How a fighter on hours notice ended up in the co-main event of UFC 303

Dan Ige was about as mentally removed from a fight as one could get on a Saturday afternoon.

He’d just spent the last hour on a massage table at his home in Las Vegas. Deep-tissue massage, tranquil spa music in the background. Ige was in a relaxed state of perfect harmony.

“Zenned out,” is how Ige described it. “Lying on my back, asleep. My phone on ‘Do Not Disturb.'”

Three hours later, Ige would find himself at T-Mobile Arena, weighing in for the shortest-notice fight in modern UFC history. Ige fought Diego Lopes in the co-main event of UFC 303, after Lopes’s original opponent, Brian Ortega, withdrew nearly an hour into the pay-per-view event.

The two featherweights fought at 165 pounds, 20 pounds over the featherweight limit, due to the unusual circumstances of the bout. Ige lost by unanimous decision, but the result hardly mattered. The fight world has universally revered Ige for taking the fight off the couch. Or in this case, the massage table.

UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell received a text from Ortega’s team that he was out at 3:41 p.m. PT on Saturday. The UFC prelims had already started. The entire card had already been restructured in the previous two weeks, due to Conor McGregor pulling out of his main event bout against Michael Chandler with a broken toe. And now, with less than four hours before the main card, it had lost its co-main event.

Within five minutes of receiving the news on Ortega, Campbell was on the phone with Ali Abdelaziz, Ige’s manager. And within one minute of that, Both Campbell and Abdelaziz were frantically trying to get ahold of Ige, who was blissfully asleep in his weekend massage.

“Ali started calling me, so I knew something important was going on,” Savannah Ige, Dan’s wife, told ESPN. “It’s funny thinking about it now. I opened the door to tell him and he was so peaceful on that table. I didn’t know what Ali wanted, but I was starting to get SOS alerts on my phone.”

Ige called Abdelaziz, who informed him Ortega had pulled out of UFC 303. At first, he didn’t understand why that particular news would be so urgent to him. The UFC wanted Ige to fight Lopes, Abdelaziz said. Fine, Ige responded. The UFC knows he never says no to a fight. When did they want to book it?

“And Ali goes, ‘Tonight,'” Ige said. “I was like, ‘What?'”

Ige’s first thought was likely the same as everyone else when they heard news of the last-minute switch: Is it even possible? UFC events are licensed and officiated by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Normally, you can’t just throw together a fight on a few hours’ notice. Fighters must submit medicals and weigh in the day before.

But Campbell was familiar with a rarely used regulation in the state of Nevada that allows the commission’s chairman to alter or waive certain requirements at his or her discretion, depending on the scenario. Campbell found the regulation in 2017 when a fighter was hospitalized after cutting weight, and he nearly used it during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

In this case, Ige had been training for a July 20 fight at the Apex, his medicals were done from a February fight in Nevada and he and Lopes were the same weight. NSAC chairman Dallas Haun signed off.

Ige was paid more than his usual fight purse for stepping in at the last minute. Just like that, the bout was very real. Ige called his coach, Eric Nicksick, and told him he was suddenly fighting in a UFC co-main event. Nicksick was scheduled to be at UFC 303 in the corner of light heavyweight fighter Roman Dolidze. He asked Ige if there was anything he needed him to do.

“I was like, ‘Just grab my cup, please,'” Ige said. “‘I don’t have my cup.’ So, he drove to the gym to get my cup.”

With the prelims ticking off, Ige made the 20-minute drive to the T-Mobile Arena loading dock and was quickly ushered inside. He walked through a VIP room, where he gave Campbell a quick hug and was momentarily starstruck by actor Mark Wahlberg. He stepped on a scale in the back and weighed 164.5 pounds. Lopes did the same, and weighed 161.

In the meantime, Nicksick called former UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland to join Ige’s corner. Strickland was riding his motorcycle in the Vegas desert. He drove straight to the arena and parked his bike outside. Known as one of the most fearless fighters in the sport, Strickland was the most nervous of anyone.

“He kept saying, ‘Dude, you could just take this guy down, he’s going to stay on his back, you can wrestle the whole time,'” Ige said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you got it.’ But I didn’t want to do that. That’s not what I signed up for.”

Back at the Ige household, Savannah’s older brother arrived to watch the fights, as they’d planned to do. A few moments after walking in, he asked, “Where’s Dan?”

“He had no idea what was happening,” Savannah said. “I told him and he was like, ‘What?! Can they even do that?'”

After making weight for the 165-pound fight, Ige was led into the locker room where he went to work on calming his nerves. He’d gone from zen to co-main faster than anyone had ever experienced. He didn’t even mess with “Do Not Disturb” on his phone this time. He turned it completely off.

“People are texting me like, ‘What the hell is going on? Is this true?'” Ige said. “I turned my phone off and did some deep breathing. And yeah, we fought two hours later.”

The fight was an entertaining one. Lopes nearly submitted Ige early and won the first and second rounds. Ige rallied in the third, though, and had Lopes desperately trying to take him down by the end.

“All the respect to Dan Ige,” Lopes said in the Octagon following his victory. “Not many guys take a fight with three-hour notice.”

The entire situation garnered Ige more love and exposure than any other experience in his 17-fight UFC career.

“I was so happy with my performance and what I did,” Ige said. “And just the ovation from the crowd and [UFC president] Dana White — like, I’ve never had that real respect from Dana. I’ve always kind of felt like just a ‘Hey, what’s up, kid?’ cold shoulder from him a little bit. But he was super respectful after this fight and Hunter called me and was like, ‘I love you, dude.'”

There’s a story behind the story of this entire thing, and it goes back to 2017 when Ige had less than 10 fights on his record. He fought on “Dana White’s Contender Series” and won, but wasn’t offered a UFC contract. Campbell specifically, though, told Ige to keep at it and he would sign him eventually.

Four months later, Ige was in New York when the UFC held its annual card at Madison Square Garden. Ige was working as an assistant for Abdelaziz at the time, and was helping one of their clients, Cody Garbrandt, who was defending his UFC championship on the card.

Late Friday evening, Abdelaziz invited Ige to a nightclub in New York. Campbell was there, and Abdelaziz thought it would be good for them to interact. Ige refused at first but Abdelaziz wouldn’t take no for an answer. Ige eventually took a cab to the club and met with Campbell and other UFC executives. He had a UFC contract by the end of the night.

“I was just there to be a team player but then I had some drinks and got happy and Hunter was like, ‘Brother, I want to tell you, you are a freaking badass,'” Ige said. “He signed me right then. He said, ‘Welcome to the UFC.'”

Campbell remembers that night well. He deals with every fighter on the UFC roster. And he puts out a lot of fires. When McGregor pulled out of UFC 303, Campbell was the primary one who put the card back together. When a global pandemic hit, Campbell was at the epicenter of keeping events going. He and White are connected and in communication around the clock.

Fighters like Ige make Campbell’s life a little easier, especially when chaos hits — which is often in MMA. There’s a reason he thought of Ige, less than five minutes after losing Ortega.

“Everything this kid said to me at that nightclub has come to be,” Campbell said. “He told me, ‘I am that guy. I don’t care who I fight. I’m either the guy I say I am or I’m not. I want to test myself against everybody on earth. I don’t believe anyone is tougher than me. Truth be told, I might lose some fights or someone might be better than me on a given night, but I’ll never quit,’ and I believed him to my core.”

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