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It’s been a rough few years for Joe Lauzon, so why is he so grateful?

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Joe Lauzon Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Yesterday, January 12, was Joey Lauzon’s fifth birthday. The Lauzon’s celebrated it in a low key manner with a few friends and family out in Massachusetts, and his father, Joe — the 26-time UFC veteran — made sure not to go too crazy.

“At his first birthday, we had it at my gym and there were a ton of people,” Lauzon says. “We started singing, and he started crying. He’s got a hearing aid so all the noise is kind of tough for him sometimes.”

Little Joey will have the hearing aid forever, or at least “until 10 years down the line when they get some super-pumped up PRP where they’ll spin something up and inject him to fix his hearing.” That could happen some day. But for now, too much background noise creates different amplification for Joey, and too much activity becomes a sensory overload.

So his birthday was a purposely subdued affair. Still, there was a particular joy in the room as he blew out the candles, one of relief for his father and family. Joey doesn’t remember the chest tubes and the bright lights and glass walls, nor all the concerns about his well-being as he was incubated for long periods of time in his infancy. “It’s not even a dream to him,” Lauzon says, “he has no freaking clue about any of it.” Lauzon does, though. He describes the last five years as a “roller coaster.” And it’s a remarkable thing to emerge at the other end still intact.

When Joey was less than a week old it was discovered he had neuroblastoma, the most common form of pediatric cancer, even if it’s ultimately rare. He was 4S, a stage that is deadly for older children. He was fighting for his life from the moment he came into it, and it was all that Joe and his wife Katie could do to stand by and watch their firstborn struggle through treatment. Joe posted pictures of Joey along the way on social media and made the little guy’s fight a public one, but it was a lot to take for a guy who’s made a career of being able to dictate his own will.

“For this, I was f*cking helpless,” Joe says. “There was nothing I could do to influence or change anything. You’re at the complete mercy of the disease, and that’s a really, really crappy feeling.”

These years later, the scorecards are in: Joey beat it. Earlier this week, just days before his birthday, the Lauzon’s got the news they have been gradually working towards for Joey’s whole life. He is cancer free. There hasn’t been a trace since he was six months old, but it takes a long time to go through the cautiously optimistic stages — from “no evidence of disease” to remission — and be declared out of the woods. His fifth birthday was special in that it was the first one that put cancer in the past tense.

Now it’s the way it should be; Joey’s just a normal kid who happens to have a father that fights in a cage.

Courtesy of Joe Lauzon

It’s been a rough five years for Joe “J-Lau” Lauzon. Just a month before Joey was born, Lauzon scored a big victory over Mac Danzig at UFC on FOX 9 in Sacramento. He’d already compiled a dozen end-of-the-night bonuses, enough to buy a house in the Boston area and set up his life the way he wanted. At that moment, he felt on top of the world, especially as he found himself on the verge of fatherhood.

Then the trouble began. He saw his baby born, and the next thing he knew he was acquainting himself with new terminology and trying to grasp what everything meant.

“I’ve learned so much shit about stuff I had no interest in ever learning about,” he says. “It becomes so important. You learn about sequencing and periodization and how all this stuff is treated, and just the whole entire process — it’s just not a fun thing to go through firsthand. It’s just kind of crappy.”

Now with a more profound idea of what it means to fight, Lauzon was able to capitalize his next time out against Michael Chiesa when the UFC visited Foxwoods in Connecticut, right in the heart of New England. He won via TKO (doctor stoppage), and picked up yet another Fight of the Night honor. It was meaningful, given his family’s recent struggles, and it seemed as though Lauzon had a renewed sense of purpose.

Yet it’s been a rough time for the now 34-year-old Lauzon. He has lost six of his last nine fights, even if he’s been competitive in most of them. And there are flashes of the old Lauzon, the one that came off his stint on The Ultimate Fighter 5 like he’d been released from a bow — the one that put on the wars with Jim Miller. He found himself on the receiving end of the punch against the likes of Al Iaquinta (TKO) and Clay Guida (TKO), but he’s also had some good showings. Sprinkled among those losses were victories over Takanori Gomi, Diego Sanchez and Marcin Held.

In his last bout against Chris Gruetzemacher at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, it was good before it all went south.

“That last fight, I thought I was in good shape, but then I got hit in the body and it affects your cardio and I just… I felt great at the beginning of the first round, and I felt like shit at end of the first round,” he says. “I sucked it up and I pushed through, but there was nothing there. I was just getting beat up. The corner stopped the fight, which was definitely the right thing. I wasn’t winning that fight, it was like dead man walking.”

That loss — the first time in his career where he’s dropped three fights in a row — set up an inevitable self-examination.

“Going in, I definitely felt like this was a fight I was supposed to win,” he says. “I thought, if I don’t win this fight maybe I should be done. I didn’t win the fight, and I was like, f*ck… is this the end? Am I done?”

Is he? Lauzon is still in the process of discovery towards the verdict. He’s looking at himself from the outside, while at the same time gauging things from the inside. Ultimately, he believes he will fight again. It’s not just that he’s reluctant to hang them up. It’s that there are signs that he’s still got it. That he can more than hang with UFC lightweights.

“My gym, we’re just south of Boston, we’re kind of like the hub for all of New England,” he says. “All the best fighters in New England come to my gym every Saturday morning. They’re not my guys. I don’t claim them as my guys, I don’t corner them — well, I corner some of them — but everyone comes together. We all get together, we all train, we all make each other better. We have all the best guys. Cowboy was out here with guys like Mickey Gall, Joe Schilling, a couple of others guys.

“We have like 15 UFC guys out here every Saturday morning. And my gym is not super-well known. It’s not like Jackson-Wink or ATT (American Top Team), it’s definitely a smaller gym in comparison to those. But we get really good guys here. I go at all these guys and I do so f*cking well. I do so well against them. It sucks to do great against all these guys but I’m going to say I can’t fight.”

Lauzon reflects here for just a moment, like a man who has thought a lot about a life avoiding regrets.

“I’ve seen some guys where they should have stopped eight fights ago and they’re still pushing it,” he says. “I definitely don’t want to be that guy. I understand that my last few fights have not gone very well. I’m not delusional. I’m not like, I’m still great and all this, I get it. The results of the fights have to speak. I’m not giving up yet because if I give up at 34, when I’m 38 or 40, I’ll be like f*ck, why didn’t I give it a little bit longer?”

**

Lauzon is grateful. He says it a lot, and it doesn’t just mean that he has survived 26 trips to the Octagon and taken home more bonuses than the most promising competitors have fights. He’s grateful that things have “worked out.” He has a happy family, and his son — who made him contemplate life in ways that nobody ever wants to — has given him perspective.

“It definitely changed me,” Lauzon says. “Since I’ve been a little kid I’ve always been good about figuring out where I wanted to go and what I had to do to get there, and figuring out the steps. Even with that, I am here and I’m trying to get there, it’s really f*cking hard — as an athlete, with work, or whatever, there’s a million things that can kind of pop up and derail you.

“But I always looked at it as it’s a bump. If something isn’t going your way, you adjust. You work on it a little harder, you go little bit longer, you do what you do but you can always kind of deal with it.”

With Joey, he couldn’t do much. It was a shock to learn that he was sick, and it was torment to see him suffer through his first years of life. It was beyond Lauzon’s control to do anything about it, other than stand by and keep the faith. But he did. He kept the faith. He learned all about neuroblastoma, and he watched his son beat it. A chip off the old block? Lauzon doesn’t do the parallels between one fighter and another. Everyone’s fight is different.

In the New Year, Lauzon is working on his strength and conditioning, setting up what could be his final run in MMA.

“We’ll give it a few months and we’ll see how that goes, and then I’ll make a decision,” he says. “I plan on fighting again. I think I’m 100 percent going to fight again. But, I’m not going to be a fool either. If in three months I’m crushing strength and conditioning and I’m still getting really, really tired and things just aren’t working my way and it’s not going the way I like. Then at that point I’ll pull the plug.”

Yet no matter what happens next in his MMA career, he’s grateful that everything has worked out in the more important ways. It was a big week for the Lauzon’s. They got the news they hoped for. It was a good birthday for Joey, and life goes on.

“[Joey]’s a happy little kid,” he says. “He’s not a fan of going to the doctors all the time, because it’s almost always accompanied with blood work. So it’s always, ‘I don’t wanna get a poke, I don’t wanna get a poke.’ I’m sure it’s soured doctor’s appointments for life, but that’s the way it goes.”

Lauzon laughs at his next admission, like he’s passing on an old truth that keeps proving itself before him.

“You don’t get to choose what life’s going to throw your way,” he says.