Outside of the Octagon, UFC middleweight Tom Lawlor is very much like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box — you never know what you’re going to get.
There is the Lawlor who imitated Hulk Hogan, complete with ripping open his shirt, during his entrance into UFC Fight Night 20. There is the Lawlor, sporting a full red beard, who made his entrance to UFC 100 in July 2009 by walking in fellow fighter Seth Petruzelli (who had a bone in his mouth) on a leash to the tune “Who Let The Dogs Out.’’
There is the Lawlor who did a flawless impersonation of former pro wrestler and early UFC champion Dan “The Beast’’ Severn at the weigh-in at UFC 113 in May 2010.
On Thursday, during the public workouts in Montreal leading up to Saturday night’s bout against Paris-born Francis Carmont (19-7-0) in UFC 154 at the Bell Centre, Lawlor sported an adult diaper and nothing else as he, Petruzelli, and conditioning coach Kyle Holland staged a sumo wrestling demonstration for fans.
But Lawlor’s zaniness will give way to full focus and determination once he and Carmont step into the cage.
Lawlor, who was born in Fall River, raised in Swansea, and now fights out of Providence, is a different person during workouts than he is in assorted character mode.
“He’s 100 percent all business in the gym,’’ said Lawlor’s boxing instructor, Steve Maze, who along with Tim Burrill are Lawlor’s primary coaches. “He is an extremely hard worker, you have to kick him out of the gym. He wants to work out four or five times a day.
“He has his time where he’s wondering what song he’s going to [make an entrance to] or what he’s going to dress up as for the weigh-in, but for the most part, 90 percent of the time, he is focused on the fight at hand and what he has to do to win.’’
Trying to get a straight answer out of Lawlor can be challenging. In many interviews, the colorful 29-year-old chooses the outrageous over the informative, but Maze said that is just an act.
“He’s very workmanlike,’’ said Maze. “Yes, he has flashy entrances and yes, that’s what he’s known for. But as soon as the bell rings, he’s all business. He’s fought the top guys in the division. Maybe he doesn’t get the respect in terms of notoriety and skill but I’ll tell you what, every time he’s in there, you know you’re in a fight.
“The UFC has a tough job because there are so many guys who are out there and want to fight. Tom is never on a card where he gets lost. Francis Carmont is a very good striker. He’s not a great striker but he’s a very good one. He’s a tall, rangy guy who comes to fight. His wrestling isn’t that good. Tom’s wrestling is very good. He has some holes we’re going to exploit, and Tom is a game-day fighter. When it’s time to fight, he’s going to do what he has to do.’’
Lawlor’s background is in wrestling, where he was a three-time National Collegiate Wrestling Association champion at heavyweight for the University of Central Florida.
“I was consistently around 225 pounds, 230, and now I weigh — walking around — at 205,’’ said Lawlor, who now fights at 185.
At times, he has expressed a desire to tone down the pre-fight antics, but his popularity made him change his mind.
“You have to give the fans what they want,’’ said Lawlor. “I keep getting messages and suggestions and I feel if I stop doing it altogether, maybe I’ll be able to focus a little bit more, maybe I won’t, but I think some of the fan base would maybe not just turn against me, but would be a little bit disappointed. It’s an entertainment venue as well as being a sport and I’d like to keep it that way. Maybe it works to my advantage because the guys don’t take me as seriously as they would if they were fighting someone who talks about someone who wants to murder their opponent. Maybe the guys I fight kind of overlook me because I have the reputation of being a jokester. I’m not really sure. At this level, everyone is pretty professional.’’
Before earning a contract with the UFC, Lawlor was a teacher at University High School in Orlando. He didn’t share his passion for mixed martial arts, but eventually students caught on.
“I tried to keep it hidden most of the time,’’ said Lawlor. “Once kids did find out, it was distracting. Once I started winning more fights, more kids knew.’’
He didn’t really feel as if he fit as a teacher.
“A lot of teachers just go to work, they go to school, they grade homework, they go home, and lead boring lives,’’ he said. “Some of them go out and drink at the end of the day because they’re miserable in their jobs. There are lot of different people involved in the school as far as a lot of different personalities. There was one person who was a mixed martial arts fighter. I’m sure it helped a little bit in terms of respect [with the students]. It was also distracting for me.’’
When told that was in about as opposite a profession as you could get, Lawlor laughed.
“I could be a preacher,’’ he said. “Or in the Peace Corps. That would be really opposite.’’
For now and for the future, he is more than content to be a fighter.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,’’ he said.
Maze said he envisioned the early part of the fight as the two touching gloves, taking a little time for a feeling-out process, and then going into their strategies.
But ever the individual, Lawlor told his coach that wasn’t the way he saw it at all.
“He said, ‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ ’’ said Maze. “In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve just worked for 10 weeks on a whole entire game plan and now you’re telling me it’s wrong?’ ’’
Lawlor preferred the more direct approach.
“He said, ‘There isn’t going to be any feeling-out process, I’m going to go right at him,’ ’’ said Maze. “I said, ‘Oh, OK, I feel much better now.’ Tom likes to get in there and mix it up. It should be exciting. I like the matchup a lot.’’