How a ride in a Bentley might have saved UFC 279
7: 50 AM ET
Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer
- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
FOR MAJDI SHAMMAS, the early morning hours of Friday, Sept. 9 in Las Vegas were a manager’s worst nightmare.
At approximately 4 a.m. local time, Shammas knew his fighter, Khamzat Chimaev, would not make weight for a UFC 279 main event against Nate Diaz. Chimaev and his team had done all they could, but with about five pounds left to cut to the 171-pound limit, Chimaev’s body was seizing up. He was vomiting and cramping. The doctors advised that the cut be stopped.
Now Shammas had to tell the UFC. He needed to tell the biggest fight promotion in the world that its main event Sept. 10 couldn’t happen as it was currently drawn up. UFC 279 was a massive opportunity for Chimaev — a chance to beat one of the sport’s biggest stars in his first pay-per-view headliner. It was a disaster to lose weight before receiving a gift like this.
Shammas called Hunter Campbell, UFC chief of business, to wake him up in Las Vegas. Campbell is the one who works behind the scenes when chaos strikes the UFC. While the UFC follows Dana White’s vision and leadership, Campbell is usually responsible for seeing it through. With the sun still rising, Campbell and Shammas discussed Chimaev’s weight, the inevitable fallout and possible solutions to keep the card together.
At that time, the top of the UFC 279 lineup consisted of a welterweight bout between Diaz and Chimaev, a welterweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Li Jingliang and a 180-pound catchweight bout between Kevin Holland and Daniel Rodriguez. It was obvious that the fights would need to be changed as each change would lead to another. All this happened just hours before the six fighters were due to weigh in at 9 a.m. PT.
” When we talked about pulling it off early that morning. It was just a fantasy,” Shammas said to ESPN. “Hunter was like, “If we pull it off, it’ll be a miracle. It was a miracle. ‘”
This is the story of those 14 hours in Las Vegas, based on information from multiple sources who were involved throughout the process of keeping the card alive.
CHIMAEV’S WEIGHT CUT began just after midnight Sept. 9, at New York New York Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. According to his longtime head coach Andreas Michael, Chimaev needed to cut around 15 pounds in the final 12 hours before the weigh-in, which is significant but not unheard of in professional MMA.
The Chechen-Swedish fighter ran in a sweat suit for about 90 minutes, then biked. The weight began to fall. After a few hours, Chimaev was exhausted. He was now within five to seven weight of his target. Michael decided to stop cutting for that night and put Chimaev to sleep. The team would get up at 6 a.m. on Friday to finish the cut in a hot tub, just like they had done before.
A few hours later, Michael woke up to find his team members at the door. There was a problem.
” Friends always watch the fighter during a cut because you never know what might happen,” Michael said. “They came to see me in the middle night and said, “It’s not looking good.” I went to the scene and took a few minutes to see what was going on. I thought to myself, “My God, I’m going have to put him into a hot bath [like that]?” This is dangerous. ‘”
Michael stopped the cutting at the advice of doctors. It was not safe to ask Chimaev for a continuation. Shammas called the UFC to inform them.
A little later that morning, before the start of the official UFC 279 weigh-ins at 9 a.m. local time at the Apex, Diaz’s team was informed of Chimaev’s expected weight miss. It’s important to note that UFC 279 was the final fight of Diaz’s UFC contract, and he already wasn’t thrilled with the UFC’s selection of Chimaev as his final opponent. He saw it as the UFC trying to build another fighter off of his name, making him “a fall guy.” “
“What they got me doing right now is acting like I called for this fight, which I didn’t call for and I don’t want and didn’t want and still don’t want,” Diaz told ESPN earlier that week.
Khamzat Chimaev explains the advice he received from doctors while dealing with his weight cut.
Diaz’s representative Zach Rosenfield declined to provide detail on the events of Sept. 9, but did tell ESPN that when the UFC informed Diaz’s team of Chimaev’s situation, he was very specific about whether Diaz would still take the fight.
“We made it clear that we would fight Khamzat at the contracted weight of 171 pounds,” Rosenfield said. Rosenfield stated, “We did our weight cuts as professionals and as all other things we were supposed to do. “
The UFC reached Holland around 8 a.m., an hour before the weigh-in began, to inquire about Holland’s weight.
Holland immediately called Oren Hodak his manager to inform him about the call. This had caught him off-guard.
“I feel like I’m in trouble,” Holland said to Hodak. Holland said that they were asking Holland about his weight. “
“Dude you’re not in danger,” Hodak replied. “If they ask about your weight, it’s a sign that something is wrong. There are some pieces that are moving. “
When Holland arrived at the Apex for his weigh-in, the UFC informed him of the situation. Chimaev was going to miss weight and weigh about what Holland weighed, 179.5 pounds. The UFC proposed a change: How would Holland like to fight Chimaev, whom he’d gotten into an altercation with the previous day during a news conference, instead of Rodriguez? Holland said that he would, but they had to call Hodak to clarify the details. Holland was weighed in an hour later and looked very annoyed on the scale. Shortly after that, he wrote on Twitter, “Professionals make weight. “
At the Apex, Campbell met Ferguson’s representatives at the same time Holland learned about the proposed change. Ferguson’s team knew immediately that something was wrong. Holland had just met Campbell and was now being summoned. Campbell gave them a piece of paper with a new fight card for UFC 279. The top was “Diaz vs. Ferguson.’ A five-round main event.
Ferguson arrived to the Apex shortly after this meeting, ready for his scheduled welterweight fight against Li. He drove himself to Apex and spotted a beautiful Bentley parked in the lot. Ferguson is a car guy. He appreciates a good ride and noticed the Bentley as he was driving in. Inside the Apex, Campbell met Ferguson for the first time. The 38-year-old former interim champion calmly told the UFC he liked the idea of saving the card and he liked the fight. He and his camp had joked about the possibility of this fight several weeks ago, but he needed permission to talk to his wife before he accepted. Ferguson stated that he consults his family about all career decisions.
After Ferguson had weighed in, everyone was still at Apex so he went back to see Campbell. Some believe he was half-joking. Others think he was serious. He told Campbell that he needed to think more about the matter and that he would do his best thinking behind that Bentley parked outside.
Campbell gave Ferguson the keys and said, “You can take the car as long as your heart desires.” I don’t care about the car.” About 45 minutes later, Ferguson and the Bentley were back, and he agreed to move into the main event.
About 250 miles away in Los Angeles, Tim Simpson was at home recovering from major shoulder surgery. Paradigm Sport Management’s key agent, Simpson, is Li’s client. Simpson was not meant to work because of his recovery. However, he had been following Twitter all morning and was anxious. Something was not right with the main event. According to reports, Chimaev was most likely to lose weight.
Obviously, Simpson’s first thought was to Li. He is an expert in the sport. He knew that Chimaev would not be willing to fight Diaz at a catchweight and that he would not be blamed for declining the offer. That meant a new fight for Diaz, and Ferguson was the obvious backup. What does that mean for Li?
Simpson finally spoke to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby at 10: 25 a.m. local time. Everything was still fluid at the time. Campbell, Shelby, and Mick Maynard, the matchmaker, were hard at work, but nothing was finalized. However, they did inform Ferguson that Li’s fight against Ferguson was likely to be blown up. They had already offered Ferguson a new fight.
Simpson called Li in order to relay the news. The Chinese welterweight, who is a veteran of the UFC, immediately went to the bathroom alone and refused to get out.
” People don’t realize how big of a celebrity Tony is in China,” Simpson stated. “Tony is a huge star in China, so it was a dream fight to fight him. He felt like he was in a title fight. He was devastated. “
After a few minutes, Li was able to collect himself and begin to discuss his options with his team. He could either ask for a rebooking or bail on the card. Or he could fight Rodriguez in a different way.
“It’s D-Rod, but it’s 10 pounds heavier,” Simpson told Li over the phone.
” No problem, Li said. “I’ll fight with him. “
” I’m sorry that this happened to you,” Simpson said. “You did everything right. This is not what you deserve. “
” The only thing that matters now is the moment.” Li replied.
Simpson accepted the change on Li’s behalf at 1: 05 p.m. local time. Rodriguez, who is known for his willingness to fight on short notice, also agreed.
It was early afternoon and the UFC was moving forward. However, it hadn’t received final approval from Holland, Chimaev, or Diaz. Without them, there wouldn’t be a card.
CAMPBELL’S VIEW HAD turned from the simple act of saving UFC 279 to a bigger picture around the UFC’s brand. He explained to other UFC staff that this was an opportunity for UFC to show its fans that if they save money and invest it in travel and event tickets, they can count on an event.
That resolve led Campbell to consider everything. As a last, last resort, the UFC was in contact with former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier, who had been training for weeks in Louisiana and already let the company know: ‘If anything happens with Chimaev, give me Nate.’ It would have been a difficult option with lots to work out with the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Poirier didn’t weigh in within the allotted time frame — but Campbell was open to the idea.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. At 2: 30 p.m. local time, Diaz accepted a new main event opponent in Ferguson.
Meanwhile, Holland had still not come to terms on the Chimaev fight. After leaving the weigh in, he called Hodak and said he would take the fight but wanted it to be for five rounds. He felt that five rounds were more in his favour than Chimaev’s. And since it was Chimaev, why should he dictate how long the fight should be? Holland insisted that there would be no fight if the fight was not five rounds.
Holland’s insistence created a last-minute hurdle. Chimaev was eager for Holland but his team wasn’t thrilled with the idea of five rounds.
“After having our weight cut, we wanted three rounds. Shammas agreed. “Normally, I would accept five rounds because I know Khamzats condition. He’s like a truck for five round. However, the weight cut meant that I could only make it two rounds. But we understood Kevin’s demands. “
As Shammas and Hodak continued to discuss terms for the new matchup, the fight between Chimaev, Holland, and Holland had already begun over direct messages on Instagram.
“Khamzat was ruminating that he had lost weight to kick Kevin’s a,” Hodak stated. “Writing out a lot of crying emojis. “
“Khamzat was basically telling Kevin, ‘Accept the fight. Shammas stated, “Accept the fight.” “While Kevin was saying, “Oh, it won’t even be fight, you just want [wrestle],” ‘”
At 3 p.m. PT, Dana White scheduled a live broadcast from both his and SportsCenter’s Instagram accounts. Eaves was already present at the UFC’s scheduled ceremonial weigh in at MGM Grand Garden Arena. White was at the UFC headquarters. White announced the new card.
Diaz vs. Ferguson, five rounds. Chimaev vs. Holland, five rounds. Jingliang vs. Rodriguez. Three rounds.
Even though White made his announcement, Campbell was still working to finalize the event. Many of the fighters signed their new contracts during the ceremonial weigh ins at 4 p.m. EST. Others signed theirs later in the night, or in the case of Chimaev, on the day of the fight. All parties refused to disclose details of negotiations. However, they did confirm that discussions covered everything from financials to rounds and potential future matchups.
The rest is history, they say. Rodriguez beat Li by controversial split decision. Holland was dominated by Chimaev in a first round submission. This could have been the sport’s biggest mistake. His future at welterweight remains uncertain. Michael has already said his next bout will likely take place at middleweight. After submitting Ferguson in the fourth round of their main event, Diaz won and will be entering free agency with a memorable win.
In a twist, many observers felt the revamped card actually played out better than the original would have, which has led some to even pose conspiracy theories that the UFC planned the entire thing. Holland and Chimaev were involved in the story at the news conference, just one day before weigh ins. How could he have lost so much weight? Is it all staged?
” White said after the event that he believed the wild dudes that we had could be orchestrated into a bigger thing.
In reality, the UFC had some flexibility in the way the card was built. UFC pay-perviews usually feature at least one title fight at their top. Only four pay-per view events have featured nontitle fights in the past two years. Two of those were Conor McGregor taking on Poirier. One was a grudge match between Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington. The fourth was UFC 279. UFC 2022 was the fourth. He was, as it turned, the perfect backup. And the fact Holland vs. Rodriguez was a 180-pound catchweight, rather than a 170-pound welterweight fight as it normally would have been, allowed flexibility with Chimaev’s 178.5-pound miss.
This card had some built-in insurance, but considering everything that happened in that 12-hour span, no one would probably say Shammas’ initial take was incorrect. It was a fantasy before it became reality.
” At the end of it all, everyone has a team. It’s not about what the managers want,” Shammas stated. “We’ve had only southpaws in the gym facing Khamzat for the past two months in preparation to Nate. He suddenly has to go to Kevin Holland who is taller and more unique in every way. The same goes for Kevin. He had a striker and now he has an wrestler. If one of the coaches says, “Hell no, my guy won’t take that fight,” it all crumbles.
” It’s amazing what the UFC and fighters managed to pull off. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.