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March 31, 2019

UFC returned to Philly — and it was great — but something was missing

For the first time since 2011, UFC came to town. But unlike that card, or the historic UFC 101 that preceded it in 2009, the Fight Night card that took place at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night, was lacking. 

Lacking, not in thrilling finishes — there were plenty of them — but in overall star power and rooting interest for the general fan who might be experiencing UFC live for the first time. Simply look at the fact that Saturday's attendance and gate were the lowest of the three UFC cards that have taken place in Philly. While the main card did not disappoint in terms of dramatic finishes, there was nothing close to a title bout. In fact, none of the fighters on the card were ranked in the top five of their respective weight classes. 

But more than that, it was missing a Philly connection, a hometown rooting interest for the average fan to get behind. Former lightweight contender Eddie Alvarez is no longer with UFC — and was actually getting KO'd around the same time a half a world away in Japan. Sean Brady, a local kid who just got called up to UFC last month was unable to book a fight in time to appear on this card. Kevin Holland, who we covered in the lead up to the fight, might have been the most Philly fighter on the card given that his father is from the city and that he was in attendance back in 2009 when UFC first came to Philadelphia, but he fights out of Texas so most fans didn't even realize his connection.

And then there's the guy who most represents Philly in the UFC at the moment, lightweight Paul Felder, who wasn't even on the card but was still selected to represent UFC and ring the bell at the Sixers game on Thursday night. Felder was, however, still working at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night. Instead of fighting, the Philly native and University of the Arts graduate was in the ESPN broadcast booth with former UFC welterweight champ Tyron Woodley and Karyn Bryant. 

For years, Felder has been lobbying on behalf of Philly to get the promotion to bring a card to the city. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old fighter and classically trained actor was unable to fight in front of his home crowd, even if he wanted to (which he most certainly did). Not only did Felder fight six weeks prior, but in the final moments of that fight, a unanimous decision win over James Vick, Felder's lung collapsed, putting him on the shelf for some time. 

Sitting in a green room in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center alongside his on-air partners, Felder was taking in the action in between getting his makeup done and asking Woodley to move his "badonkadonk" from in front of the TV that was showing the fights. 

"I feel good," Felder said of his still healing lung, while making sure not to miss a moment of the Josh Emmett-Michael Johnson fight. "Everything's healing up really nice. I should get back to full training in, I'd say, like a week or so. I've been doing lots of cardio, lifting, hitting pads and stuff like that."

Given the number of times Felder has talked about his desire to bring a UFC card to Philly, it must have been hard to watch, right? Not so much, says Felder, who recently learned an important lesson about the pitfalls of fighting at home.

"You know what, one of the things that made it OK for me was being in Milwaukee for all my teammates fighting in Milwaukee and I got to call that card," Felder said. "And I had four teammates and friends lose and some of those guys, it's their home city or state. And it makes you realize that sometimes [competing in front of your hometown crowd] isn't all it's cracked up to be. There's something about going away to fight and just being able to focus on the job that needs to be done, and not worrying about family members that are going to be there, people that want to see you, or want tickets.

"So I've just been able to get everybody tickets and hang out. I had my daughter down there for a little while in the front row. I get to go out, eat and hang out with everybody. It's been a good experience. I'm just glad [UFC] is here, and wishing these fights would pick up a little bit."

Felder then looked up at the Emmett-Johnson fight, which had just entered the third round, not knowing what was about to happen next or that the last thing he said would soon sound prophetic.

"Don't do anything stupid," he yelled at the TV. "I did and collapsed my lung in the last 30 seconds."

Almost immediately on cue, Emmett caught Johnson with a stinging right that put Johnson to sleep. 

It was the shot of adrenaline the entire arena needed. It was just the second knockout of the entire night and the third of the first 11 fights not to go to the judge's scorecards. However, it would not be the last as neither of the two co-main events would make it out of the first round. 

First, Jack Hermansson scored a submission win over David Branch less than a minute into the fight. Then, in the headliner, a fight that promised to be entertaining with the active styles of both Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza, Gaethje caught the Brazilian with a right midway through the first round and ended it.

*  *  *

Back in the green room, before returning to his broadcast desk for the main event, Felder seemed to be enjoying life on screen almost as much as in the octagon. After all, he's been trained for that too.

"I love [doing TV]," said Felder, who also appeared in an episode of Always Sunny back in 2017, and says he's already asked show creator Rob McElhenney to keep him in mind for future episodes. "And I do eventually want to get back into the actual acting side of things, but for right now, this is a beautiful way to kind of meld the two things together.

"It also makes me not rush into fights I don't need to take. So right now, I'm already making it clear that I'd like the winner of the main event tonight. Whether I'll get it or not, whether I'll get the loser, however it works — but I can wait for things like that, because I can do this until I decide what fight makes sense."

About 30 minutes later, after Gaethje took care of Barboza, Felder told Gaethje to his face that he wanted him next. Gaethje, apparently, took exception, calling it "bullshit" and accusing Felder and Bryant of trying to "steal my thunder" backstage after the interview.

Standing next to Gaethje (20-2 MMA, 3-2 UFC), Felder (16-4 MMA, 8-4 UFC) did clarify he was putting his name in the hat with the utmost respect. UFC analyst Bryant added she was simply endorsing a beloved colleague at the commentary desk. But an awkward still interaction ensued.

“You don’t want that to happen,” Gaethje shot back with a smile.

“Whether it’s now, or whether it’s later, me and you are going to put on a show for these fans some day,” Felder replied. “And I say that, honest to god, with the most respect possible, because I enjoy watching you fight, brother. Congratulations on a dominant win.”

“Thank you, man,” Gaethje said. “Hey, it’s one at a time. You’ve got a couple guys in front of you.”

“I’m not saying that,” Felder said. “I’m good.”

“I’m just kidding,” Gaethje said, giving Felder’s shoulder a slap and a squeeze.  []

Unfortunately, that verbal sparring was the closest thing to a fight involving a Philly guy all night. Still, the fans showed up, 10,000 strong, and after a slow start to the evening, were treated to several violent finishes and surprise endings. And, perhaps, without a true local fighter on the card, the fans were the most Philly thing about the UFC event that was a long time coming.

At one point, during Kevin Holland's split decision win over Gerald Meerschaert, Holland was pinned against the cage, a fan yelled for the fighters to "do something!" — that was a common theme early in the night when it seemed like every fight went to a judges' decision. Holland, not missing a beat, turned to the crowd and exclaimed, "I'm trying. I guess this dude just likes humping my legs."

Even the normally stoic referee cracked a smile. 

"They're being Philly out there," Felder said as he prepared to walk out for the main event. "If they don't like what they see, they're booing. I hear all the Eagles chants. There's too many 'Woos!' That's my only thing, that gets old. The Eagles chants, they can go all day. That I love, I don't mind that. And I don't mind booing — that's how Philly is, they'll let you know if they like it or if they hate it. So they've been good...

"I think once that main event starts, and they start cracking, it's going to get nuts out there. It's going to be insane."

He wasn't wrong.

Still, having a Philly fighter on the card (or a bigger-name main event) seemed like a no-brainer, and a real missed opportunity for UFC. But, on the bright side, at least there was one on the broadcast — and, despite a slow start, the fights that were on the card ultimately delivered.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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