“Do it for your daughter,” urged Duke Roufus, trying to rouse Paul Felder before round four of his bout with Dan Hooker in February. With one eye swelling shut and blood trickling from a cut on his hairline, Felder reapplied his mouthpiece – which displayed a photograph of his daughter Aisling’s blanket – and got back down to work. “The Irish Dragon” landed 110 significant strikes to his rival’s 122 in a claret-spattered war, and it broke Felder’s heart that it wasn’t enough to tell his four-year-old girl that he’d got the judges’ verdict.
Felder hinted at retirement this week, stating that he’d grown tired of returning battered and bruised to his daughter and wife in Philadelphia, citing a list of injuries longer than a shopping list in a post on Instagram. The 36-year-old had said earlier after the Hooker fight: “That might be it from me. I got a four-year-old at home who misses me every time I do this.”
Felder suffered orbital floor factures against Hooker, as well as developing rhabdomyolysis after the fight, a condition that can cause kidney damage by leaking myoglobin into the bloodstream. Indeed, when you add past injuries such as a broken arm and a collapsed lung into the mix, you can understand why Felder, an advocate for family life, doesn’t want to burden his daughter and loved ones any further.
Moments after the crowd in Auckland had cherished their countryman Hooker’s victory, it was Felder receiving the standing ovation as he revealed his plan to step away. The audience in New Zealand knew Felder is one of the top lightweights on the planet. They knew he’s one of the most watchable fighters in the UFC, throwing spinning elbows and wheel kicks with the ease of an action movie hero. More than that, they knew he was fighting for his family, grafting to make them proud, grieving still from the death of his father from pancreatic cancer in 2017.
Fans, media, and stakeholders around the sport had identified with how Felder’s father had passed away one week before the Philadelphian started his preparations to face Stevie Ray in Scotland. He became even more beloved and respected as he smashed through Ray in round one, travelling to his opponent’s backyard – like he did against Hooker – to upset the masses. It wouldn’t bring his father back – Felder knew that – but he’d achieved a momentous coup in his late parent’s honor. Surely, his character would make Felder Sr proud.
After all, Felder boasts a heart as large as Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Who can forget his two thrillers with his friend, former sparring partner, and rival, Edson Barboza? In 2019, the American avenged a unanimous decision defeat from four years earlier, boxing beautifully behind his jab to score a split decision victory.
In 2017, there was his knockout over Charles Oliveira. Most onlookers were stunned as Felder accepted the ground battle with the cat-like submission artist – “he couldn’t submit him, could he?” was the feeling – but the Roufusport man avoided the guard and got the stoppage with slicing elbows, making a mockery of the naysayers.
Then, of course, there was the perfectly timed spinning back fist knockout of Danny Castillo in 2015, as Felder attacked with grace, precision, and clout. That was Felder’s second fight in the UFC – his second victory, too – and Dana White knew he had a star on his hands.
Of course, the fan favorite’s susceptibility to injuries is no surprise when you consider his all-out attack methods. As shown against Oliveira, he will leave himself in danger, dismissing the odds, to make sure he can win in stunning fashion. Although Felder is a complete MMA fighter with a decent guard and useful parries, there a few fighters – perhaps aside from Justin Gaethje – who disregard the punishment coming their way as nonchalantly as Felder.
MMA is not kind to those who like a war, though. Carlos Condit, for one, has had his career ravaged in recent years by ACL and shoulder injuries, compounded most recently by a detached retina. Forrest Griffin, another man who couldn’t resist a tear-up, retired having suffered a broken hand, a torn MCL, and chronic shoulder injuries for which he underwent surgery. When I interviewed Griffin in Poland in 2015, I couldn’t help noticing a huge dent on the inside of his left forearm, a savage reminder of how he blocked a roundhouse kick from Edson Paradeo in 2003.
Felder mirrors the philosophy of those two, another fighter whose mind wants to surge forwards when his body is breaking down. That said, he will find a level of comfort in his varying options for a career away from fighting. He has become one of the UFC’s most articulate and fun-to-listen-to commentators, particularly when engaging in banter with British colleagues John Gooden and Dan Hardy. His panache in front of an audience also helped him take on acting roles in theater productions, having studied at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
In that sense, maybe the Felder clan won’t have to worry about his safety for much longer. They might not have to pine for his love and support anymore as he leaves for eight weeks at a time to sharpen his skills at Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They won’t have to worry and wince again as he trades heavy artillery with the most dangerous men at 155 pounds. And, perhaps most significantly, Felder won’t have to carry that pressure, either.
If he does call it a day, we’ll miss his impassioned post-fight interviews, as he lays his feelings bare and leaves nothing unsaid. We’ll miss his willingness to test himself on the road, like when he travelled to his rivals’ backyards to stand up to Ray, Hooker, and Francisco Trinaldo. We’ll miss his capacity to provide fireworks whoever he faces, as he throws hands with calculated intensity, sporting that trademark scowl and flame-colored beard. If Felder walked away tomorrow he’d be remembered as a fighter’s fighter. One of MMA’s good guys. Above all else, a devout family man.