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Half Way Home: Why Ricardo Lamas is a fighter in exile

When Ricardo Lamas went to Monterrey in November, he did far more than secure a convincing victory over a tough veteran. While there, the 5th ranked UFC featherweight took time to discover half of what made him the man he is today.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Mendes vs Lamas Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Monterrey was home to Ricardo Lamas' mother. There, in a gritty industrial town that cares more about function than flash, Lamas was able to outwork Diego Sanchez on route to a memorable win at UFC Fight Night 78.

During this trip Ricardo Lamas earned much more than a signature win. In northeastern Mexico, 'The Bully' was also able to access a new understanding of not only what it meant to be Mexican, but what it meant to be from Monterrey. He had teased at these feelings on previous excursions to Mexico, including when he matched-up with Dennis Bermudez in Mexico City (in a fight he won via submission) and the press junkets that accompanied the UFC's push into Latin America. But Monterrey was different.

In the shadows of the Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain), along cobbled streets that filled with the smell of Cabritos (whole roasted goats), Lamas was able to share his time with cousins and other relatives, who he had connected with during his earlier adventures south. Being in Monterrey delighted Lamas and a part of his spirit swelled with a newfound feeling of belonging. Despite the happiness and profundity he felt being in his mother's hometown for the first time in his life, Lamas couldn’t escape feeling a 'void' within himself.

Cerro de la Silla dominates the skyline of Monterrey, Mexico.
Nathaniel C. Sheetz

Like many people, the two halves that make Lamas whole are from vastly different places. In his case, the two places are separated by the sea. However, the miles of water are nothing compared to what truly keeps Lamas from ever setting foot in the former land of his father.

In 1963, Cuba was suffering from the aftershocks of the bloody revolution that had began a decade prior, and ended in 1959. By '63, Castro had fully committed himself to the role of a Marxist-Leninist leader. Castro's ideology was somewhat unclear during the actual insurrection he had led against then-dictator Fulgencio Batista. By this time Castro had also nationalized the educational system, hospitals, industrial facilities, and private land. Cubans in the early sixties who were affiliated with the old regime, as well as those who weren't keen on the new one, were hunted. Amnesty International is on record stating that 200 political executions were carried out in the first decades of post-revolution Cuba. Some historians have the total number of executions reaching into the tens of thousands. The revolution itself cost approximately 5,000 combat deaths. Those who did not want to live or die under Castro went to the boats, or anything else that would float. In total 1.2 million people left the island. In 1963, Jose Lamas - Ricardo's father - was one of them.

Jose Lamas left his home at age twenty-three, leaving his parents behind. He had fought alongside Castro's forces in La Revolución, but had soured on the dictator once his communist agenda was fully revealed. Jose Lamas went so far as to actively participate in countermeasures against the Castro regime until it became simply too dangerous to stay in Cuba.

US Restores Diplomatic Relations With Cuba
File photo - The leader's of Cuba's revolution watch over the streets of Havana.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"That was the last time he saw his father," said Lamas of the time his dad left Cuba. "His mother came to the US for a little bit, but passed away shortly after, his father passed away in Cuba and my dad couldn't even return for his own father's funeral."

"There's a void deep inside me for not knowing that side," continued Lamas - solemnly. "Going there and seeing the place where my father grew up, and my grandfather's grave, it's something that I definitely want to do in this lifetime, and it will be a shame if I can't do it, but I think going back at a time like this would be even worse than never returning at all."

Cuba, at this time, is undergoing a new kind of revolution. The Caribbean nation has, in the past twenty four months, experienced relationships thawing between itself and the United States. This is something which was unimaginable just a generation ago. The 'Thaw' has seen President Barack Obama become the first US President to visit Cuba since 1928. There he shook hands, and engaged in dialogue with Cuban leader Raul Castro. Castro's frail brother Fidel ceded power to Raul in 2008. In 2014, the Obama Administration worked with the Castro regime to relax travel restrictions between the countries. In 2015 Cuba was removed from the United States' State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Just last month embassies were established in both nations. The Thaw has been welcomed by the international community, who had long called the US's embargo against the island nation needlessly harsh. Public opinion in the United States has also been largely positive. A 2016 poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 63% of Americans approved of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

President Obama Attends Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Cuban National Team Baseball Game In Havana
March 22nd, 2016 - President Obama Attends Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Cuban National Team Baseball Game In Havana
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

However, the predicted path of reconciliation between the US and Cuba has been met with derision from America's robust Cuban-exile community. Lamas is one of the many Cuban-Americans who feels hurt by the recent developments.

"From someone from the outside looking in, they could be thinking, 'oh this is a great thing for the US and Cuba to be improving their economic relationships,'" said Lamas. "But to people like my father who lived through the revolution, who saw friends killed by the Castro regime, for all the mothers of the thousands of Cubans that they sent to the firing squad, this is a terrible thing."

"Our President is shaking hands with the devil, you know?" said Lamas, his voice fueled with emotion. "These people are mass murderers and I think if the US wants to help Cuba out in any way, shape, or form, there first of all needs to be a political change before any other change can occur.

"This economic change really does nothing but put money in the pockets of people who are already in charge and that's only going to help them stay in power."

Lamas too feels incensed at the public opinion towards Cuba and what he considers a shortsighted and selfish attitude. "It does bother me a little bit to see all these people on social media and stuff, talking about how they're going to go take a vacation in Cuba. It's like, hey, listen, you're putting your money directly into the pockets of these criminals, and I don't think it's something that should be done.

"It's a slap in the face to all the Cuban exiles who were forced to leave their land, and their homes, and aren't allowed back, and it's something that I would never partake in. The first time I step foot on Cuban soil, I want it to be a free democratic country."

Lamas' yearning for his family's exile to end is ever-present. Even in Monterrey, when surrounded by all things that represented his mother, her family, and that side of himself, Lamas' mind wondered across the Gulf.

"It definitely was in my head," confessed Lamas as he remembered his time in Monterrey. Another identity that defines Lamas is that of an athlete. The land of his father has managed to influence this side of Lamas also. "Fighting in Mexico has been on my list of things to do when I started this career," said Lamas. "Fighting in Cuba would be another great thing to do, but unfortunately I don't see it happening in my athletic career. I don't think things can change that fast. But, you know, in going and visiting Monterrey, and seeing where my mother was born and meeting family there, it definitely made me feel about the other side, hopefully one day, I'll get to fufill that other goal that I have."

MMA: UFC Fight Night 43-Lamas vs Dias
June 28th, 2014 - Ricardo Lamas wrestles Hacran Dias to the ground at UFC Fight Night 44.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Lamas has his future goals on hold right now, in favor of focusing on the challenge that awaits him at this Saturday's UFC 199. Lamas believes there is a number-one contender spot up for grabs this weekend (assuming champion Conor McGregor is done with 145lbs). Standing between Lamas and another shot at UFC gold is Max Holloway.

Lamas asked the UFC for the Hawaiian, but has no doubts over the skills that 'Blessed' possesses. Lamas identifies Holloway's elusiveness as his greatest strength. "He hits you, he moves - he's constantly in motion throughout the fight, so that makes it very hard to find him and kinda hard to implement your game plan." However, Lamas does feel that movement may prohibit the 4th-ranked Holloway from generating power in his strikes. Lamas also believes that his own grappling and wrestling will be good enough to stifle Holloway - who is currently on an eight-fight win-streak.

If you think Holloway's streak (and -300 betting odds) would damage Lamas' confidence, you'd be wrong.

"You know, the win streaks, and everything like that, it doesn't really bother me," said Lamas. "Pretty much my entire career in the UFC, I've gone into every fight as the underdog and it doesn't bother me, I love to play the spoiler. I did it against Cub Swanson, when he first came in the UFC, people thought he was going to blow past me, I did it against Hatsu Hioki, the new Japanese sensation that was in the UFC, who was on the cusp of a title shot, I did it with Erik Koch, a young Anthony Pettis protege who had a fight scheduled with Jose Aldo, and I did it with Dennis Bermudez, who was on a seven-fight win streak, the second-longest in the division next to Holloway. I love to play the spoiler, I play it well and I'm looking to do it again in this fight."

You can see this Saturday, at UFC 199, if Lamas can upset the odds once again and derail Max Holloway on route to a potential UFC featherweight title shot. As to whether we'll see Lamas gets his wish to fight in what he calls a 'free' Cuba... regrettably, those odds don't look very good at all.

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