Chris Cariaso (left) is eager to prove the doubters wrong at UFC 178. | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Without question, Chris Cariaso is in for the biggest fight of his life when he enters the cage opposite Demetrious Johnson at UFC 178 on Saturday. Not only does he have an opportunity to claim the flyweight title, but he can also prove a never-ending line of critics wrong.
The week leading into a bout can be tumultuous for a fighter -- let alone one competing in the main event of a UFC pay-per-view -- but since his fight was moved from UFC 177 to UFC 178, Cariaso has utilized the extended period of time to his advantage.
“The training has been intense. We’ve had a long camp, so we started to wind down a little bit sooner than we would during a regular fight camp. “Everything came together and everything is feeling great,” Cariaso said. “At first I didn’t know how to take [the longer camp], but in the end I think it was a blessing in disguise for me. It just gave me more time to make sure everything is on point.”
Much like any profession, insecurities run rampant when there are elements of the unknown. For Cariaso, this meant questioning whether or not he would still be fighting Johnson when he caught word his title fight would no longer be UFC 177’s co-main event.
“At first I didn’t know the circumstances. I didn’t know if I was going to be the headliner, or even whether the fight was still going to happen,” Cariaso said. “But once they told me, ‘Yes, you’re still fighting 100 percent,’ I was really excited for it. It’s turned out even better now.”
Better could mean a plethora of things. Cariaso could be referring to his ability to train longer, mend nagging injuries or anchor a highly-anticipated event alongside Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Eddie Alvarez, Donald Cerrone and Dominick Cruz -- which essentially means a ton of added eyeballs.
“I was going to be happy to fight near home [San Francisco]. That was one cool thing, but being in Las Vegas will be awesome too because that’s close to my other house, so I’ll just have to get it done in Vegas,” Cariaso said. “I wouldn’t say UFC 177 was a weak card, but it was a weaker card compared to UFC 178. So I definitely feel going from that to 178 is like stepping up three notches.”
The extra eyeballs also bring extra criticism. The decision by the UFC to insert “Kamikaze” into the bout against “Mighty Mouse” was met with almost universal discontent from MMA fans and pundits alike. As any underdog is inclined to do, Cariaso is using the doubters as added fuel to his fire.
“This is definitely my time to tell any critics to F-off. This is something I’ve been working for my whole career in winning the title. Now that I have this opportunity, it’s my chance to show everybody why I deserve it,” Cariaso said. “It definitely makes me mad, but I’m embracing it and my actions will show everyone why I’m in the main event.”
Those opposed to Cariaso being given a shot at Johnson’s title will point to his recent record -- he is 3-2 in his last five bouts -- as well as his spot in various flyweight rankings. For example, Sherdog.com currently places Cariaso as an “honorable mention” in its most recent rankings, while the UFC’s official polls place him at No. 8.
“You always want to be the best. For me, I do pay attention to the rankings, but I don’t understand how sites put them together,” Cariaso explained. “But when you are a top 10 fighter on a site, you’re considered the top one percent in the world, so that’s an honor.”
The first step to rectifying any slight begins with Saturday, in a fight against a man who has not lost in his last six fights. Just what does Cariaso have that fighters such as Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov didn’t?
“Obviously he’s a better wrestler than me, but when it comes down to jiu-jitsu and grappling on the ground I’m stronger. And I definitely think my striking is better than his, and I’ll prove that on Saturday,” Cariaso said. “I think he’s a great athlete and a good role model, but I think it’s my time to go out there and take over the lead of the division.”
Cariaso also relishes the opportunity to take a fight that is set to go for 25 minutes. He has never fought longer than three rounds in his professional career.
“I feel like I always get stronger later in the fight and feel like that’s one of my downfalls: I always run out of time,” Cariaso said. “But now, having five rounds to do it plays into my game.”
If everything goes as planned, UFC President Dana White’s last duty before the show goes off the air will be wrapping the belt around Cariaso’s waist. This isn’t something he hopes will happen; he’s seen it happen. It’s hard to doubt a man who is so aware of what’s at stake. At this point in his career, the 33-year-old will do anything to get what he feels is his.
“I visualize the walkout; I visualize the fight; I visualize my hand being raised and Dana putting that belt around my waist. It’s something you have to do to believe it,” Cariaso said. “I put it all out there for training, I sacrificed everything for this fight, and I’m ready to lay it all out on the line.”