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‘Can this even be done?’: Inside the frantic chaos that led to UFC 303’s shortest-notice fight in history

Hundreds of fighters have taken short-notice fights. For some, short-notice means a few weeks. For others, it means a few days.

For Dan Ige, it meant a couple of hours.

At UFC 303, Ige accepted a co-main event matchup against rising star Diego Lopes without any training camp or preparation, much less any time to actually put together a strategy.

On the other side, Lopes had to endure a roller-coaster ride of his own. After accepting a featherweight bout against Brian Ortega just two weeks prior, Lopes found out less than 48 hours before fight night that the two-time title challenger couldn’t make the 145-pound limit. The fighters agreed to compete at lightweight instead, but by Saturday afternoon, Lopes lost Ortega as an opponent.

How exactly did all this come together, culminating in the shortest-notice fight in UFC history? This particular story actually starts one day earlier.

Friday, June 28: 3:30 a.m. PT

Fast asleep and already on weight at 146 pounds, Lopes, his coaches, and his manager start receiving a flurry of calls to inform them that Ortega can’t make the featherweight limit. Weigh-ins are scheduled to start at 9 a.m. local time.

Upon learning the news, Lopes’ coaches try to get in touch with his manager Jason House, who resides in Las Vegas, but due to the late hour, they get no reply. So the team actually travels to his house to inform him what was happening.

“I had already made weight at 11 p.m. the night before,” Lopes said on The MMA Hour. “So by that time when Jason woke me up, I was already on weight. I never doubted fighting. It was like, ‘OK, I’ll fight at whatever weight.’

“It was just a process of changing my diet and working with my nutritionist because I had already gone down to [145 pounds]. Kind of getting me back up to [155 pounds].”

Lopes already has a bad feeling something like this might happen after sharing a few moments with Ortega on stage during the pre-fight press conference.

“It’s funny. I had talked to my nutritionist and I had said I really feel like he wasn’t going to make weight,” Lopes revealed. “I feel like I’m seeing him in a different head space. We kind of had that feeling that he was going to miss the weight.”

After the fight is changed to a lightweight bout, Lopes faces off with Ortega at the ceremonial weigh-ins a few hours later, and once again, there’s a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“I had seen him and he just look different, he looks off,” Lopes said. “Obviously we didn’t know what happened was going to happen, but I definitely felt something was off. That was it. I felt like something was off.”

UFC 303 Weigh-in

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Saturday, June 29, approximately 3:45 p.m. PT

With a few hours to go until his fight, Lopes is chilling out and watching the early prelims at UFC 303 when he gets another call from the promoters. They inform him that Ortega fell ill and is unable to compete. Before Lopes can digest the shocking news, UFC brass mention the possibility of securing an extremely late-notice replacement.

“I was at the house watching the second fight of the night and I got the call,” Lopes said. “That’s when they really just decided this is what our plan is, this is what we’re going to do and that’s it.”

Saturday, June 29: 4 p.m. PT

A day earlier, Dan Ige is training like usual with a hard strength and conditioning workout in the morning followed by a grappling session. On Saturday, he goes through another workout as part of his training camp routine as he gets closer to his scheduled fight with Chepe Mariscal on July 20.

Ige then goes home to spend time with his family and connects with his massage therapist to help him recover from a hard week of work.

“I’m preparing for my fight July 20, and after that, I basically go home and it’s all recovery for Monday,” Ige told MMA Fighting. “I call my massage therapist, she works on my whole family. Me, my wife, my kids, so working on my kids first and then I hop on the table. She asks me out how long I wanted. We did like 90 minutes, an hour and a half deep tissue massage. I’m on the table, I’m listening to spa music, I’m all zenned out. Literally getting a deep tissue [massage], which I would never do before a fight, but I’m recovering. I’m getting ready for Monday.

“My wife comes up, it’s towards the tail end of the massage and she’s like, ‘Ali [Abdelaziz] is calling me.’ Ali doesn’t manage me, I manage myself, and I look at my phone and I had missed calls from Hunter [Campbell], Ali. This was right around 4 p.m. As she’s telling me this, he calls my phone again, so I answer. He’s like, ‘Brother, did you talk to anyone?’ I’m like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘Brother, Ortega’s out.’”

At that moment, Ige thinks perhaps UFC will shift Lopes to the July 20 card and that will be his new opponent. Ige was originally scheduled to face Joanderson Brito, but Brito suffered an injury and was replaced by Mariscal.

As it turns out, Abdelaziz isn’t calling to offer Ige a fight with Lopes on July 20.

“He’s like, ‘Tonight,’” Ige said. “‘Can you fight tonight?’

“I was like, ‘Yeah,’ I didn’t even think. Like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t even think it was possible. Can this even be done? The weigh-ins were yesterday.’ He’s like, ‘Brother, I’m dead serious, this fight can happen, I can get it done. I’ll get it done.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, get it done.’ He’s like, ‘I’ll call you back.’

“He calls me back and he’s like, ‘Brother, start packing your bags, 80, 90 percent it’s going to happen.’ I’m like, ‘Oh shit. It’s going to happen!’ He’s like, ‘What’s your weight?’ I said, ‘164 this morning, 165 about.’”

Within a few minutes, Abdelaziz closes the deal with UFC and a bout agreement is sent over for Ige’s approval and signature.

“Boom, I get a contract in my email. I got paid, so I was happy,” Ige said. “I didn’t read the weight class but it says 165[-pound] catchweight. I’m not reading it and Ali’s like, ‘We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go to the venue.’”

At the same time, Lopes gets the offer to fight Ige and doesn’t blink either.

“When they called, Dan was immediately the option,” Lopes said. “So we knew that we were going to fight. The real thing that we just had to worry about was that Dan had to be approved by the commission, but he was already preparing for a fight in two weeks and had everything ready. It was a really easy option for us, pending the commission.”

Saturday, June 29: 4:22 p.m. PT

With no time to spare, Ige immediately calls his head coach Eric Nicksick from Xtreme Couture and informs him that he is fighting Lopes in just a few hours at UFC 303.

There’s no time to discuss whether or not this is a good idea because Ige already accepted and Nicksick isn’t about to question what is happening. Luckily for Ige, Nicksick is already coaching at UFC 303 with plans to corner teammate Roman Dolidze in his fight against Anthony Smith.

“[Dan] goes, ‘Hey, we’re fighting in a few hours.’ I was like ‘OK.’” Nicksick said. “I didn’t even ask who, I didn’t say anything. I was like, ‘You got it.’ I hang up the phone.

“[Nevada Athletic Commission executive director] Jeff Mullen calls me literally a minute after and says, ‘Hey, bro, I need your honest to God opinion on this — is your fighter ready to fight? Is this even realistically possible?’ I said, ‘Jeff, I say this wholeheartedly, Dan Ige is like a son to me. I would never put him in a situation where I feel like he is in danger.’ I said, ‘This kid — and this isn’t me just hyping him up — he trains like this daily. He fantasizes about moments like this opportunity.’ Like, he’ll come to me, ‘There’s four featherweight fights on this card’ — he’ll write me this — ‘just in case, look at these four guys in case somebody falls out.’ He does this all the time. I’m not joking. He’s on the cutting edge of always being ready so when that phone rings, he’s able to answer that call.”

After hanging up the phone with Mullen and assuring him that Ige is ready to go, Nicksick turns to his wife and says, ‘This is what f*cking legends are made of — moments like this.’”

Nicksick then reaches out to one of his other coaches to do some rapid-fire research on Lopes to send him notes as he prepares to meet up with Ige to head to T-Mobile Arena.

A few minutes later, Nicksick jumps in a car with Ige and they start calling around to find some cornermen. Nicksick first reaches out to PFL fighter Kai Kamaka, who he just cornered on Friday night in Sioux Falls, S.D., and who frequently works with Ige in the gym.

When another of Ige’s coaches doesn’t answer the phone, Nicksick knows exactly who to call.

“Called Kai Kamaka and I go, ‘Yo, meet me on the corner of Silverado Ranch and Las Vegas boulevard in 30 minutes.’” Nicksick said. “He didn’t ask a question, he goes, ‘What do I need to bring?’ I said, ‘Bring your gear, and he goes, ‘No problem.’ Hangs up the phone and then shoots me a text, ‘What’s going on?’ I go, ‘Can’t talk, see you in 30, meet me at the Shell station on the corner.’ That’s how it went down.

“Picked up the phone, called Sean Strickland, I go, ‘Where you at?’ He goes, ‘At lunch.’ I go, ‘Meet me at the arena in an hour, Dan’s fighting.’ He goes, ‘I’ll be on my motorbike, make sure they let me in through security.’ I said bet, hung up the phone. That’s how it went down. I f*cking live for this shit.”

UFC 303: Machado Garry v Page

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Saturday, June 29: 5:00 p.m. PT

By this time, UFC 303 is underway and Ige still didn’t know for certain if the fight against Lopes is actually going to happen. Despite getting a bout agreement, Ige still has to get cleared by the commission — and apparently Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo has to get involved to approve the unusual request.

That’s when Ige sends a message to UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell promising he’s more than ready to not only take this fight on a couple hours’ notice, but also prepared to win.

A few minutes later, Ige and his team arrive at T-Mobile Arena. There’s no time for UFC to express gratitude for taking the fight because Ige is immediately rushed backstage to weigh in.

“I walk in, they take me right to the scale,” Ige said. “The whole commission’s there. I heard this had to get approved by the governor too. That’s why you see the text that they posted. I was texting Hunter that I was in great shape because I could be a liability, right? I wasn’t lying. I was in great shape. I’m ready to rock.

“So they take me to the scale and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a real weigh-in?’ They said, ‘Yeah, strip down.’ I’m like, ‘Hold on, let me use the bathroom.’ I go and use the bathroom, come in, boom I’m 164.5. I’m like thank God! I didn’t know I actually had to weigh-in.”

Once Ige hits the mark, and Lopes does the same, the fight is finally official.

“Made weight and it became official right then and there,” Ige said. “I fought two hours later. It was wild. By the time I got the call, I was in the venue and weighed in and wrapping my hands two hours later.”

Saturday, June 29: Approximately 8:50 p.m. PT

Ige and Lopes make their way to the octagon and put on a three-round battle at UFC 303. Neither fighter actually has a full training camp to prepare for this fight.

Lopes comes storming out of the gates just like usual, but Ige refuses to back down an inch.

“I knew that Dan would be ready,” Lopes said. “I wasn’t surprised by him at all. He was already in camp and just preparing for the moment. I actually ran into him at the [UFC Performance Institute] before this and said it kind of felt like sparring. I wasn’t surprised, I knew that Dan was a game athlete.”

No matter how ready he is physically, Ige knows he is still at a disadvantage — he didn’t even know he was fighting until just a few hours earlier. Still, Ige feels like he gives Lopes everything he could handle, especially when he takes over with a dominant performance in the third and final round.

“Round three, I think I hit him with something and I saw him look up at the clock,” Ige described. “Something changed in his face, in his demeanor, in his spirit, and I felt it diminish. At that moment, I was like, ‘I got him.’ I got this, not burst of energy, just confidence. I’m going to get this guy out of this fight right now.

“I landed some nasty ground and pound but he was able to survive the rest of the round and get through the fight. Hey, if that had been a five-round fight, I believe I finish that fight.”

UFC 303: Pereira v Prochazka 2

Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

Despite getting the win, Lopes isn’t satisfied with his performance and gives Ige credit for making it such a tough fight.

“I wasn’t really happy with my overall performance, but considering everything that happened, it ate up a lot of energy,” Lopes said. “I’m somebody that likes good energy around me. I think a lot of that just consumed me in the moment, but other than that, it was the result that we wanted. It’s all part of the journey.”

Once the fight is over, Ige knows he lost a decision, but doesn’t allow himself to get too down in the dumps, especially given how the fight came together.

“I remember right after Round 3, I was like, ‘I probably lost,’ and I had a moment in my head — I could be bummed about this, and I had made the decision to smile and embrace the moment,” Ige said. “Because it’s never been done and this is awesome.

“I got a standing ovation. Not that I care about a moral victory or want that, but it was a victory. I can’t even put into words. He’s a killer. To do what I did only instills confidence in me. Knowing that I can trust in my ability at any time, against anyone, anywhere, any place. We’ll see what happens from here. I feel like this is just going to boost the trajectory of my career.”

Nicksick, who raced out of the octagon after cornering Dolidze and then switched shirts to walk out with Ige just a few minutes later, can’t be any prouder of his fighter’s effort.

“He made it freaking close,” Nicksick said. “So it gives us something to build off of, but really the momentum of understanding if we ever fight again, here’s some things we know we can implement and how we can be better.”

Monday, July 1: 12:30 p.m. PT

Less that two days after the epic encounter that was never supposed to happen, Ige and Lopes actually run into each other at the UFC Performance Institute.

First things first, Ige pays homage to Lopes for accepting the fight when he had nothing to gain and everything to lose given the bizarre chain of events surrounding his week in Las Vegas.

“We’re at the [Performance Institute] and I was just talking to him and telling him how much I respect him because of what he went through,” Ige said. “Having to cut weight, having to switch his weight classes, facing off, getting ready, it’s fight day, your opponent’s out. If your opponent pulls out fight day, you’re not fighting. Mentally, you’re not fighting. Then they’re like, ‘We’ve got something else, we’ve got Dan Ige.’ I’m probably a high-risk, low-reward fight in a lot of people’s eyes, prior to this. He’s a fighter. He took the fight.”

Lopes has nothing but glowing remarks where Ige is concerned as well.

“Dan Ige is a good guy,” Lopes said. “I watch Dan everyday in the P.I. He’s a good person.”

After sharing the cage together for 15 minutes under unprecedented circumstances, the fighters embrace and Ige realizes they just created a fraternity that perhaps no one will ever get the chance to join.

“It’s never been done before and I don’t know if it will ever be done again,” Ige said. “That was why I did it. To cement my legacy and do something great. I’ve always visualized and dreamed of doing something above and beyond. A knockout at the APEX is cool, but people forget about that. There’s knockouts every weekend. You go watch Power Slap if you want to see a knockout.

“To do something like that, show up, save the co-main event on what was a Conor [McGregor] card and just to walk out — it was so cool. Despite the loss, I feel like I won. I got a standing ovation from 19,000 fans after the fight. I feel like I’ve definitely gained a new fan base.”

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