Tom Lawlor loves the fight gameâs 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 Choiâs nuts, and thatâs how the story ends. Thereâs something about the absurd that belongs in the fight game, when the lunaticâs laughter drowns out all other noise in the theater. Thatâs what Tom likes.â¨
âItâs awesome,â he says. âIâm not sure youâll find footage of that [Long-Choi] fight, it was a MAS fight, but you can find the KO. Itâs worth it.â
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 âWho Let the Dogs Out,â with Seth Petruzelli tagging along beside him on all fours, on a leash, with a bone in his mouth.
If he didnât steal the show, he certainly left a lasting impression â âFilthyâ 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 â against a literal wrestler in Deron Winn â 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. Heâs 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 âcontemptâ for the UFC, who dangled a carrot and then pulled it away just as he was in range to swipe it.
âHonestly 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,â Lawlor says. âI had spoken to people there and asked for my release and had been told âno,â multiple times. So I was assuming there was some sort of plan and when my suspension was up Iâd be able to come back.â
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.
âAnd letâs not get things twisted here, the independent wrestling doesnât exactly pad my bank account a great deal,â he says. âSo 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 isnât 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 hasnât meant a whole lot.â
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. Heâs faced the âKing of Brosâ Matt Riddle, and had a bloody encounter with Jimmy Havoc in Orlando, which involved plywood, chairs, a staple gun and a bag of lemons.
âThe matches are brutal, but itâs also the travel,â he says. âI 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 wasnât the easiest match for my body, but what really ended up wrecking me was the 12-hour travel day back home â sitting in an airplane three hours slumped over, driving an hour back and forth from the venue. Really youâre being paid to travel.â
Not many fighters have a wrestling engagement right smack dab in the middle of a fight camp, but for Lawlor itâs been a very strange ride the whole way. Heâd already made his commitment before he signed up to fight with Golden Boy, and didnât 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 theyâd changed it to Winn, a headstrong wrestler.
âSo they gave me four weeks to get ready for an Olympic-caliber wrestler, when before that I had a striker in mind primarily,â he says.
Here the veteran shrugs his shoulders.
âIâve been through fights where I had my leg torn to shreds, still come back and won,â he says. âIâve been on the end of shitty 15-minute decisions. Iâve been submitted, knocked out. All these things have happened to me. So itâs not like Iâm scared of what Deron Winn can do.â
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.
âItâs bizarre, I havenât had to deal with this stuff in 10 years, and itâs not been easy at all,â he says. âWith other promotions, you donât 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 doesnât have a fight. You have a concrete date. You know the companyâs not going to go under. Since Iâve been out of that, there really havenât been that many offers. I was a little bit surprised with that. Perhaps I shouldnât be.â
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 â the light heavyweights who will finally have their trilogy fight in the main event at Saturdayâs Golden Boy card â Lawlor is the most recognizable name. As the A-side to the co-main, he says ultimately heâd love for one of those âoctogenariansâ to fall out at the last minute, and allow him a âPetruzelli versus Kimboâ moment.
But short of that, heâs ready to find out how good he is two years â and hundreds of body slams â removed from his last fight. As far as missing the sport he became most known in, he says âmissingâ might be the wrong word.
âI love MMA, but fighting sucks,â he says. âLetâs think about this: Iâm going to go out there and fight to the death against another man â another trained guy â and one of us has to win, the other has to lose. Sure thereâs something awesome and primal about it, but this is a business. Being away for two years âŚ Iâm not doing this for anyone else. Iâm not doing this for Golden Boy. Iâm doing it to help myself and my family. Regardless, if I really want to or not, itâs what I have to do.â
If heâs being honest? MMA is fine, but there are wilder experiences to be had.
âIâm a mercenary,â he says. âWhoever is going to shell out the most money for me to complete a task, thatâs pretty much what Iâm looking for. It doesnât necessarily have to be MMA. I like watching bare-knuckle boxing. I think itâs 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. Whatâs happened over the years is that the sportâs become so completely homogenized. A lot of the element of surprise has been taken out of it.
âWe 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? Thereâs a lot of unknowns. Moat fighting â where am I going to go train to do MMA and possibly push a guy off a surface?â
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 doesnât like is predictability and sameness. He doesnât like being lied to, or used. He doesnât like long days of travel after being walloped with a 2×4, though heâs not offended by the latter. What he does like are outer dimensions of the nichest of the niche sports. If thereâs an element of chaos to be found in regulated combat, where bare knuckles can be used or groin shots gleefully delivered, thatâs where he wants to be.
âAbsolutely, all these different styles are things Iâm interested in,â he says. âIâve done MMA â I havenât done bare-knuckle fighting. I havenât 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. Iâm serious. Iâm down to do all these things. Iâm a fighter, a combat sports athlete, not just an MMA fighter.â
âFilthyâ Tom Lawlor loves the fight gameâs margins. And for all the things heâd like to be, conventional isnât one of them.