LAS VEGAS — It’s rare that diametrically opposed positions can be true at the same time, but in Paul Felder’s case, it’s the story of his fighting life.
He hates fighting, and admits that after nearly every bout, starting during his amateur career, he carefully considers walking away from mixed martial arts for good.
He also loves fighting, which is why he’s going to be in the cage opposite former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos on Saturday at Apex instead of calling the fight on the ESPN+ broadcast from the safety of a seat near the cage.
It’s that duality that makes Felder one of the sport’s most beloved fighters and best commentators.
Islam Makhachev had to withdraw from the dos Anjos fight with a staph infection. On Sunday, six days before the bout, Felder began to mull the idea of stepping in for Makhachev to save the show.
On Monday while running on a treadmill, he received a FaceTime call from his manager, Brian Butler, telling him they’d gotten a good offer to fight dos Anjos. The next thing you knew, Felder was in the bout.
He publicly mulled retirement after an agonizing split decision loss to Dan Hooker in February, but said it’s nothing new.
“[Retirement] is always a serious thought,” Felder said. “It’s been a serious thought ever since I stepped foot into an Octagon. This sport is hard, man. Hard. Guys who tell you otherwise, I think they’re lying to themselves. Everybody loves it and hates it at the same time.”
They love it because of the rewards and the ability to fulfill their desire to compete. They hate it because of the risks and because of the sacrifices it takes to compete at the highest level.
For Felder, it’s always a balance. It’s why when he first considered offering himself for the fight, he didn’t fully go ahead. He considered the idea and then pushed it out of his head.
But when Butler caught him while he was on the treadmill and came up with an unexpectedly good offer, all of a sudden it was a different story. A win over dos Anjos, he noted, “is a hell of a name to have on my resumé.”
And so he decided to go forward because many of the things he hates about fighting were eliminated.
“The things I have to do normally to get ready for a fight drive me crazy,” Felder said. “I go away. I don’t see my daughter. I don’t see my girlfriend. I don’t see my mom or my brothers or my friends, and it just drives me absolutely crazy.
“I really have to pick and choose when I’m going to have to put myself through that. I’m kind of old-school about it. I live in this little crappy apartment that [coach] Duke [Roufus] rents me in Milwaukee, and I live fighting for just two months.”
As the sport evolves, the more successful fighters can make well more than a comfortable living, but they’re not baseball players, who commonly earn eight figures per season.
There’s great sacrifice required to make it in MMA, and sometimes circumstances can make it almost impossible for even a successful fighter to make it big.
The public doesn’t really have a great grasp of the battles these athletes face, long before they make that walk as their music blares and the lights are the brightest.
“This sport is still young and it’s like any sport that’s just getting going,” Felder said. “We’re not all making millions of dollars and living in mansions and driving Ferraris. We’re working-class athletes. I think it’s changing, and we’re seeing it get much better, and even this fight for me, to me, it’s [expletive] fantastic money.
“This is why I do this. This is why I suffered making absolutely no money as an amateur and as a low-level pro, to be able to have these moments and to be on the poster and have all this media, because people are tuning in to see me fight.”
Once Felder considered the UFC’s options and he thought about the situation in the world, it became clear to him that he should accept the fight.
He had a chance to make significant money and do it without the strain of missing his loved ones for months on end. He has begun training religiously year round so that making the weight is not an issue.
The political situation also weighed on him.
“I’ll be honest, after Hooker, I didn't expect to fight again in 2020,” he said. “But with all that is going on, the arguing about politics, COVID, people dying, people losing their jobs, and I have an opportunity to make this kind of money doing what I love. I felt after thinking of that, I’d be an [expletive] to turn it down.”
He empathizes with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who announced his retirement last month after a win over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi. There is little reason, Felder said, for Nurmagomedov to fight again.
“For him to talk about his mom after the fight the way he did, and having lost his father, I get it, I totally get it,” Felder said. “I’ve been through all of these things that Khabib has just been through. You don’t understand the pressure this guy has on his back. He’s undefeated. He’s got to live up to all these expectations every time he’s in one of these events, fighting guys like [Conor] McGregor and Justin Gaethje, who is a scary, dangerous guy. He’s not an easy guy to prepare for and it takes something out of you each time.
“If he can walk away and be undefeated, reigning champion, still young ... he’s a smart guy. I have so much respect for him deciding maybe this is it. Who cares about 30-0? If he decides to stay retired, I hope he does, honestly. I don’t see him losing to many people, honestly. He’s risking all that by fighting. He can walk away as such a legend right now. He’s done it. It’s not like me where I still have stuff I can do. I’m not a champion; I haven’t beaten the top five guys. He’s done it. Sail off, my man. Sail off and enjoy the opportunities that come your way.”
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