If patience is a virtue, Ricardo Lamas is unquestionably a virtuous man.
For the last 370 days, the surging featherweight contender has been waiting for his opportunity to step into the Octagon with reigning champion Jose Aldo. He has been passed over, pushed aside, and not picked, but through it all, the 31-year-old with the sterling 13-2 record and four-fight winning streak has focused on fighting for the championship.
Saturday night, the patient fighter will finally get his opportunity, as he and Aldo will go toe-to-toe in the co-main event of UFC 169 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
“It’s been a ride, and I when I look back on it now, it’s all worth it,” Lamas says of the 12 months he’s spent waiting for his name to be called to stand opposite the Brazilian champion. “I don’t think it could have played out any better - I’m co-headlining a Pay-Per-View event on Super Bowl weekend. It’s one of the biggest weekends in sports and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Lamas’ journey to New Jersey and vying for UFC gold truly began with his win over Cub Swanson in November 2011, when the Chicago-based battler rallied after dropping the first round to submit the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt midway through the second frame. The win put Lamas on the radar, and his follow-up victory over former No. 1 contender Hatsu Hioki - coupled with Swanson’s dominant run since their meeting - left him on the short list of contenders.
Seven months later, he was matched up with Erik Koch, a rising star in his own right who had been scheduled to face Aldo for the title twice the previous year only to have injuries scuttle both contests. The bout was widely expected to determine who would be next in line to challenge for the title, and Lamas made it crystal clear that he was deserving of the opportunity by battering the Duke Roufus student from the opening bell, securing the finish midway through the second round.
The call to fight Aldo never came.
Anthony Pettis dropped down from lightweight and cut to the head of the line a week later, prompting Lamas to accept a bout with “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung, as he returned from a one-year hiatus.
But that wasn’t meant to be either.
When Pettis fell out of his title bout with Aldo, the UFC tabbed Jung, not Lamas, to replace him, leaving the man who many believed had already done enough to merit a title shot to continue waiting.
“There would have come a point where I would have had to fight, whether it was for the title or not. But we were in talks with the UFC the whole time. They weren’t giving us a definitive no, but they weren’t giving us a definitive yes either, so we were kind of forced to wait. If they had said no, I would have said, `Okay, throw the next person at me.’
“It’s changed me a lot,” he says, reflecting on his one-year wait to fight for the featherweight title. “I think I’ve matured as a fighter and gotten better as a fighter over this past year. I haven’t been training for a specific person, so I’ve been able to concentrate on myself, my own game, and it’s made me hungrier. Going through an entire camp for the fight against Zombie and then having it taken away just lit that fire under my ass even more this time.”
His stutter-step voyage to facing Aldo tomorrow night in Newark is not unlike the odyssey middleweight champion Chris Weidman endured leading up to his initial pairing with Anderson Silva last summer.
Like Weidman, Lamas too heard people say he wasn’t a big enough name to fight for UFC gold and ask, “Who has he really beaten?” despite having stepped up in competition and delivering a more impressive performance with each successive outing since debuting at featherweight in June 2011.
The year away never fazed Weidman, who said he was going to shock the world and did exactly that when he knocked out Silva at UFC 162, and now Lamas is focused on doing the same thing Saturday night against the 23-1 Aldo at UFC 169.
“I think mentally I’m a very strong person, and that’s what it takes to beat someone like Jose Aldo or to beat a champion like Chris Weidman did against Anderson Silva. You have to believe in yourself.
“I think that a lot of people that fought against him were mentally beaten before they even got in the Octagon with him. I’m strong enough physically, but mentally as well, and I think that’s going to be a huge part of this fight.
“It seems like the higher up the ranks that I’ve gotten and as the guys have gotten tougher and tougher, I raise up to the level of my opponents. You give me the toughest guy out there and you’ll see the toughest guy come out of me.”
Make no mistake about it - Aldo is as tough as they come, having won 16 consecutive contests, including eight straight championship fights between the WEC and UFC. Equally capable of brutalizing his opponent’s lead leg for 25 minutes or ending the fight in dramatic fashion with any number of strikes, the reigning, defending, and undisputed champion is a considerable favorite heading into the contest, rightfully so, and the challenger wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In every UFC fight that I have had, I’ve been the underdog going in. I’m used to it, and I don’t care what other people think. I know my own skills, I know what I can do, and that’s why I’ve come out on top every time.
“This fight is going to be no different - I’m going in there expecting to win. I trained for these three months to win a fight. I’m not going in there to give Jose Aldo a tough fight; I’m going in there to beat him - and that’s the only thing on my mind.”
Ricardo Lamas: The Wait is Over
"It’s been a ride, and I when I look back on it now, it’s all worth it." - Ricardo Lamas