Inside the last-minute making of Paul Felder vs. Rafael dos Anjos
Paul Felder was home with his family on Sunday night in Philadelphia. It was around 7:30 p.m., and while scrolling through social media, Felder saw a report that Islam Makhachev was out of his UFC Fight Night main event with Rafael dos Anjos, a bout scheduled for the following weekend.
That was a fight Felder was already thinking about, as he was set to be the color commentator for the broadcast and would be flying to Las Vegas later in the week. But after seeing the news, Felder felt a tugging sensation in his gut. He texted his manager, Brian Butler of SuckerPunch Entertainment, about the possibility of him stepping in to fight dos Anjos on short notice. It was mostly in jest, Felder said.
The two agreed that it was an unlikely scenario. If the UFC called to offer the fight, they would consider it. But when Felder went to bed Sunday night, he had no intention of fighting on Nov. 14.
“I was like, no way in hell,” Felder told ESPN. “If they need me, they’ll reach out. They haven’t been reaching out, they haven’t offered any fights. I was kind of just being a sourpuss about it.”
Well, things move very quickly in the fluid world of the UFC, a sports organization with no offseason that holds events just about every week of the year. Sure enough, less than 48 hours after that text conversation with Butler, Felder was on a plane to Vegas. He would indeed be the opponent for dos Anjos.
What changed for Felder? What spurred him to step into a cage with one of the most dangerous men in the division with no preparation? There were several factors, including his already being in shape due to training for a triathlon and a bump in pay from the UFC.
But more than anything, Felder, who had been contemplating retirement since his loss to Dan Hooker in February, realized this kind of opportunity — a flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants decision to save a card on five days’ notice — was exactly the kind of thing that he needed at this stage in his career. This decision is what makes Felder who he is — one of the most exciting and respected fighters in the lightweight division.
“At the end of the day, we’re not gonna really give a s— about, ‘Oh, his record was 17-5 or 20-6,'” Felder said. “Who gives a s—? What did this person do? Were they brave enough to take the bold steps that other people aren’t able to do? When I look back, even if RDA beats me on Saturday, I don’t give a s—. I just lost my last fight. You think I can’t get over a loss? I stepped in on five days’ notice to face a former champion. I’m gonna remember that for the rest of my life.”
Dos Anjos was despondent. He, too, found out that Makhachev was out on Sunday evening. He got the bad news on a call with his manager, Giovanni Biscardi.
Since he decided to move back down to lightweight from welterweight six months ago, everything was being set up for this moment. Dos Anjos had been keeping a strict diet and staying disciplined in his training for the impending weight cut. The fight with Makhachev had already been postponed from UFC 254 on Oct. 24 when dos Anjos tested positive for COVID-19 while training in his native Brazil.
That wasn’t all. Dos Anjos’ entire family got the coronavirus, including his kids and his mother. Cristiane, his wife, ended up in the hospital. Dos Anjos himself, Biscardi said, had “tough symptoms.” All of them are healthy now, but the idea that the fight — the reason he has trained so hard and potentially put his family at risk for — would not happen was devastating.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe it,'” dos Anjos said. “I’ve been putting in tons of work for months. … I just want to fight so bad. I was pretty sad. I want to get back to work.”
As of Monday morning, dos Anjos wasn’t sure if he would fight Saturday. There was some social media buzz that perhaps new signee Michael Chandler, the former Bellator three-time lightweight champion, would be the opponent. But Chandler told MMA Junkie that he and the UFC had “other plans” for him. Dos Anjos, not one to talk trash, sent off a fiery tweet at 12:44 p.m. ET.
“If you don’t take a fight because you don’t have enough time to drop weight I get it but don’t tell me you have other plans,” dos Anjos wrote. “I became the champion of the BIGGEST organization fighting everyone they put in front of me. Shame on you.”
Behind the scenes, Biscardi was in a dialogue with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. Biscardi asked about Chandler, as well as another top lightweight name: Tony Ferguson.
“He’s got a mindset that I could see him taking a short-notice fight,” Biscardi said.
Neither Chandler nor Ferguson seemed to be in the cards. Time was ticking. Dos Anjos’ team, including coach Andre Pederneiras, was set to fly from Brazil to Las Vegas on Monday at 6 p.m. If there was no fight by then, Biscardi told Shelby, then it didn’t make sense for the team to make that long journey.
Around 2 p.m., Butler got the text from Shelby he wasn’t sure he’d receive. The UFC reached out and was offering the dos Anjos fight to Felder. Butler immediately called Felder on FaceTime. Felder was at the gym running on the treadmill but picked up anyway. He knew why Butler was calling.
Felder didn’t say yes right away. The first thought was how would he get his team together in just a few days. Could he get his chef and nutritionist, Ian Larios, to Las Vegas? Felder’s coach, Duke Roufus, was going to be in Connecticut cornering Emmanuel Sanchez on Thursday. Would Roufus be able to get a flight out after the Bellator event to corner Felder against dos Anjos?
Butler started getting together the logistics. Felder kept running. He told Butler he needed some more time to figure it out. How much he weighed would play a big factor, since he had to be at most 156 pounds in four days. Felder also wanted some extra compensation from the UFC for coming in on short notice against a dangerous opponent.
“It had to be worthwhile,” Butler said. “That was the other thing. Every fight at this point has to be worthwhile. I mean, Paul has lost a piece of his lung from a previous fight. He’s broken bones. That man has battle scars that he’s gotten and given for this company. It has to be worthwhile for him. He’s making a great living outside the cage right now, too. I don’t want him to put himself in harm’s way when he’s already making a fine living, unless he’s absolutely passionate and fired up to do it. Then we’ll do it. If he’s not, he’s gonna be fine.”
Felder went home, showered and weighed himself. He wouldn’t say exactly how much he weighed, but it was “well under” 180 pounds and somewhere in the 170s, he told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. That’s lighter than he normally would be going into fight week, because he has been swimming and running in preparation for a triathlon in March. Felder told Butler he was in to fight dos Anjos.
“Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be an easy path,” Butler said. “But because he’s been training so hard for this triathlon, he’s in really good shape.”
When Shelby got the word from Butler, he reached out to Biscardi and offered Felder as an opponent. That was at around 4:30 p.m. Biscardi said yes right away. Shelby asked if the manager should maybe ask dos Anjos first. Biscardi said he wasn’t worried about that.
“The problem here is Rafael is a fighter,” Biscardi said. “My job is to hold him. If the UFC said, ‘Islam can’t fight, we have [heavyweight champion] Stipe Miocic for you,’ he would do that.”
Felder was a name dos Anjos had been interested in since deciding to move back down to lightweight, Biscardi said, and the team was “very, very happy” with the new booking.
For dos Anjos, the matchup is dramatically different from what he was expecting. Felder is a right-handed fighter and a striker; Makhachev is a southpaw wrestler and grappler. This wasn’t what dos Anjos had prepared for, but he was ready to fight no matter the opponent and was not going to risk the entire card getting canceled because he turned someone down.
“I said yes right away, because I was told they probably will have to cancel the whole show if I don’t take any fight,” dos Anjos said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, because we have like  fighters that are waiting for their paydays. I can’t be that selfish.”
The outcome, dos Anjos said, ended up being a “blessing.” Felder is higher ranked than Makhachev, and a win over him would get dos Anjos closer to his ultimate goal: regaining the UFC lightweight title he held in 2015 and 2016.
“I have a mission,” dos Anjos said. “I want to become champion again. I think God makes things [happen] at the perfect time.”
Felder, meanwhile, had been looking for something to get him excited. He texted Butler recently when Robbie Lawler pulled out of a scheduled bout with Mike Perry at UFC 255 later this month, but ultimately both decided a rematch with Perry didn’t make sense. This time, there will be no eight-week training camp away from his family with Roufus in Milwaukee or an exceptionally hard weight cut.
“Paul wants fights that will excite the fans,” Butler said. “Under normal circumstances, I’m not sure this fight would be as exciting as it is because of the way it played out. I think if we were going to be booking Paul for a fight camp against RDA, I think obviously it would be a big fight and a lot of fans would like to see it. But the fact that Paul is stepping up to fight RDA on five days’ [notice] adds a whole other level of excitement to it.”
Felder has carved out his own UFC niche. He has had a hard time cracking the top five at lightweight and earning a title shot. But he took to color commentary very quickly, perhaps because of his acting background. Felder has a degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was once an acclaimed local stage actor. In July, Felder left the commentary table in the middle of an event to corner his longtime friend Jared Gordon, whose whole team could not make the trip to Fight Island due to coronavirus-related issues. On Saturday, Felder will add headlining a card he was supposed to commentate on as another moment in an unpredictable, unique career.
“Something lit a fire under my ass again and I had that itch again,” Felder said. “It’s what I had been waiting for. It’s why I haven’t been rushing back and taking any opponent or any fight, because it’s the kind of sport where you’ve gotta want to be there, you’ve gotta want to cut the weight, you’ve gotta want to get hurt and hurt somebody.”
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