Skip to main content

Chris Cariaso: One Win to Rule Them All

"I’ve always wanted the big fights, and I’m finally getting my chance with THE big fight." - Chris Cariaso

Chris Cariaso could have been a lightweight or higher right now, resting up from a fight against Kyoji Horiguchi in Japan and eating all the ice cream and pizza he wanted to. He would turn on the television on Saturday night and watch UFC 178 like a regular fan and wait for the phone to ring, offering him his next fight.

He won’t be in Tucson this weekend though. Instead, Cariaso is in Las Vegas, his September 20 fight with Horiguchi scrapped in favor of a bout on Saturday against some guy named Demetrious Johnson. Yeah, that guy, the UFC flyweight champion.

If it seems like an unlikely scenario, it is, but that hasn’t removed the smile from his face.

“I went from being that guy that’s like ‘all right, if the youngsters want to come up and fight, I’m ready for them and I’ll beat them,’” he laughs. “But I’ve always wanted the big fights, and I’m finally getting my chance with THE big fight.”

It doesn’t get any bigger for any fighter, the chance to challenge for a world title in a main event in Las Vegas. But usually, there’s a lead-up, an anticipation, an idea that the next fight will be the one that puts you in the spotlight. Cariaso didn’t expect any of that after his third consecutive victory in May, a decision win over Louis Smolka. The San Jose native was getting ready for Japanese rising star Horiguchi, knowing that a fourth straight win would make an even stronger case for a world title shot.

He got the call after win three, and he didn’t believe it.

“I said ‘Wait, hold on. I’ll call you back, I need to soak this in,’” Cariaso said of the phone call that changed his immediate plans and that could change his life. “I was expecting to fight Horiguchi, I was already signed to fight him. My manager said ‘you better take that fight (with Johnson).’ (Laughs) I was happy. Man, this is it.”

The call came in mid-July, with Cariaso expected to face Johnson in the co-main event of UFC 177 in Sacramento on August 30. But after Jon Jones was injured and forced out of the UFC 178 main event against Daniel Cormier, Cariaso and Johnson got moved to the Vegas event, and “Kamikaze” got to eat a little.

“I didn’t cheat real hard,” he said. “I had a big bowl of ice cream with all the toppings on it. I was like okay, I’m going to eat today and I get to loosen up the belt a little bit.”

He also had some pizza for his son’s birthday a couple days later, and it was a good break as he let everything sink in.

“It was a good two days that I couldn’t even train really,” Cariaso said. “All I could think about was fighting for the belt. Finally, I was able to turn that switch and do it. This is the pinnacle of your career, when you’re able to go out there and fight for the belt. It’s the dream we all had when we first put on the gloves and got our first fight. This is where we want to be.”

Now he’s just a day away from glory. It’s been a long camp, not just workwise, but in terms of travel, as he’s worked everywhere from his usual haunts in Tucson and San Francisco to Montreal and the Tristar Gym. The 33-year-old southpaw has pulled out all the stops for this fight, and while he’s the underdog going in, he doesn’t see Johnson as invincible.

“I think I have a good contrasting style to Demetrious and I think he’s beatable,” Cariaso said. “He’s not one of those guys like Anderson Silva where you’re like ‘shoot, how are you going to beat that guy?’ I feel like he’s beatable and the way I look at it, I’m the underdog, but that’s no pressure on me. All the pressure’s on him, and I’ve got nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, you’re a dangerous guy to fight.”

And when you’ve studied Johnson for as long as Cariaso has, it’s not just one bull’s eye on the back of “Mighty Mouse,” but several, and he’s aiming for a direct hit on each one, and has been for a while.

“Every fight, I had Demetrious in the back of my mind,” Cariaso said. “No matter who I was fighting, whether it was Smolka or Horiguchi or whoever, because at the end of the day, that’s who I wanted to fight. That was the guy. So I might be training for a particular style, but I was always training to eventually fight Demetrious. So when they gave me the call to make that switch, it was an easy transition. Okay, now I get to fight him for real.”

It’s a life changer. Cariaso agrees.

“Then the whole world’s gonna want to kick my ass.”

He laughs, knowing that it’s a good problem to have.