On Sunday, the main event of UFC Vegas 14 suffered a catastrophic blow when Islam Makhachev was forced out of his planned bout with Rafael dos Anjos. But after scrambling to find a replacement fighter on five days’ notice, the UFC came through with flying colors, replacing the twelfth-ranked Makhachev with the seventh-ranked lightweight contender, Paul Felder.
Felder was set to be the color commentator for this weekend’s event, and speaking with ESPN, “The Irish Dragon” explained what made him choose to leave the commentary booth to step into the cage on just a few days’ notice.
“I thought about it and I decided with everything going on in the world and all the sad things going on in people’s lives and losing their jobs and suffering and we just lost Alex freaking Trebek to pancreatic cancer, I was like, ‘Man, you know you’re still 36. You’re young. You’re in shape. Save the date. Let’s go get paid. Let’s have fun. You’re fighting a legend,’” Felder said. “What do I have to lose?”
Well, for one thing, weight. Felder is a large lightweight and despite the short-notice nature of the bout, has agreed to make the 155-pound weight limit on Friday. That’s not a lot of time for what normally is a difficult process, but Felder says that the only reason he was even in a position to accept this fight is because he’s currently close to fighting shape, a byproduct of triathlon training.
“I’m much leaner and lighter than I ever would normally be taking a fight on short notice,” Felder said. “Normally this wouldn’t even be in the cards to even think about because I’d be 195, 198. I’m nowhere near that. I’m well under 80. I’m in the 70s. So, I’ll give you that. I’m in the 70s. With some time and water-loading and dehydration, I’ll be fine.”
The question remains though, why not just have the fight at a catchweight? Though dos Anjos won his UFC title in the lightweight division, he has fought at 170 pounds for the past three years. Given the short-notice nature of the bout, it would seemingly make sense to have it contested at 170 instead. However, Felder says that fighting at lightweight was a requirement for accepting the fight.
“I think he really wants to be fighting the top guys at 155 to make his comeback and give himself a chance,” Felder said. “That was one of the stipulations. Obviously, we talked about catchweights, but I know with main events, if possible, they like to keep it at the weight class. That was one of the things, ‘Do you think you can make it?’ It’s not going to be fun, but I’m going to make it.”
There is likely truth in Felder’s supposition. RDA is dropping back down to the lightweight division after losing four of his last five at welterweight, and is hoping to make an immediate splash. Now, he’ll get an even better chance as he’s facing a top-10 opponent right out of the gate, in a five-round fight that he has been training for, while his opponent has not. But dos Anjos is not the only one with opportunity ahead of him. Felder says he views this as a no-lose situation for himself.
“I like five-round fights,” Felder said. “If you’re going to do a main event, I want to do it right. That’s what he’s been scheduled to do. So yeah, five rounds. I’m excited to do another five rounds, especially with somebody like RDA. This is an experiment. We’re going to see. My brain is fresh, my body is fresh. I’m not taking beatings in sparring like I normally do, but I’m still staying technically sharp and staying very fit, so we’ll see.
“I know I’m nearing the end of my career soon. This, I think, it’s win-win for me because if I go in there and I can finish and beat RDA, a former champ, then it gives me a lot of selling points to be getting these bigger fights which seem to have been eluding me at the top five of the lightweight division here in the UFC. How do you not give me something big after this if I go in there after stepping up? And, if it doesn’t go my way, then I saved the day. I’m going in there to try to win, so we’ll see.”