Ricardo Lamas on UFC champ Jose Aldo: “The Invincible Man Only Exists in Movies”
Ricardo Lamas can certainly count among his virtues the asset of patience. Amidst the UFC’s broadening roster of possible sub-155 pound stars – many whom joined the premier organization in early 2011 as part of their introduction of 145 and 135-pound weight classes resulting from their absorption of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) – “The Bully” (an arguably misleading nickname denoting his affinity for Bull Terriers, for whom he is involved with Bull Terrier Rescue, Inc.) hasn’t stepped inside the Octagon since January 26, 2013. That night, he dismantled Erik “New Breed” Koch, a Duke Roufus pupil who had once been assured a title shot against featherweight champ and pound-for-pound great Jose Aldo.
He was subsequently scheduled to face “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung next at UFC 162: Silva vs. Weidman, a matchup that had “title shot” all but emblazoned below the dotted line he signed, however when current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis was unable to meet Aldo at UFC 163, Jung was pulled from their bout to fill in.
Lamas – who is 4-0 since crossing over to the UFC – had been passed over on two other occasions (in favor of former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar at UFC 156 and the aforementioned current 155-pound titleholder), but, barring another setback due to the ever-looming threat of injury, he will finally get his shot on February 1, 2014 in one of two title fights at UFC 169: Cruz vs. Barao at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
I had the opportunity to speak with Lamas this last week while he was winding down from a day of training at South Florida’s MMA Masters, a team he spends time with when away from his home base at Team Top Notch in Chicago, IL. The 31-year-old #2-ranked 145-pounder was reservedly optimistic and sparingly candid; the fulfillment of opportunity’s promise he is finally receiving is not an example of “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” or “the open mouth gets fed,” nor is it a picture of the cautionary Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Instead, it is merely an instance of the basest of truisms: “Good things come to those who wait.”
“It’s signed, it’s a done-deal and I’ve been training my butt of, man,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m not going to let it pass me by without training 110-percent. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time, and now I have it. Now I have to prove that I deserve getting it.”
Had he given any thought as to why, until just recently, it had been his scheduled opponents and not him that were granted title shots? Though many are aware of the 11th-hour card-saving Jung switcheroo, few are aware that Lamas had actually been offered Edgar before the opportunity for a superfight with Aldo proved too palpable a fight to postpone.
“With the whole Chan Sung Jung thing, basically they told me that they had promised him a title shot over a year ago, before he had his shoulder surgery, so that’s why he technically was ahead of me for that,” he offered. “Other people might attribute it to the fact that I wasn’t as well-known as those other fighters were, but I think I was just as deserving, even if I wasn’t as well-known. I think that’s what should count. But the UFC did the right thing and made everything right and they gave the guy that deserves the shot the title shot.”
Different fighters have different routines, and there is not uniform means by which to best get prepared, however it is more common than not for fighters to stay with a single gym while preparing for an upcoming bout. Jet lag, dietary difficulties, complexities with living situations and clashing egos are among the numerous hurdles that can unnecessarily be set while attempting to narrow one’s focus for combat. What benefits does he reap from alternating his base between time zones, then?
“Top Notch is the team I’ve been with since my very first amateur fight,” he explained. “I’m a very loyal person, so I’ll always be in their corner. MMA Masters is another gym that – I came down here with Top Notch before one of my fights when I was in the WEC. I just kind of came down to get away from the cold weather of Chicago. It was in late Fall and it was getting cold and we were like, ‘yeah, let’s go down to Miami for a week and train on the beach,’ and a friend of my partner was training at MMA Masters while we were here. He told us if we needed a gym to come in and get some work outs in, and I went in and got my ass kicked and I loved it, so it’s something I keep doing before every fight, come down here for between four to eight weeks and I train real hard, kind of seclude myself and it’s been working. There are completely different style that I get between Chicago and here, so it kind of keeps me on my toes. I don’t get too comfortable training with the same people for too long, so it keeps me sharp. I feel I’ve been improving with every camp. It’s kind of one of those things where you don’t fix what isn’t broken.”
Considering the tear he’s on and his impending meeting with Aldo, does he feel as if he’s in his prime?
“Definitely,” he responded immediately. “I feel like I’m going into my prime right now, I think I’ll have a few solid years in my prime and I’ll be able to compete at this level for a while to come.”
Was it disheartening, then, to feel as such, yet have to sit on the sidelines for more than a year, waiting on a title shot whose promise, until recently, seemed tentative at best considering how events had played out thus far?
“Yeah, it does,” he admitted. “You feel like a caged animal for a little bit. It sucks. But I don’t feel like it’s going to affect me in a negative way. I feel like I’ve really used this time off. A lot of people need to realize that I haven’t been injured. I’ve been in the gym every day training, so I’ve used this time off to improve and get better as a fighter and the time off has actually made me hungrier. It’s actually going to be a little over a year since the last time I’ve been in the cage and I’ve got a lot of pent up aggression in me that needs to come out, and it’s going to come out February 1st and I think it’s going to help me.”
He believes he’s improved in all areas during this time, even the one that got him here, more or less: his wrestling. A Division III All-American who accumulated more than 100 wins between 2001 and 2005 while earning a degree in exercise science from Elmhurst College, the two-time College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) champion who earned title of “Most Outstanding Wrestler” during the 2003 and 2004 season is more than confident that the best version of Ricardo Lamas will be standing across the cage from Jose Aldo on fight night. That he’s been working just as diligently at the fight game’s other facets is a scary prospect for any fighter regardless of their place in the pecking order.
“Jose Aldo is the champ for a reason,” he said. “He’s been such a dominant champ for a reason. The guy is pretty flawless when he comes into a fight, but with that being said, he’s still a human and he still does make mistakes. My trainers have done a good job watching what he does, his movements, and they’re training me accordingly. The little mistakes he does, I’m definitely going to try and capitalize on and expose his weaknesses.”
And what weaknesses does he see?
“I think one thing that he has that has helped him a lot is the fear that people have of him. I think a lot of people that have fought him have lost the fight before even getting in the cage with him. For me, that’s not going to happen. I see him as a human being. The invincible man only exists in movies. This isn’t Superman I’m going out to fight, this is Jose Aldo, just another human being, and that’s how I’m facing it. This is a fight, man. I don’t pick out areas where I think I could win the fight – I think that I could win the fight in any area: If I hit him hard enough on the chin, I could knock him out. If I get him on the ground, I could submit him. If I grind him out, I could win by decision. I don’t care what I win by, what situation I’m in.”
Lamas began his professional career five and a half years ago at 155 pounds, moving through multiple organizations in the span of a year – during which time he successfully won the International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF) title – before successfully debuting in the WEC against Bart Palaszewski to open his career at 6-0. It wasn’t until he moved to the UFC that he was able to drop down to 145-pound featherweight division (a more natural weight class for the 5’8” fighter), something he had wanted to do sooner but had postponed at the behest of matchmaker Sean Shelby. Despite planting his feet on a more even playing field size-wise, he argues his success has little to do with a ten-pound differential.
“When I came into the WEC I was very young – a very young fighter,” he explained. “I really had to grow up with the sharks. They threw me in the big leagues right away. I improved exponentially from fight to fight, so by the time I made it into the UFC, it’s just the improvements I’ve made as a fighter. It has nothing to do with dropping a weight class. It’s the team that I have behind me, the training partners that I have and the training that I do that’s made me grow leaps and bounds in this sport.”
When asked who among his regular training partners deserves the most credit for helping him prepare and “level up,” so to speak, he fired back with one name: former AFC, RIC, XFC and Bellator veteran Luis “Baboon” Palomino, Lamas’ main training partner at MMA Masters, who currently fights under the South Florida-based Championship Fighting Alliance (CFA) banner.
“He is, in my opinion, the best fighter in the world that isn’t signed with the UFC right now,” he said with absolute commitment. “The guy’s standup is sick, he’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu, he’s heavy-handed – he hits like a truck – and he’s fast. His reaction… when me and him are going strictly standup, it’s like I’m pretty much fanning him off with my punches because his head movement is so sick. It’s so hard to hit the guy. And where he is strong is what I consider to be my weakness. Even though I consider myself to be a well-rounded fighter, my standup is the thing that I’ve been trying to work on the most and his standup is so good he’s brought mine to another level. And my strength, which is my wrestling, is kind of his weakness, so his wrestling has actually gone up from us training together. We help each other out in that aspect.”
There is a template by which the UFC operates when organizing their cards from top to bottom when dealing with multiple title fights on one night: with almost no exception, the heavier title fight gets top billing. UFC 169, then, is an anomaly in that the bantamweight title tilt between returning champ Dominick Cruz (who has been out of action since October 2011) and interim champ Renan Barao serves as the namesake for the event, while Lamas’ meeting with Aldo has been relegated to co-main even status. Lamas insisted this is a non-factor.
“I’m not that egotistical that I’m going to get mad that I’m not in the main event,” he said. “I’m fighting for the belt. I don’t care if we’re the first fight on the undercard, as long as it’s for that strap that’s all I care about. From what I understand as far as the UFC’s thinking of things, [Cruz vs. Barao] is a champion-versus-champion fight, and because Cruz has been away for so long Barao has established himself as the true champion, and that’s why they’re in the main event spot.”
Did he have any thoughts on who would win that fight?
“Man… it’s such a hard one to call because, Barao… I mean that guy’s an animal; he’s a great fighter,” he answered, seemingly glad to be taking the focus off of himself for a moment and indulge his inner MMA fan. “And Cruz is such an unorthodox fighter with his head movement and everything, he’s so hard to find. It’s going to be a very interesting fight. If I had to give the edge to someone, as long as Cruz is 100 percent healthy and is able to fight to the best of his ability, with his wrestling and his unorthodox style, I’d give him the edge. But it’s going to be a hell of a fight and I’m definitely going to be watching it after my fight if I can – (he laughs) – if I’m good enough to watch it.”
With the spotlight once more directed at him, Lamas resumed his serious introspection, choosing to acknowledge his doubters and supporters in unison.
“I know a lot of people are counting me out of this fight, and that’s fine with me. I’ve been the underdog before – and I don’t mind being the underdog – but I do want to say thank you to all the fans out there who are supporting me, who do believe in me and think that I am going to win this fight. Don’t be surprised if I come out wearing that belt.”