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The old saying goes that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and earlier in 2020, Paul Felder felt like he may just about have run out of the latter.
“The Irish Dragon” had come up short against fellow lightweight stalwart Dan Hooker, dropping a razor-close split decision on his opponent’s home turf in Auckland, New Zealand, in what doubled as Felder’s first-ever main-event booking. Feeling every one of the 122 significant strikes that “The Hangman” landed over the 25-minute affair, a visibly emotional Felder went on the record as having potentially fought for the final time. “That might be it for me,” he said through tears. “Man, I got a 4-year-old at home that misses me every time I go away like this.”
Felder’s position on hanging them up was to waver in the succeeding months—particularly in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he, like much of the United States and the wider world, was on lockdown and starting to go stir-crazy. However, the issue of opportunity was one which continued to obstruct and obscure his fighting future. With incumbent 155-pound champion Khabib Nurmagomedov competing on average once a year and the Top 5 of the division being logjammed as a result, Felder simply wasn’t getting the offers that would move him any further up the ladder from the margins of title contention. It was a choice between risking his seventh-ranked position against a lower-ranked opponent for the sake of keeping busy or treading water until he got offered a big name, more-than-likely in a late-replacement scenario. With a regular slot as a commentator and analyst on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s fight night shows keeping him busy—and easing the financial pressure which may otherwise have been a factor—Felder seemed content to bide his time with the latter option, even registering for a triathlon to stay in shape.
Then Islam Makhachev withdrew from his headlining assignment opposite former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 182, and Felder’s manager got a phone call from the UFC offering him the spot on five days’ notice. According to the 36-year-old, he needed very little convincing before stepping up.
“I thought about it. I decided, with everything going on in the world—all the sad things going on in people’s lives, people losing their jobs, suffering—I [told myself], ‘Man, you’re still young. You’re 36. You’re in shape,’” Felder told ESPN. “‘Save the day. Let’s go get paid. Go have fun. You’re fighting a legend. What do I have to lose?’”
Though posed rhetorically, Felder’s question is one that deserves a sober answer. While much has been made of the fact that dos Anjos is a former UFC titleholder, the Brazilian has gone 1-4 in his last five bouts, is unranked at 155-pounds and is very much looking to hit the reset button by moving back down from welterweight to his old stomping ground. A win over the veteran will look good on Felder’s resume— especially given the dearth of big names with whom he has shared the cage—but it’s unlikely in and of itself to goad the Justin Gaethjes and Tony Fergusons of the world into accepting a fight with him or improve his place in the rankings. Conversely, a loss may well jettison Felder out of the Top 10, and before he even makes it to that stage, he will have to undertake a punishing weight cut on short notice, punctuated by the usual battery of medical tests and promotional obligations.
One might therefore conclude that Felder has a lot to lose by taking the fight with Dos Anjos and has on some level ended up with the worst of both worlds despite playing the waiting game for nine months. Not only is he risking his ranking, but he’s doing so on five days’ notice against a crafty veteran with a full training camp.
The flipside to all that is that the fight game is full of intangibles which may very well make Felder’s gamble worthwhile, logical metrics be damned. Case in point, the dos Anjos fight puts Felder in another headlining spot, putting his face on the poster and making him the last combatant to make the walk on fight night. From an experiential perspective, this is a big deal for most fighters—even if they don’t always want to admit it—and with no guarantee that Felder would be given that opportunity organically down the line, it makes sense he would find that enticing. There’s also the possibility, coyly floated by Felder in the aforementioned ESPN interview, that a finish over dos Anjos will see the UFC repay him by matching him with a big name, potentially the recently signed Michael Chandler. The former Bellator MMA champion has yet to enter the 155-pound rankings but is widely regarded as one of the best lightweights in the world and is very much in the spotlight. Hanging above all of these variables is Felder’s anticipated retirement, making the compulsion to iron press a few more memories in the spotlight and on the world stage all the more acute and urgent.
Ultimately, the wisdom of Felder’s decision will only be made apparent after the cage door has closed. Win or lose, it will be hard not to give “The Irish Dragon” props for putting it all on red and stepping in there to save the day. In a sport where single moments can redefine a fighter’s career and future, here’s hoping Felder gets his.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.
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