Father’s Cuban revolutionary roots inspire Ricardo Lamas in underdog role

Lamas is never short on confidence, a trait he can thank his father for.

 

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

 

Glancing along the UFC 169 Media Day stage, your eyes are drawn to the names, both famous and accomplished. There’s Jose Aldo, all-time featherweight great. Renan Barao, 31-fight win streak. Frank Mir, former UFC champion. Urijah Faber, former WEC champion. Alistair Overeem, former Strikeforce and K-1 World Grand Prix champion.

And then there is Ricardo Lamas.

Somehow, he finds himself here, in the midst of the madness and as the biggest underdog on the card. His task seems Sisyphean, to come back from a year of inactivity and end Aldo’s face-punching, leg-kicking reign of terror, which just happens to be the longest current title run in the UFC.

If he’s supposed to be spooked by his big moment, he’s not showing it. Prior to this weekend, Lamas has been on a UFC main card exactly one time, and as the opener. He’s never faced this much pressure, or scrutiny, or attention. Nothing close to it. In a blink, everything has changed. During this week, he faced the press at Super Bowl media day. He’s done television and newspaper interviews, stood in front of cameras and microphones, heard the most ridiculous questions one could imagine. At one point, he got called out by Regis Philbin. And he’s loved every minute of the circus.

My father growing up, he’s shorter than I am. He’s a small guy but he’s a man that will never ever back down from anybody, no matter how big, no matter how tough they say they are.

"The amount of media I’ve done this week is incredible," he said on Thursday. "My head was spinning from all the questions being asked. I’d love to get to do stuff like this even more because I’d love for this to be a big problem in my life."

The only way that will happen is by beating Aldo, and despite the lopsided odds against him — the champion is around a -700 favorite, and that number is trending upward — the UFC featherweight title challenger has the demeanor of a man who already knows a shocking outcome before it’s been revealed.

It’s a confidence born of a family history that has somehow been passed over despite its personal and professional significance to him. It is rooted in the struggles of his father, Jose, who came to the United States in 1963 as a political exile from Cuba. Ironically given Lamas’ Saturday opponent, his father snuck into the United States with the help of the Brazilian embassy in Cuba.

“If it wasn’t for the country of Brazil I literally wouldn’t be here right now,” he said.

Yet it’s still his mission to knock off a national hero. No one will suggest that such a task is on par with fighting a dictatorial regime, but the lessons Lamas learned from his father have certainly stayed with him as a man facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

“My inner belief just comes from my upbringing,” he said. “My father growing up, he’s shorter than I am. He’s a small guy but he’s a man that will never ever back down from anybody, no matter how big, no matter how tough they say they are. The things he went through in Cuba, this is a guy who had guns pointed at him, and he told the guys to go shove that gun somewhere. I think that’s where I get it from, definitely. I look at Jose Aldo as just another opponent, just another man, and I’m not going to be intimidated by the hype and I’m not going to be intimidated by his name.”

After seeing his father’s stuggles as a Cuban exile, Ricardo Lamas isn’t too worried about a simple fist fight.

Lamas’ personal journey into martial arts started when he was about 11 or 12, when his brother brought home a UFC tape. He fell in love with it, soon afterward started taekwondo, and moved on to wrestling in high school. Upon graduating from Elmhurst College in Illinois, where he also wrestled winning over 100 matches, Lamas realized he still had the drive to compete. At the time, he was working at a health club where a fellow trainer had a background in some of the striking arts. Lamas began training with him, and after a week, the trainer put him in a boxing fight. Lamas lost but he was hooked on learning more.

After a strong start to his career, Lamas didn’t begin earning any international recognition until defeating the highly regarded Hatsu Hioki in June 2012. When he followed it up with an even more dominant, TKO victory over Erik Koch six months later, it signaled he could be ready for the elite.

The last year has been spent waiting for fights that never materialized, and the absence did him no favors in raising his profile, though the bilingual fighter has continually done work with Spanish-speaking media.

I’m one of those guys who sneaks up on you and by the time you notice me, it’s too late.

Even his camps are low-key. He splits time with Team Top Notch in Villa Park, Illinois and MMA Masters in Miami, two training centers that combined have not produced nearly as much elite talent as Aldo’s Nova Uniao club.

It’s almost as if Lamas prefers this underdog role. After all, he describes his heart and tenacity as the two things Aldo is probably most wary of, and suggests that any slowdown by the champion will speed him up. That said, he knows what he’s up against. He’s watched Aldo from up close since their days together in the WEC. He calls him, “amazing” and “great,” but yet he feels emboldened both by his own background and training, and the winds of change that seem to be blowing through the UFC’s championship landscape.

Anderson Silva has fallen and Georges St-Pierre has walked away, and so now Aldo is the next long-term titleholder tasked with stopping change. Lamas might not be one of those rare challengers that is favored to win, but try telling him that. To him, he is like his father, a man with a plan, standing up to a seemingly impossible task. Whether you choose to believe in his one-man revolution or not is your business. He’ll just do what comes naturally. And this is it. Fighting. It had to be, because remember his father? Once upon a time, when Ricardo decided he wanted to pursue MMA, his dad Jose stood in opposition of the decision. But Ricardo was raised to stand up for what he believed in, so he won the argument against a man who once stood up to armed enemies. And on Saturday night, Jose will be in the Prudential Center as Ricardo attempts to make history of his own.

“I’m one of those guys, I’m quiet, I don’t talk a lot of trash,” Ricardo said. “I have respect for you as long as you have respect for me. And I haven’t been booked against any fighters who have been disrespectful towards me, so I’ve stayed myself and I’ve stayed relatively calm and quiet. I’m one of those guys who sneaks up on you and by the time you notice me, it’s too late.”