Title shots in the UFC can be tricky business, and Chris Cariaso is determined to make the most of his opportunity to get his hands on championship gold.
On Tuesday, the UFC announced the long-time bantamweight veteran turned surging flyweight would be the next opponent to face Demetrious Johnson at UFC 177 on Aug. 30. The call to compete for the flyweight strap came as a surprise to the 33-year-old Californian—and news of the bout sent a shockwave through the MMA community—but the door to the championship realm is one Cariaso had been working his entire career to open.
John Dodson was largely figured to be the next fighter in line, but a knee injury and corrective surgery put "The Magician" on the shelf for an extensive stretch. This turn opened up traffic in the 125-pound ranks, and the organization determined Cariaso to be ready to face the pound-for-pound ranked champion.
While he's certainly aware of the twists and turns it took for the lane to the title shot to open up, Cariaso is a veteran of the sport and has a strong understanding of how the right opportunity can change the tide of a career. Cariaso acknowledges that fight fans are going to have their opinions, but the biggest opportunity of his career is the only thing he's focused on.
"I couldn't sit down when the UFC told me the news," Cariaso told Bleacher Report. "I was ecstatic. I was kind of freaked out because I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or not. I've been trying to get any big fight I could and would fight anyone the UFC wanted to put in front of me. I've been fighting whoever I could to get a shot at that title, and when the call came through to fight Demetrious Johnson it was unbelievable because here is my opportunity.
"None of the other stuff bothers me. I feel like I've paid my dues to get to this point. I've never backed down from a fight and I've always wanted to fight the best opponents possible. I put myself in position to get this opportunity and it came my way. The UFC knows what they are doing when it comes to putting fights together. I don't let what other people say bother me. I don't let what keyboard warriors say bother me. I just go out there and keep working hard. I'm not worried about anything else."
The San Jose native has been grinding in the professional realm for the better part of a decade, with the majority of his bouts coming at 135 pounds. Yet, "Kamikaze" believed flyweight waters would better suit his fighting style, and Cariaso made his divisional debut in July of 2012. Over this stretch, the 33-year-old has found victory in four of his six showings at 125 pounds, including his current run of three-consecutive wins inside the Octagon.
That string of victories served to build solid momentum for the former WEC fighter and ultimately landed the scrappy flyweight in a position to capitalize on a dream opportunity. Fighting for a UFC title is a moment Cariaso has envisioned throughout his entire career, and he's determined to make the most of it when he steps in against "Mighty Mouse" in Sacramento.
"This fight is going to be the pinnacle of my career," Cariaso said. "Every day when I'm training and running I always tell myself that I'm training to be the best. The chance to finally make that happen is a dream come true. Part of me still thinks this is a dream and questions if it is really happening. I have to pinch myself to convince myself this is all real. This is the best thing that has ever happened in my career and it's awesome."
Much like Cariaso, the flyweight champion traded in his bantamweight card for a successful run in the 125-pound ranks. Since winning the inaugural divisional title back in 2012, Johnson has successfully defended the strap on four consecutive occasions. In addition to a dominant run atop the flyweight division, the Matt Hume-trained fighter has also registered on the pound-for-pound rankings, as he's continued to show marked improvements with every performance.
With both fighters coming to the UFC from the WEC roster, Cariaso is familiar with the skills Johnson possesses. That said, he knows what will be coming his way at UFC 177 and believes it will be an interesting clash of styles to determine the 125-pound title.
"One thing you have to be prepared for with Johnson is his pace," Cariaso said. "He comes out fast and keeps it up for 25 minutes. I've seen a lot of his fights over the years because we were on a lot of the same cards fighting at 135 in the WEC. We've seen each other around the scene a lot over the years. My biggest thing in this fight is being able to keep up with his pace, and I think that is why a lot of people have such a hard time hanging with him.
"Just getting the call was an honor, and being able to go out there and fight for that belt is the biggest statement you can ever make. I'll be able to showcase a lot of different aspects of my game with Demetrious. I have a lot of weapons, and Demetrious is a well-rounded guy who is going to bring it. I think it's going to be an awesome fight stylistically. I believe this is going to be a great situation for me to go out there and showcase my skills."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.