It’s easy to sympathize with highly ranked featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas. In his two most recent fights, he handily defeated two of the division’s better fighters -- Hatsu Hioki and Erik Koch.
But on Monday, when the UFC announced who would be featherweight champion Jose Aldo’s next opponent, Lamas’ name wasn’t mentioned. That honor went to a man who’d never competed professionally in the weight class -- lightweight contender Anthony Pettis.
Aldo and Pettis, the former WEC lightweight titleholder, will fight Aug. 3. The only uncertainty is where the bout will take place -- venues in Texas, Chicago, Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro are being considered. If the fight lands in Chicago it will add salt to Lamas’ already painful wound, which isn’t expected to heal for quite a while. But that’s not an issue of concern to Lamas at this time. Right now, Lamas is struggling to make sense of UFC brass' decision to bypass him in favor of Pettis -- especially on the heels of his impressive second-round TKO victory Jan. 26 over former top featherweight contender Koch.
“I feel like I stand in that No. 1 contender spot now,” Lamas told ESPN.com. “Erik Koch is the second guy that I beat who was supposed to fight for the featherweight title; Hatsu Hioki was offered the fight and he turned it down.
“What do I need to do to get that shot?”
Lamas defeated Hioki by lopsided unanimous decision June 22 in Atlantic City, N.J. It was a fight casual fans expected Hioki to win. Hioki entered the UFC two fights previously amid high expectations. He was a mixed martial arts star before ever setting foot inside the Octagon and talk was starting to brew that a 145-pound title shot might be a few wins away.
Though he was not a newcomer to the Octagon, Lamas was relatively unknown to fight fans. Sure, he’d submitted Cub Swanson in November 2011, but that could be chalked up to the one-time WEC top 145-pound contender having an off night.
But Lamas raised many eyebrows in Atlantic City after running circles around Hioki. He took Hioki to the ground, literally at will, and landed several significant strikes while down there. After three rounds of fighting there was no question in any observer’s mind that Lamas had earned the victory. Lamas wasn’t a stranger anymore after that fight, but he wasn’t a must-see attraction, either.
Even his dominant win over Koch failed to accomplish that feat. And therein lies the problem for Lamas: He has proven himself to be a solid contender, arguably the No. 1 guy at 145 -- strong cases also can be made for Chad Mendes and Chan Sung Jung -- but the paying public is not yet clamoring to see him in the cage against Aldo.
That’s why Pettis was given the shot. He’s a must-see fighter. And while the UFC is the top mixed martial arts promotion in the world, it’s first and foremost a business.
Nothing personal against Lamas, but Aldo-Pettis is a bigger financial draw at this day and time.
“Everyone steps on everyone’s toes in this business,” Pettis’ trainer, Duke Roufus, told ESPN.com. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Erik Koch’s toes were stepped on when Frankie stepped in [to fight Aldo].
"Unfortunately in fighting, to take a page from Muhammad Ali: 'It’s not always the best guy; it’s the best guy who can sell a fight.'"
And right now Pettis can sell this fight, especially when visions of him competing against Aldo come to mind. These are two of the most athletic, acrobatic strikers in mixed martial arts.
Aldo is likely to be favored to retain his title, but a large fan contingent will back Pettis. This is a must-see fight, which is already being billed as the UFC’s next superfight. Meanwhile, Lamas will just have to wait a little while longer. He could start running his mouth and become a bad guy in an effort to land a title shot -- that seems to be working for several fighters these days. But that goes against everything Lamas stands for -- he’s not a loudmouth.
“I’ve been in UFC for some time; [the Koch bout] was my 10th fight with Zuffa,” Lamas said. “A lot of people don’t know who I am because I’ve been fighting on the undercards.
“I’ve been flying under the radar, and I’m the type of guy who doesn’t talk trash so that kind of holds me back a little bit. That’s just who I am.”
Lamas should not pretend to be someone he’s not. As recently retired featherweight contender Mark Hominick told ESPN.com, the Aldo-Pettis fight might be a blessing for Lamas.
“What people have to understand is this is not the fight game, it’s the fight business,” said Hominick, who is now a full-time trainer at Ontario, Canada-based Team Tompkins. “By having these guys with big names, it brings credibility to the [145-pound] division.
“People are now starting to understand who Jose Aldo is. By getting him fights against big-name fighters brings credibility to the division and people will understand the excitement and level of competition in the division.
“Beating Frankie Edgar, a former lightweight champion, brings credibility. And with another super fight against Pettis that will open the doors for the next guy in line to headline a pay-per-view card.”
All this might be difficult for Lamas to digest at this moment, but he’s a smart man. What he must do now is regroup and focus on winning his next fight.
Lamas said that his goal is to fight for the featherweight title and win it. If that is truly the case then a comment he made recently should be taken seriously.
“When I go out there I will continue to fight,” Lamas said. “If you want to beat me you will have to put me away. The longer the fight goes the more confidence I gain.
“I don’t give up; I’m stubborn as hell.
“And if I want to get something done, I’m going to get it done come hell or high water.”
Being stubborn in this sport is good; Lamas just needs to be patient as well.