DALLAS -- The cruel thing about the bright lights? No one ever knows how they'll react until they're hurled underneath them. For some, like UFC 185 co-headliner Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the leap from anonymity to stardom is a seamless one, a long-awaited validation that, for however fleeting it may be, can be embraced with a smile and a wink. Not all athletes are so lucky, though.
Chris Cariaso learned the hard way how difficult that transition can be. Last September, Cariaso was effectively gifted a UFC title shot as a means to bolster a fading card with another championship fight. Cariaso accepted the opportunity, because he'd be a fool to do otherwise, and for his decision he became the target of internet derision for months.
The nightmare crested into a week-long exercise of mental resilience in Las Vegas, during which Cariaso was informed in roughly three-thousand different ways of how silly he was to be headlining a star-studded UFC 178 pay-per-view, how little of a chance he stood against flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, and how quickly he'd plummet back to the undercard once he inevitably lost.
For someone who wanted nothing more than to avoid the spotlight, the anxiety became a living hell, and Cariaso cracked.
"Honestly, it took the fun out of [the sport]," Cariaso admitted to MMAFighting.com. "I usually go out there and I enjoy all of these moments. But it was kind of, at the same time there was so much pressure and I was putting so much pressure on myself.
"I was doing good all the way mentally, because obviously I had a tough task in front of me, and the people who really truly believe in me, I had them around me, so that was the main thing. I had all my people around me and I was doing good. But it was actually five minutes before the fight. We had the fight going on in the background, and I remember hearing Joe Rogan say on the telecast, ‘Oh, he's going to have to fight the fight of his life,' or whatever. I remember that triggered the negative response in my head."
All at once, there in the backroom of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the dam broke for Cariaso. Whatever negativity had swirled around him for months finally fractured through the cracks and drowned him, just minutes before the moment that was supposed to change his life.
At it's absolute worst, anxiety can be crippling. And in that moment, Cariaso was all but paralyzed.
"[I remember thinking,] ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? What am I doing here?'" Cariaso admitted. "(Like a) panic attack. Like, ‘F**k this, I want to retire.' Like five minutes before my fight. It was ridiculous.
"It totally took a couple of months (to get over it). There was even an opportunity where my wife was like, ‘You know, there's an opportunity where someone is going to drop out. You should really stay in shape and stay training. You're not hurt. You should do it.' Just mentally I wasn't prepared to do it. I was depressed. Obviously one of the biggest moments of my life was ahead of me, and I dropped the ball. It wasn't me fighting out there."
Cariaso admits that ahead of his upcoming fight against Henry Cejudo on Saturday night at UFC 185, he's made a conscious effort to maintain a low profile and stick to what he does best, "and that's getting out in that Octagon and fighting." He says he's grown from the experience, and in a strange way, he's taking pleasure in seeing things from the other side.
That's because Cejudo, a man many consider to be the next great flyweight contender, is now the one in the spotlight. The Olympian has already been cemented as the heavy favorite according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, despite the fact that Cariaso remains a top-10 fighter, and despite the fact that Cejudo has never once fought at 125 pounds.
Suddenly Cariaso is the forgotten man. But for now, that suits him just fine.
"We've totally switched roles," Cariaso said. "I don't know, for some reason it seems like I'm always the underdog, which is fine. But we've switched roles. Now he's doing all this crazy media stuff and I get to sit back and laugh and watch. Go ahead and do it.
"When I get back there again, I'll have a new respect for it. I'll never have an experience like that again, just because now I'll be more prepared for it and now I'll know how to deal with it."