"It’s awesome the fight is happening on Super Bowl weekend in New Jersey, but I would have fought him anywhere." - Ricardo Lamas
Combat sports are realms where the large majority of triumphs are earned by the efficiency of work done in the live-fire environment of hand-to-hand squabbles. If you are the better man on fight night, and your hand is raised upon the bout’s conclusion, your opponent watches as the lion’s share of everything moves in your direction.
The winner gets his hand raised. The winner gets his full fight purse on fight night. The winner receives the accolades and the promise of bigger things ahead. To the victor go the spoils, and of that, MMA is no different from its peers in the other avenues of the mano a mano trade.
That said, when titles are involved, an equation that is simple by nature has the capability to take a severely complex turn.
Where winning moves a fighter up the divisional ranks and puts them in the mix for title contention, it isn’t necessarily enough to secure a coveted opportunity to compete for championship gold. When titles come into play, the black and white blurs with shades of gray and additional measures get factored in.
While this rarely seems just, the truth of the matter remains that MMA is a business. And in that world, the UFC is the biggest show in town.
The fight business is precisely that…a business, and one where product value goes hand in hand with the ability to create a buzz. Make no mistake about it, talent is the most crucial element of all, but there are other elements involved that bring fighters and high-profile matchups to the front of the “must see” list.
To put things in perspective: A Porsche is a Porsche because we believe we are seeing something special. Granted, a high-performance engine is what separates it from the pack, but sleek body designs, the mystique of luxury and our belief in the idea that it is a remarkable vehicle all factor in to it being more than just a car.
It all comes down to presentation, and similar aspects are at play in the UFC. A fighter can possess all the natural talent in the world, but if the buzz of anticipation isn’t pumping around them, a title shot - no matter how well deserved it seems - can be an elusive thing to obtain.
The past two years have provided multiple examples of fighters who seem more than worthy of earning a title opportunity, but for one reason or another, the trigger getting pulled on bringing those championship bids to life are slow to materialize…sometimes they never happen at all.
Surging featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas is all too familiar with those particular hurdles, but he’s never been one to back down in the face of adversity.
The 31-year-old has been a nightmare to the opposition since joining the 145-pound ranks in 2011, as he’s collected four consecutive victories under the UFC banner. Three of those victories have come over highly ranked opposition and quickly elevated “The Bully” to upper-tier status in the increasingly competitive weight class.
Nevertheless, while the Chicagoland native was doing the best work of his career, the broader recognition as one of the best featherweights in the sport was slow to come. The more success he found inside the Octagon, the more likely a showdown with reigning featherweight king Jose Aldo seemed to be. After he defeated highly touted Japanese fighter Hatsu Hioki at UFC on FX 4 in June of 2012, he put himself on the doorstep of a title shot, but those knocks were never answered.
Forced to keep things rolling along, he faced former No.1 contender Erik Koch at UFC on FOX 6 in January and properly smashed the Duke Roufus-trained fighter in the second round of their tilt. His destruction of Koch was absolutely impressive and the expectations were high for Dana White to christen Lamas as the next title challenger in the immediate aftermath, but once again it failed to materialize.
Despite him not being tapped for a title shot, it was clear Lamas was one of the most talented fighters on the featherweight roster. Yet, with his lack of name recognition with the expansive UFC fan base, it was also clear he was fighting an uphill battle.
“I describe myself as the best guy you don’t know about…especially in the 145-pound division,” Lamas said. “I’m ranked number two and not that many people know about me. It’s unfortunate but it’s because I’ve been on a lot of undercards. I’ve had exciting fights but not that many people have seen them. When I fought and defeated Cub [Swanson] it was on the undercard of UFC on FOX 1, where the only fight they televised was the main event between Velasquez and dos Santos.
“A lot of people missed out on that fight. My next fight against Hatsu Hioki was at UFC on FX 4 in Atlantic City but was on the undercard portion of the event that was aired on Fuel TV. The hardcore fans who follow the UFC and watch every fight on every card know who I am but a large majority of the fans weren’t seeing my fights.”
While Lamas could have certainly been discouraged by yet another title opportunity passing him by, he regrouped and accepted a bout with fellow contender Chan Sung Jung at UFC 162. His bout with the “Korean Zombie” had the unofficial stamp of being a title eliminator, and Lamas believed the 26-year-old would be the final obstacle on his path to a title shot.
Nevertheless, the unpredictable nature of MMA never ceases and when proposed title challenger Anthony Pettis was forced to withdraw from his bout with the Brazilian phenom Aldo at UFC 163 due to injury and Jung was tapped to step up, a fresh pile of adversity was once against stacked on Lamas’ plate. Yet, where it appeared he was being passed over yet again, this is where things in his quest for a title shot truly became interesting.
Rather than race out to show and prove once more, Lamas held steadfast in his belief that he deserved to face the pound-for-pound great in his next fight. It was in this moment where the Team Top Notch fighter took a gamble of a different variety and decided to play the waiting game. In his mind, the work to prove his worth in the divisional picture had been done, and he didn’t need to rant and rave from the rooftops about what he felt he did or didn’t deserve.
Public posturing on social media and interviews has become a popular avenue for fighters to travel on the current landscape of MMA. While there are some fighters who are gifted in that regard, for every one fighter who can work the microphone with confidence, there are 20 who painfully struggle in that aspect.
Lamas didn’t believe it was necessary to go that route, and believes his familial roots play a large role in his ability to allow his work inside the cage to represent him.
“I believe that has a lot to do with my background,” Lamas said. “My father was a guerilla fighter back in Cuba in the counter-revolution against Fidel Castro. Everything they did was on the low and they had to keep everything quiet. I think that rubbed off on me. For the guys I fight, once you find out about me it’s too late. That’s just how I am. I don’t need to talk because my actions speak far louder than my words.”
The notion in MMA that a fighter is only as good as their last fight is undoubtedly a popular one, but it had backfired on several former contenders in the past.
In this, Lamas knew he was playing a high-risk game. While he was sitting healthy on the sidelines waiting for his shot to materialize, other fighters in the upper-tier at 145 pounds like Cub Swanson and Chad Mendes were racking up one impressive performance after another. In those cases, the potential for Lamas to be leap-frogged on the title radar was likely, but he knew caving in and jumping back into the cage would be a setback of a different variety.
Much like the previously mentioned Porsche, Lamas had already proved he had the high-powered talent to separate himself from the pack; he simply needed the UFC to realize he wasn’t just another fighter. And while things may have looked grim at times over his 10 months away from the cage, on Tuesday the wait finally paid off as it was officially announced he would get his long-awaited chance to face Aldo on Feb.1, 2014 for the featherweight title.
“I definitely went all in on this,” Lamas said. “It’s always a gamble when you sit out and you never know what is going to happen. Someone could have a killer performance in a fight, it catches Dana White’s attention, and that person jumps to the front of the line. But I feel, in my past couple of fights, that I did enough to earn the title shot more than one time. I had faith the UFC would do the right thing and they did. It will all pay off in the end.”
Suddenly, an opportunity he had been dreaming about for years that was once visualized with the film of imagination became crystal clear in that moment as it shifted into reality.
“It feels amazing, man,” Lamas said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting a very long time for. I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason. I get to face Aldo for the featherweight title, on a pay-per-view card on Super Bowl weekend. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“Just to have it all locked down feels amazing. It’s not an opportunity I’m not going to let slip through my fingers. People are going to see a completely different Ricardo Lamas because I’m going to let everything go in this fight. I go into every fight with full belief in my skills and what I can do. This fight won’t be any different. I want to come out of this fight as the new featherweight world champion.”
With a date for his dance with Aldo now set, Lamas will officially set his sights on dethroning the featherweight champion. While he’s had the Nova Uniao product in his sights for the past few years, the intensity on those visions will increase as he sets about his preparation for Aldo.
The 26-year-old possesses one of the most unique skill sets in all of mixed martial arts and it is a puzzle Lamas is amped to solve. He is fully aware of the dangers the young champion presents and believes Aldo has only gotten better as his title reign has stretched on.
Nevertheless, Lamas believes he brings something unique to the table as well. While Aldo is prone to working behind near flawless execution, Lamas believes his brand of pressure will put the Brazilian wrecking machine in a position where mistakes are going to be made, and that is where the tide of the fight will ultimately turn in his favor.
“My heart and will are going to be big factors in this fight,” Lamas said. “I can take a beating and keep coming forward. That is what I believe the person that beats Aldo is going to have to do. You’re going to have to take an ass kicking and stay in his face. You have to let him know nothing he throws is going to hurt you. He doesn’t have too many holes in his game and that is why he’s the champ and has been the champ for so long.
“The guy knows what he’s doing and doesn’t make many mistakes. But I’m the type of guy where if you make one tiny mistake I’m going to capitalize on it. You can look at my past fights for proof. Cub made a mistake and I finished him. Erik Koch made a mistake and I finished him. If I get a split-second chance to capitalize I’m going to do it.”
With the contract signed and his title shot now official, Lamas can check off an accomplishment he’s been waiting to mark since the beginning of the year. Earning the chance to face Aldo is the “goal before the goal” for Lamas, and with one difficult task now behind him, the Miami transplant can focus on the most difficult task at all.
Where facing Aldo doesn’t come with much peace of mind, Lamas can find solace in not having to do so in the champion’s native country of Brazil. Three of Aldo’s last four title defenses have come on Brazilian soil, and with their bout at UFC 169 taking place in New Jersey, Lamas can take comfort in not having to deal with the long flight and fighting Aldo in front of a passionate crowd of Aldo’s countrymen.
At least that was the idea offered at the end of the interview, but Lamas paid it little mind. With Aldo being the fight he’s been hunting tenaciously, Lamas doesn’t care where the scrap goes down, just the fact it is happening is enough for him.
“I don’t care if they told me I had to fight Aldo in the basement of his house…I’ll do it,” Lamas said in conclusion. “It’s awesome the fight is happening on Super Bowl weekend in New Jersey, but I would have fought him anywhere.”