lawlor was supposed to take on a striker, but found out that they’d changed it to Winn, a headstrong wrestler.

“So they gave me four weeks to get ready for an Olympic-caliber wrestler, when before that I had a striker in mind primarily,” he says.

Here the veteran shrugs his shoulders.

“I’ve been through fights where I had my leg torn to shreds, still come back and won,” he says. “I’ve been on the end of shitty 15-minute decisions. I’ve been submitted, knocked out. All these things have happened to me. So it’s not like I’m scared of what Deron Winn can do.”

Gallery Photo: UFC 154 Media Workout Photos

As Lawlor reemerges back into the non-choreographed space of MMA, he says the hardest part has been dealing with promoters again. In particular, working with the boxing-centric Golden Boy has been a foreign process.

“It’s bizarre, I haven’t had to deal with this stuff in 10 years, and it’s not been easy at all,” he says. “With other promotions, you don’t really know the outcome. With the UFC, we at least knew the date. They were going to have a show, unless Dan Henderson gets hurt and Jon Jones doesn’t have a fight. You have a concrete date. You know the company’s not going to go under. Since I’ve been out of that, there really haven’t been that many offers. I was a little bit surprised with that. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.”

While with the UFC, Lawlor went 6-5 between 2008-2016, scoring wins against Gian Villante and Patrick Cote. He lost a close decision against Anderson his last time out at UFC 196. Other than Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz — the light heavyweights who will finally have their trilogy fight in the main event at Saturday’s Golden Boy card — Lawlor is the most recognizable name. As the A-side to the co-main, he says ultimately he’d love for one of those “octogenarians” to fall out at the last minute, and allow him a “Petruzelli versus Kimbo” moment.

But short of that, he’s ready to find out how good he is two years — and hundreds of body slams — removed from his last fight. As far as missing the sport he became most known in, he says “missing” might be the wrong word.

“I love MMA, but fighting sucks,” he says. “Let’s think about this: I’m going to go out there and fight to the death against another man — another trained guy — and one of us has to win, the other has to lose. Sure there’s something awesome and primal about it, but this is a business. Being away for two years … I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m not doing this for Golden Boy. I’m doing it to help myself and my family. Regardless, if I really want to or not, it’s what I have to do.”

If he’s being honest? MMA is fine, but there are wilder experiences to be had.

“I’m a mercenary,” he says. “Whoever is going to shell out the most money for me to complete a task, that’s pretty much what I’m looking for. It doesn’t necessarily have to be MMA. I like watching bare-knuckle boxing. I think it’s pretty cool. And Ganryujima. I would love to do f*cking moat fighting. One of the things that really captivated me was that sense of unknown when it came to MMA. What’s happened over the years is that the sport’s become so completely homogenized. A lot of the element of surprise has been taken out of it.

“We know how you train for an MMA fight for the most part. You do your techniques, you get in shape, you do jiu-jitsu, you do wrestling, striking, and it really boils down to who is the better athlete. But, bare-knuckle boxing? How do you train for that? There’s a lot of unknowns. Moat fighting — where am I going to go train to do MMA and possibly push a guy off a surface?”

UFC 196 Weigh-ins Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tom Lawlor appreciates a spectacle. Better yet, he cherishes the idea of himself at the center of that action, the lunatic laughing loudest in the theater. What he doesn’t like is predictability and sameness. He doesn’t like being lied to, or used. He doesn’t like long days of travel after being walloped with a 2x4, though he’s not offended by the latter. What he does like are outer dimensions of the nichest of the niche sports. If there’s an element of chaos to be found in regulated combat, where bare knuckles can be used or groin shots gleefully delivered, that’s where he wants to be.

“Absolutely, all these different styles are things I’m interested in,” he says. “I’ve done MMA — I haven’t done bare-knuckle fighting. I haven’t done a moat fight, or a stand-up rules where you can kick a guy in the nuts and win. In Korea they have open-weight fights. I want to fight a 350-pound fat guy. I want to wrestle a bear on an independent show, if they can get the bear. I’m serious. I’m down to do all these things. I’m a fighter, a combat sports athlete, not just an MMA fighter.”

“Filthy” Tom Lawlor loves the fight game’s margins. And for all the things he’d like to be, conventional isn’t one of them.


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