‘If we pull this off, it will be a miracle’: Inside the 14 hours that saved UFC 279
- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
FOR MAJDI SHAMMAS, the early morning hours of Friday, Sept. 9 in Las Vegas were a manager’s worst nightmare.
At approximately 4 a.m. local time, Shammas knew his fighter, Khamzat Chimaev, would not make weight for a UFC 279 main event against Nate Diaz. Chimaev and his team had done all they could, but with about five pounds left to cut to the 171-pound limit, Chimaev’s body was seizing up. He was vomiting and cramping. Under the advice of physicians, the cut was called off.
Now, Shammas needed to tell the UFC. He needed to tell the biggest fight promotion in the world that its main event Sept. 10 couldn’t happen as it was currently drawn up. UFC 279 was a massive opportunity for Chimaev — a chance to beat one of the sport’s biggest stars in his first pay-per-view headliner. To miss weight ahead of a gift like this was nothing short of disaster.
Shammas’ phone call woke up UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell, who lives in Las Vegas. When chaos hits the UFC, Campbell is the one furiously operating behind the scenes. The UFC unmistakably follows the vision and lead of its president Dana White, but Campbell usually handles the act of seeing it through.
With the sun still yet to rise, Campbell and Shammas discussed Chimaev’s weight, the inevitable fallout that was to come and potential solutions that might keep the card together.
At that time, the top of the UFC 279 lineup consisted of a welterweight bout between Diaz and Chimaev, a welterweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Li Jingliang and a 180-pound catchweight bout between Kevin Holland and Daniel Rodriguez. It was immediately clear that all three fights might need to change, as one change would lead to another and another in a domino effect. And all of this was taking place just hours before all six fighters involved were scheduled to weigh-in at 9 a.m. PT.
“When we talked about pulling this off early that morning, it was just a fantasy,” Shammas told ESPN. “Hunter was like, ‘If we pull this off, it will be a miracle. An absolute miracle.'”
This is the story of those 14 hours in Las Vegas, based on information from multiple sources who were involved throughout the process of keeping the card alive.
CHIMAEV’S WEIGHT CUT began just after midnight Sept. 9, at New York New York Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. According to his longtime head coach Andreas Michael, Chimaev needed to cut around 15 pounds in the final 12 hours before the weigh-in, which is significant but not unheard of in professional MMA.
The Chechen-Swedish fighter ran in a sweat suit for about 90 minutes, then biked. The weight was coming off. After a couple hours, Chimaev was exhausted and within five to seven pounds of his target. Michael elected to stop cutting for the night and ordered Chimaev to bed. The team would wake up around 6 a.m. local time on Friday morning and finish the cut in a hot bath, as they have done before.
A few hours later, however, Michael woke up to some of his team members at his door. There was a problem.
“I always have friends observe the fighter all night during a cut, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Michael said. “They came to me in the middle of the night and said, ‘It’s not looking great.’ I went there and saw what was happening and gave it a little bit of time. But I was thinking to myself, ‘My God, I’m going to have to put him in a hot bath [like this]? This is dangerous.'”
Under the advice of physicians, Michael called off the cut. It wasn’t safe to ask Chimaev to continue. This prompted Shammas to make his call to inform the UFC.
A little later that morning, before the start of the official UFC 279 weigh-ins at 9 a.m. local time at the Apex, Diaz’s team was informed of Chimaev’s expected weight miss. It’s important to note that UFC 279 was the final fight of Diaz’s UFC contract, and he already wasn’t thrilled with the UFC’s selection of Chimaev as his final opponent. He viewed it as the company trying to build another fighter off his name, turning him into “a fall guy.”
“What they got me doing right now is acting like I called for this fight, which I didn’t call for and I don’t want and didn’t want and still don’t want,” Diaz told ESPN earlier that week.
Diaz’s representative Zach Rosenfield declined to provide detail on the events of Sept. 9, but did tell ESPN that when the UFC informed Diaz’s team of Chimaev’s situation, he was very specific about whether Diaz would still take the fight.
“We made it clear that we would fight Khamzat at the contracted weight of 171 pounds,” Rosenfield said. “We did our weight cut as professionals, as well as everything else we were supposed to do.”
Around 8 a.m. local time, one hour before the start of the weigh-in, the UFC reached out to Holland to inquire about his weight.
Holland immediately called his manager, Oren Hodak, to inform him of the call, which had caught him off-guard.
“I think I’m in trouble,” Holland told Hodak. “They’re asking about my weight.”
“Dude, you’re not in trouble,” Hodak responded. “If they’re asking about your weight, something is up. There are some pieces moving.”
When Holland arrived at the Apex to weigh-in, the UFC filled him in on the situation. Chimaev was going to miss weight and weigh about what Holland weighed, 179.5 pounds. The UFC proposed a change: How would Holland like to fight Chimaev, who he’d gotten into an altercation with the previous day during a press conference, instead of Rodriguez? Holland said he would, but they needed to call Hodak to iron out the details.
An hour later, Holland weighed in, looking noticeably annoyed on the scale. Shortly after that, he wrote on Twitter, “Professionals make weight.”
Around the same time Holland found out about the proposed change, still before the start of the weigh-in, Campbell met Ferguson’s representatives in person at the Apex. It was already obvious to Ferguson’s team that something was going on. Holland had just met with Campbell, and now they were being summoned. Campbell gave them a piece of paper with a new fight card for UFC 279. At the top was ‘Diaz vs. Ferguson.’ A five-round main event.
Ferguson arrived at the Apex himself not long after this meeting, ready to weigh in for his originally scheduled welterweight bout against Li. He drove himself to the Apex and on his way in, he noticed a beautiful Bentley sitting in the parking lot. Ferguson is something of a car guy — he appreciates a good ride when he sees one — and he admired the Bentley on his way in.
Inside the Apex, Campbell and Ferguson met face-to-face for the first time that morning. The 38-year-old former interim champion calmly told the UFC he liked the idea of saving the card and he liked the fight. In fact, he and his camp had even joked about this very possibility weeks ago — but he needed to speak to his wife before accepting. Ferguson said he consults his family on all decisions pertaining to his career.
After Ferguson weighed in, while everyone was still at the Apex, he went back to visit with Campbell. Some say he was half-joking, others say he was completely serious: He told Campbell he really needed to think about it more, and that he would probably do his best thinking behind the wheel of that expensive Bentley parked outside.
Campbell threw Ferguson the keys and said, “You take the car for as long as you want. I don’t give a s— about the car.” About 45 minutes later, Ferguson and the Bentley were back, and he agreed to move into the main event.
About 250 miles away in Los Angeles, Tim Simpson was at home recovering from major shoulder surgery. Simpson is one of the key agents at Paradigm Sport Management, whose clients include Li. Simpson wasn’t meant to be working because of his recovery, but he’d been monitoring Twitter all morning and he was anxious. Something was up with the main event. It had been reported that Chimaev was likely to miss weight.
Of course, Simpson’s first thought went immediately to Li. He understands the sport well. He knew Diaz would likely refuse to fight Chimaev at a catchweight, and that no one would blame him for turning that down. What that meant, though, was a new fight for Diaz — and Ferguson was the obvious backup. What did that mean for Li?
Simpson finally spoke to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby at 10:25 a.m. local time. Everything was still fluid at that time. Campbell, Shelby and matchmaker Mick Maynard were working hard, but nothing was set. They did inform him, however, that Li’s fight against Ferguson was likely getting blown up. They’d already offered Ferguson a new fight.
Simpson called Li to relay the news. The Chinese welterweight, who has fought in the UFC for more than eight years, immediately went into the bathroom by himself and refused to come out.
“People don’t understand how big of a star Tony is in China,” Simpson said. “Tony is a massive star there, so fighting him was a dream fight for ‘The Leech.’ This was like a title fight for him. He was super devastated.”
After a few moments, Li collected himself and he and his team started to discuss options. He could bail on the card and ask to be re-booked as soon as possible, or he could take a completely different fight against Rodriguez.
“It’s D-Rod, but it’s 10 pounds heavier,” Simpson told Li over the phone.
“No problem,” Li said. “I’ll fight him.”
“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Simpson said. “You did everything right. You don’t deserve this.”
“The only thing that matters is the moment of right now,” Li answered.
Simpson accepted the change on Li’s behalf at 1:05 p.m. local time. Rodriguez, who has a reputation for taking short notice fights, also agreed.
It was early afternoon, and the UFC was making progress — but it didn’t yet have final approval from Diaz, Chimaev or Holland. And without those three, there would be no card.
CAMPBELL’S VIEW HAD turned from the simple act of saving UFC 279 to a bigger picture around the UFC’s brand. He told other UFC staff this was an opportunity for the UFC to show its consumers that if you’re one of those fans who saved up money and invested it into travel and event tickets, you could count on there being an event.
That resolve led Campbell to consider everything. As a last, last resort, the UFC was in contact with former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier, who had been training for weeks in Louisiana and already let the company know: ‘If anything happens with Chimaev, give me Nate.’ It would have been a long shot option, with a lot to hash out with the Nevada State Athletic Commission — Poirier didn’t weigh-in during the allotted window — but Campbell was willing to pursue it if need be.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. At 2:30 p.m. local time, Diaz accepted a new main event opponent in Ferguson.
Meanwhile, Holland had still not come to terms on the Chimaev fight. After leaving the weigh-in, he called Hodak again and said he’d take the fight, but he wanted it to be five rounds. He felt five rounds were more in his favor than Chimaev’s, and since it was Chimaev who blew this whole thing up, why should he dictate the length of the fight? Holland was adamant there would be no fight if it wasn’t five rounds.
Holland’s insistence created a last-minute hurdle. Chimaev was eager to fight Holland, but his team didn’t love the idea of five rounds.
“Of course, after having the weight cut that we had, we wanted three rounds, which is logical,” Shammas said. “Normally, I would embrace five rounds, because I know how Khamzat’s conditioning is. He’s like a truck for five rounds. But due to the weight cut, I would have loved to make it three rounds — but we understood Kevin’s demands.”
As the UFC, Shammas and Hodak continued to negotiate terms of the new matchup, the fight had already started between Chimaev and Holland over direct messages on Instagram.
“Khamzat was running his mouth, claiming he missed weight on purpose just so that he could kick Kevin’s ass,” Hodak said. “Writing out a bunch of crying emojis.”
“Khamzat was basically telling Kevin, ‘Accept the fight. Accept the fight,'” Shammas said. “While Kevin was saying, ‘Oh, it won’t even be a fight, you just want to [wrestle].'”
At 3 p.m. PT, Dana White scheduled a live broadcast from both his and SportsCenter’s Instagram accounts. Speaking to ESPN’s Michael Eaves remotely — Eaves was already at the UFC’s scheduled ceremonial weigh-in at MGM Grand Garden Arena, while White was at the UFC’s headquarters — White announced the new card.
Diaz vs. Ferguson, five rounds. Chimaev vs. Holland, five rounds. Jingliang vs. Rodriguez, three rounds.
Even as White made his announcement, Campbell was still working on finalizing the event. Several of the fighters officially signed their new bout agreements during the ceremonial weigh-ins at 4 p.m. local time. Others didn’t get around to signing theirs until later that night or, in Chimaev’s case, the day of the fight. All parties declined to divulge details of negotiations, only that discussions encompassed everything from financials to rounds to potential future matchups.
As they say, the rest is history. Rodriguez beat Li by controversial split decision. Chimaev dominated Holland in a first-round submission, and might have turned into the sport’s biggest heel because of how it went. His future at welterweight is unknown. Michael has already said his next bout will likely take place at middleweight. Diaz went on to submit Ferguson in the fourth-round of their main event, and will head into free agency off a memorable win.
In a twist, many observers felt the revamped card actually played out better than the original would have, which has led some to even pose conspiracy theories that the UFC planned the entire thing. Why else did Chimaev and Holland get into it at the press conference, one day before weigh-ins? How could he have missed weight by that much? Was it all staged?
“If you think that the crazy dudes we had this week could be orchestrated into something … you’re literally out of your mind,” White told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi after the event.
In reality, the way in which the card was constructed from the beginning allowed the UFC some flexibility. Usually, UFC PPVs follow a formula of at least one title fight at the top. In the last two years, only four PPV events have been headlined by non-title fights. Two of those were Conor McGregor taking on Poirier. One was a grudge match between Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington. The fourth was UFC 279.
Because it was a unique card, the UFC purposefully added Ferguson just a few weeks before. He was, as it turned out, the perfect backup. And the fact Holland vs. Rodriguez was a 180-pound catchweight, rather than a 170-pound welterweight fight as it normally would have been, allowed flexibility with Chimaev’s 178.5-pound miss.
This card had some built-in insurance, but considering everything that happened in that 12-hour span, no one would probably say Shammas’ initial take was incorrect. It was something of a fantasy, before it became a reality.
“At the end of the day, everybody has a team, it’s not just about what the managers want,” Shammas said. “For the last two months, we’ve only had southpaws in the gym facing Khamzat in preparation for Nate. Now, all of a sudden he has to go to Kevin Holland, who is tall and different in every way. Same for Kevin, he had a striker, now he has a wrestler. If just one of those coaches say, ‘Hell no, my guy isn’t taking that fight,’ it all falls apart.
“What the UFC and fighters were able to pull off, it’s crazy.”
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