"My goal for this year is to be ranked in the top 10 and get my name out there. Fighting him (Takeya Mizugaki) is definitely the priority." - Chris Cariaso
Every journey starts with a single step. For one UFC bantamweight, putting that one foot in front of the other began when he was only five years old, and a quarter of a century later he is still making strides in his quest towards martial arts glory. In the more immediate future, this life-long fighter’s goal is to be ranked in the top 10 of his division. To achieve that elite status, he will have to travel well over 5,000 miles to Saitama, Japan and defeat Takeya Mizugaki inside the Octagon at UFC 144. After 25 years of waking up and taking those steps, a few extra thousand miles is all in a day’s work for Chris Cariaso.
“I've always loved this sport,” tells Cariaso. “I think that's what sets me apart from a lot of other fighters. For me, to get up in the morning and go train is something that I love to do. Even if I wasn't fighting, I would still get up in the morning and go train. I haven't fallen out of love with it. As a teacher and as a martial artist, I just want to go out there and share my passion for the sport and the martial arts. I wouldn't have ever seen myself doing anything different. It's something that I like doing and I wouldn't change it for anything.”
At 30 years old, Cariaso might be a relatively new name for UFC fight fans, but he is far from new to combat sports competition. In January 2011, Cariaso made his Octagon debut on the UFC: Fight for the Troops 2 card with a unanimous decision victory over Will Campuzano. Prior to that, “Kamikaze” fought tough competition in the WEC, Strikeforce, and EliteXC, which earned Cariaso his overall 12-3 professional record. Before MMA, Cariaso had distinguished himself as a champion in boxing, Sanshou, Muay Thai, and kickboxing.
“All that experience, if you add it up together I have almost 50 fights,” explains Cariaso. “Just being in the ring that much, it gives me that ring savvy, especially when it goes deeper into the fight. It makes me that more experienced to know what it's like to go into those deep waters. Fortunately, I have that experience and now I'm able to use it in the cage.”
Another experience that will help him in his upcoming bout with Mizugaki: Cariaso’s Birmingham, England win over hometown hero Vaughan Lee. “I felt like the pressure was on him for the fight and there was no pressure on me - I just had to go out there and fight,” says Cariaso of his most recent tangle in the cage in hostile territory as he played the spoiler to Lee’s UFC debut in the town he grew up and trains in. “It's a good experience knowing there's not much pressure on you. I know the fans won't like me at first because I'm fighting one of the hometown guys. By the end of the fight I hope that the fans like me.”
As the opening matchup at UFC 138, the English crowd was already whipped up into a frenzy, hollering soccer-style chants in favor of Lee, but that energy fueled Cariaso too. “When the crowd starts cheering, when I can hear the crowd, and when the action is picking up - it makes me what to pick up my action too,” remembers the Californian, who showed off his ever improving ground game, especially in the later rounds when he took control of the fight. “My Achilles heel is that I always start slow, but I always finish strong. Coming out of the first round, I knew I was definitely behind on the cards. I knew that in the second and third round I was going to pick up the pace and really put it on him.”
The native Californian is set to rumble in the “Land of the Rising Sun” at UFC 144 against one of their best 135ers in Mizugaki. At 15-6-2, Mizugaki has become a stalwart in American cagefighting with five fights in the WEC, including a “Fight of the Night” title fight against Miguel Torres at WEC 40, and he is currently 2-1 in the UFC. Also, Mizugaki is coming off, arguably, his most impressive victory stateside with a second round TKO finish of Cole Escovedo at UFC 135 last September. For Cariaso to crack that illustrious top 10 ranking, he will need to beat Mizugaki, and he is willing to travel to wherever that fight may be.
“It’s more of a draw to fight Takeya, and fighting in Japan is secondary,” states Cariaso. “I've always kind of wanted to fight in Japan in the back of my mind, but it has never been a main priority. Definitely fighting a guy who has been in the top 10 and who can propel me in the rankings is the draw. My goal for this year is to be ranked in the top 10 and get my name out there. Fighting him is definitely the priority.”
On paper, this should be an exciting fight for the Japanese fans, with Cariaso’s deep roots in striking traditions and Mizugaki’s prevalence for punching. “We both like to stand up, with him liking to box a little more, and I like to kick a little more, but I've been working on my boxing for this, so you'll see me showcasing my hands a little bit,” says Cariaso, who also knows he needs to be ready for three rounds of action, as both fighters tend to go the distance and are rarely finished themselves. “15 minutes or 25 minutes, I've got it in me. Just knowing that he's a tough guy, I'm making sure that if it comes down to it I'm going to out tough him - that's the bottom line. When I'm thinking about preparing for this fight, I want to be stronger, faster, and more technical than him.”
In preparation for this bout, Cariaso has been training in Tucson, Arizona with UFC featherweight George Roop and Ed West. Cariaso has also been making trips back to San Francisco, California to put in work with his standup coach, Neungsiam Samphusri, and his Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, BJJ blackbelt Alex Crispim. After all these years of putting time in each day at the gym, he focuses on small, but consistent, progression as a martial artist.
“It’s about quality training,” asserts Cariaso. “Trying to find the best guys to train with all of the time. For me, I look for that 1% improvement every day. That's what I'm looking for and that's how I get better. It's not a big goal; I'm not looking for a 1000% improvement - just 1% every day. If I can get a little bit better with my right hand or a little bit slicker with my armbar. That's what I'm looking for to grow.”
Cariaso knows that without one special person in his life backing him, he wouldn’t be able to make those strides in the sport he loves: his wife. “Thank God, my wife is awesome and helps take care of the kids while I go away to train, which gives me the opportunities to go out there to be the best,” exclaims Cariaso, noting that the support he gets at home is what propels him in training and allows him to be a full-time fighter. “We're not officially married, but we've been together for 12 years. We've been together a long time. We have a house, two kids, and a business together, so we're definitely in it for the long haul (laughs).”
On February 25th at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, Cariaso will clash with Mizugaki to stake their individual claim in the top 10 of the UFC’s bantamweight division. “I expect a battle, I expect a war,” states Cariaso, who knows a win, maybe even a stoppage win, over Mizugaki will be a huge step in the right direction for “Kamikaze” on his path to UFC glory. “I feel like I'm one of the most prepared guys in the division. Whether the fight goes one round or five rounds, I'm always prepared to go. But this time, I'm going to look for the finish because that's somewhere that I've got to showcase my skills; so the fans will see me looking for the finish and they're going to see an exciting fight.”