by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
At one time the outlook for the lighter weight classes was decidedly bad. The UFC had all but eliminated the 155-pound division, and the weight classes below that were relegated to smaller shows in the US or Japan.

Then with the rise in popularity of MMA in the States, things began to look up. The UFC reinstituted their lightweight division, and the 145 and 135-pound weight classes also began to see more exposure on bigger shows, thanks to an increased number of promotions willing to carry the division and the outbreak of class fighters at each weight.

From the WEC to Strikeforce, lighter fighters were beginning to show that they could not only perform well on a card, but also become the focal point, thanks to high-tempo fights featuring very entertaining athletes.

It’s this new era in lighter weight classes that sets the backdrop for this Friday’s Strikeforce MMA showdown at 135-pounds between rivals Anthony Figueroa, of Cung Le’s San Shou gym, and San Francisco Muay Thai standout Chris Cariaso.

“I’ve just been training, getting ready for the next event at Cung Le’s Martial Arts with the USH Fight Team,” said Anthony of his activities since his last Strikeforce appearance this past December. “I’ve been hitting the weights, putting on a little size, so I match up better with the guys at 135-pounds.”

With prospects better at 135-pounds, the normally 125-pound Figueroa realized after his last fight against David Barrios in December that it would be a good idea to add more bulk if he plans to hang with the fighters in the ever-growing weight class.

“I definitely knew I needed to gain some weight, add some strength, and get my size up to make it more equal for myself,” explained Anthony. “I am a little stronger now, because I’ve put on extra pounds of muscle, gaining weight the right way, and it’s working out.”

As Figueroa points out, he could see the lighter weight classes on the rise and knew now was the time to make an attempt to stake his claim in the 135-pound division.

“I’ve been seeing that [growth], actually,” commented Anthony. “The WEC has the 135 weight class, and I’ve been noticing it, and I think it’s awesome. I could probably stay at the 135 until it really trickles down to the 125’s around here. So, hopefully I’ll make my mark at 135.”

Figueroa continued, “Strikeforce is using the 135’s and that’s really helping out myself, and Chris Cariaso, who I’m fighting, so, that’s awesome. It’s our turn to go out there and show that we can put on show just like the bigger guys.”

At Friday’s event in San Jose, Anthony will be involved in a fight that’s not only important to the future of Strikeforce’s 135-pound weight class, but it’s also something of a regional grudge match with some personal revenge at stake.

“Chris [Cariaso] is from San Francisco, his gym’s Muay Thai fighters, and we’re a San Shou gym from San Jose,” said Figueroa. “He just defeated one of my teammates, Andrew [Valladerez], and a while ago he defeated one of our other teammates, so it’s really a big match-up for us.

“I’m hoping to go in there and bring it back home, back to our team, and show him that it’s about the USH fight team around here.”

As Figueroa pointed out, there’s a lot of familiarity between he and Cariaso, making the strategy for the fight very easy to map out.

“He’s an amateur Muay Thai Champion, so he’s a stand-up fighter, but I’m sure he’s working on his ground game and his MMA,” commented Anthony. “I think we both started our MMA careers, our ground game at the same time, but I see this fight being a stand-up fight, but if it goes to the ground, I’m not even going to worry.”

Figueroa further commented, “I think it’s going to be an exciting fight, whether it’s on the ground or standing up – I’m just really looking forward to it.”

Another reason for Anthony’s excitement is the fact that for the first time in his MMA career, people on a national stage will be able to see him fight, as the undercard will be broadcast live, for free, on ProElite.com.

“I like how they’re doing it, showing the undercard on the Internet, so at least it’s available to be seen,” exclaimed Figueroa. “Other shows don’t really make it [the undercard] available to see unless you’re there [at the event], so I think it’s great that they’re doing it here.

“Also, I’ve got a lot of support from around here that’s coming to watch me, so it’s exciting and it’s going to be great.”

Should all go well at Strikeforce on Friday, Figueroa is looking continue to grow as a fighter and ride the wave of popularity the lower weight classes are currently experiencing.

“I’m not going to look past Chris, but I’m going to keep training, improving myself and keep upgrading my game,” said Anthony. “Whether it’s on the ground or in the stand-up, I’m just going to keep becoming a more well-rounded fighter.”

Figueroa continued, “I’ve got a lot to learn, and whatever comes, whatever my coaches and managers have for me, I want to be ready. So hopefully I’ll make the next Strikeforce or big event.”

So, with fans picking up on lighter fighters as a source for entertaining, explosive match-ups, promotions like Strikeforce will continue to feature fighters like Anthony Figueroa and Chris Cariaso, creating a win-win situation for everyone.

“I’d like to thank my coaches, Coach Allen, Coach Cung Le, and the USH Fight Team – they’re my brothers and a big part of my training,” said Anthony. “I’d like to thank my sponsors: Toe2Toe, Throwdown, Knoxx; and MMAWeekly for the interview.”

“I’d like to thank all the fans, and if you can’t make it to the fight, go to ProElite.com, register, log on and see me, my teammate Sam Spengler, and the first six fights on the fight card for free. It’s going to be an exciting fight, and if it goes all three rounds, it’s going to be three rounds of battle – I’m going to go out there and fight to win,” concluded Figueroa.