Tom Lawlor on STRONG, NJC USA and more
‘Filthy’ Tom Lawlor has been one of the most talked about members of the NJPW STRONG roster since he made his debut in an NJPW of America ring. Now he competes to be part of the eight man New Japan Cup USA field. We sat down with Lawlor to talk about his journey to the cerulean blue and what’s to come.
They go about things a little differently, but to me, pro-wrestling and MMA are the same.
–So Tom, I wanted to talk to you about what’s happening in NJPW STRONG of late, but also your journey through MMA to pro-wrestling. But you actually started out wrestling, is that correct?
Lawlor: Ahh, I dunno about that(laughs).
Lawlor: Well, the whole story is that I had my first fight in 2003. Back then there weren’t really any (fight) commissions. The UFC was around, but it wasn’t something that you could make a lot of money in or a career. But I watched it a lot and I thought it was awesome. I knew it’s what I wanted to do.
–MMA was your first love.
Lawlor: Yeah. I went in and made 50 bucks for my first fight. After that… Like I said there wasn’t a lot of money at that level. I couldn’t make a career of it, and I was only 20 years old at the time.
–So wrestling helped support the MMA career in those early years?
Lawlor: Yeah. I trained in around 2005 and then wrestled between 2005 and 2007, which is when I was able to do MMA full time. But in the end, it’s all combat sports. They go about things a little differently, but to me, pro-wrestling and MMA are the same.
You couldn’t not be mesmerised by the Great Muta
–What wrestling did you grow up watching?
Lawlor: The first stuff I remember watching was on ESPN in the States. Global Wrestling Federation, USWA. I was watching WWF at the same time, and definitely WCW Saturday Night. Really everything I could see at the time.
–What was your first exposure to Japanese wrestling?
Lawlor: Well, I first saw New Japan when guys went to WCW, and when they did the joint shows.
–Who stood out to you back then?
Lawlor: You can’t not be mesmerized by Great Muta, obviously. That left a big impression. And Kensuke Sasaki, him wrestling against the Steiner Brothers, that was awesome stuff. But I was so young back then I didn’t really understand much of it, that didn’t come until later on. I really came back into Japanese stuff in the late 1990s. But not in the way a lot of people would admit!
Lawlor: Believe it or not, it was Stranglemania, the Insane Clown Posse tape that got me into it.
–That was a cult hit VHS tape in the 1990s. The hip-hop artists ICP were big wrestling fans and released a tape of them doing commentary over the IWA King of the Deathmatch events, which helped shape Terry Funk and Mick Foley’s late ‘90s success in hardcore matches.
Lawlor: Completely different to what I went on to do, but it helped me get into this stuff that wasn’t just on TV. From there I picked up tapes of RINGS, PRIDE…
–I’d imagine Kazushi Sakuraba was a big influence.
Lawlor: The first PRIDE tape I had was PRIDE 8 which was Sakuraba and Royler (Gracie). So that was around 1999. So I was a fairly early adopter when it came to Japanese MMA.
–It’s all in that first choice of imported VHS tape. A lot of wrestlers in your generation were influenced by Super J-Cup ’94, but you went the RINGS route into MMA.
Lawlor: Well, I was all about bang for the buck when I was a kid (laughs). These were four or five hour shows, with 30 fights on one card, which was rare at the time. You can still watch some of that stuff now. The techniques have changed, but the heart and violence definitely holds true.
–There were a lot of fighters in the early days of Japanese MMA in PRIDE and Pancrase that came from professional wrestling. Minoru Suzuki and Sakuraba obviously, but also Americans and Canadians like Paul Lazenby, Ken Shamrock…
Lawlor: Well, I first saw Sakuraba in UFC Japan. Being a pro-wrestling fan, I always wanted to see professional wrestlers do well in MMA. The training, legitimate techniques and holds makes professional wrestling a real, effective combat system.
–The King of Sports mentality.
Lawlor: Exactly. Not what it was viewed as in America in the 1990s, when Hulk Hogan was being more cartoonish. When I heard Sakuraba came from pro-wrestling, I was an instant fan, and him losing to Conan Silveira (in 1997) and coming back to beat him, that’s a professional wrestler’s story right there: take a beating, stand up, come back and win. So I was hooked on him.
–So all through your MMA participation, you wanted to represent pro-wrestling.
Lawlor: Exactly. Like Josh Barnett, too. Even today, he’s letting everybody know how effective professional wrestling can be as a martial art.
–When you were starting your MMA and wrestling careers in the early 2000s, the lines between pro-wrestling and MMA were very blurred in NJPW. We had the Ultimate Crush events with pro-wrestling matches and MMA fights in the same card…
Lawlor: I definitely wanted to talk about Ultimate Crush in this interview! People tend to want to forget about it when it comes to New Japan history, but I was a big fan of seeing guys cross over.
–There’s a lot of debate about that era even today, but there were some interesting results.
Lawlor: It was just such a mixed bag, a lot of good and bad. A guy like Bas Rutten, he wasn’t in NJPW for long, but I thought he was tremendous there. There were just so many places you could fight back then. It’s hard to say that it was beneficial for pro-wrestling, but it drew me in.
–You mentioned Bas Rutten, who could really have been a huge star in pro-wrestling if he chose to remain in that route. Who else appealed to you at that time?
Lawlor: I was really captivated by Kazuyuki Fujita. He would just be beaten up by (Mirko) Cro Cop, have his face mashed in by Fedor (Emelianenko) but kept going, and that made me really want to see him in a New Japan ring.
–Shinsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nagata really emerged as top figures who did go between both fields.
Lawlor: With Nakamura, he lost early in his career to one of the Gracies, but it was a long battle. He gained in a loss, because he stayed in there. Yuji Nagata was thrown to the wolves in terms of experience level when he fought, but he did his best. But you had the opposite problem when guys would pick up wins in fights and then get opportunities in pro-wrestling when they weren’t all that good at pro-wrestling. So you had good and bad for sure.
Between pro-wrestling and MMA, it’s a smaller community than you’d think
–So what do you think of the relationship between MMA and pro-wrestling now?
Lawlor: People ask me if they expect to see more crossover between martial artists and wrestling now. Of course they will but that’s because MMA is more of an established thing now. Looking back 30, 40 years, you had guys like Willem Ruska in NJPW, or Leon Spinks who just passed away, in FMW. They would be MMA fighters now, but then they were just ‘fighters’. There’s always been a mix.
–Speaking of which, we have a photo from a few years ago while you were still in MMA of you grappling with Kyle O’Reilly and KUSHIDA while they were in the States.
Lawlor: It’s a recurring theme. Between pro-wrestling and mixed martial arts it’s a smaller community than you would think, because so many pro-wrestlers train in MMA now, or used to in the past. So I’ve run into a lot of people in wrestling that I knew in MMA.
–And do you think that’s influenced wrestlers’ in ring styles?
Lawlor: As the familiarity with MMA techniques has increased, they’ve been blended into wrestling more. There used to be such a clear line between shoot-style and traditional pro-wrestling, between UWF and NJPW back in the day for example. Now you’re seeing the shoot style techniques incorporated more. Things change with the times.
You have to be different to be successful
–Is the reverse true, of bringing some of the showmanship of pro-wrestling into MMA? That was certainly something you did in the UFC.
Lawlor: Well, MMA wise, I was obviously a fan of Sakuraba and Genki Sudo as well, not just for their fighting ability, but because they were great entertainers too.
–They helped draw people into their fights.
Lawlor: And to put myself over for a second, it takes balls to walk out for a fight to ‘Let’s Get Physical’ by Donna Summers, or the Hulk Hogan Real American theme. Then there was the Shockmaster deal…
— Shockmaster being the infamous WCW wrestler.
Lawlor: He wore this goofy helmet and fell over when he made his big debut entrance, the helmet rolled off his head. So I did the same thing at the UFC weighins in Montreal once. Not a lot of people knew who that was, but there were some guys in the Canadian media that knew their pro-wrestling history and that got me talking to them a lot more.
–You made a connection with the pro-wrestling fans.
Lawlor: Yeah. And it takes a certain kind of individual to be able to do something like that, and then go and fight another man who’s trying to punch you in the face until you go unconscious. It’s not a pleasant thing to do. So there’s not too many people in MMA who let their personality shine because they’d rather focus on their fighting ability.
–But you’re that kind of individual.
Lawlor: I figure eventually my body is going to break down. When you’re going into a fight, and the same goes for pro-wrestling as in MMA, you get people looking at what you’re doing, sure. But there’s another guy there who’s trying to stop you doing what you want to do. So the minute when you make your entrances, that’s where you can be fun and be different. That’s the thing. When I watch MMA or wrestling I don’t want to see a bunch of homogenized clones. You have to be different to be successful.
What’s worse than being beaten up by a guy in jorts?
–So what prompted the transition to go back into pro-wrestling full time?
Lawlor: Well, I had a suspension, and then was cut from the UFC before I finished serving it, which was a shame but it forced my hand to get back into pro-wrestling. When I left pro-wrestling to go and fight I left a lot to accomplish, and the time was right for me at age 35 at the time to go back in.
–Minoru Suzuki was the same age when he went from MMA back into pro-wrestling.
Lawlor: There you go!
–When we talk about an MMA fighter going into pro-wrestling, there’s a certain presentation people might expect. The Daisy Duke jean shorts is quite unexpected.
Lawlor: Well, Matt Riddle (currently WWE) started pro-wrestling a couple of years before I did, and we would be in the same independent circles. People would compare the two of us right away, whether I wanted that or not. I didn’t want to be just an ex MMA guy, riding on the success he was having, or Shayna Baszler (WWE) was having. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, and we’re all very different people. Now as far as the jean shorts go, it wasn’t a big plan, but there’s a simple message to that.
Lawlor: They were the most ridiculous shorts I could find. And do you know why I wanted to wear the most ridiculous shorts I could find?
Lawlor: Because what’s worse than being beaten up by a guy in jorts? What’s more humiliating than having the crap beaten out of you by someone in Daisy Dukes? There’s very few things that are. So you have guys coming up and saying ‘why the hell are you wearing those?’ and you just respond ‘are you going to try and tell me not to?’
–It reinforces how strong you are when the bell rings.
Lawlor: I think so. And I didn’t want to wear black trunks, that isn’t who I am. It’s just how I operate.
More in part 2!