Prior to the July 11 UFC 189 card and its pair of flying knee finishes, Philadelphia native Paul Felder was easily on the short list of candidates for “Knockout of the Year” for his UFC 182 spinning back fist KO of Danny Castillo.
In just his second UFC appearance, Felder unloaded a perfectly timed right to Castillo’s jaw, sending the Team Alpha Male stalwart to the mat, stiff. And while the finish was a thing of beauty, it was no anomaly. Felder dominated the entire seven-plus minutes of the bout, employing his slick Taekwondo kicking arsenal and Muay Thai footwork to out throw and out land Castillo.
Of course, spinning techniques and fantastic finishes have never been too far from Felder’s MMA game.
Less than two months prior to his UFC debut, a split decision over Jason Saggo in October 2014, Felder was the reigning lightweight champion for Cage Fury Fighting Championships, a regional MMA promotion in based in New Jersey. Having won the CFFC title in March 2104 with a TKO over The Ultimate Fighter veteran Marc Stevens, Felder would go on to defend his belt with a second round knockout, using a picturesque spinning heel kick to finish Craig Johnson.
The victory would birth Felder’s signature phrase “spin to win.” It would also earn the Daniel Gracie protégé a call-up to the big show, as he took the fight against Saggo on short notice. Finally, Paul Felder was heading to the UFC.
“Paul was never somebody to turn down a fight,” comments CFFC General Manager Earl Campbell, who booked and promoted Felder on six occasions on the regional circuit. “The problem is, it’s hard to get people to fight these guys … you get somebody like Paul Felder, nobody wants to fight him.”
Confident that Felder would make an immediate impact in the UFC, Campbell knows a thing or two about sending fighters to the Octagon. He’s seen many of his champions matriculate to the UFC, guys like top-10 bantamweight Aljamain Sterling, featherweight Levan Makashvili, and welterweight Lyman Good, who just made his Octagon debut last week with a TKO of Andrew Craig.
Campbell and CFFC have sent many other fighters up the food chain: Jonavin Webb, George Sullivan, and Zach Makovsky, to name a few. And while Campbell admits occasional nerves when his talent moves up a tier, he has always been certain about Felder’s prospects in the UFC.
“We try to serve as kind of like the minors leagues. We get the fighters ready so that from the time they come and they get ready to fight until the time they get done their fight and they leave the cage, they’re getting experience that’s very similar to what they’re used to at the UFC,” comments Campbell, who equally high on Sterling’s chances for Octagon stardom. “The UFC calls and you kind of get that feeling whether the guy’s gonna do very well or if he’s gonna get to the UFC and you’re like ‘I hope he was ready.’ Paul I had no doubt in my mind. He’s absolutely ready. He’ll do very, very well. The guy is gonna be around for a very long time.”
And with two wins in two outings, Felder seems to be making good on Campbell’s prediction.
But what about this coming Saturday, July 25, when Felder squares off with seventh-ranked Edson Barboza on the UFC on FOX 16 main card? Felder may have looked impressive against Castillo and Saggo, but Barboza represents a huge step up in competition. Yet no one seems to think that Felder isn’t up to the task.
Sure, Barboza lost his last bout to a surging Michael Johnson. But he’s been one of the UFC’s top lightweights for nearly five years, and delivered at least one of the promotion’s top all-time highlights for his 2012 spinning wheel kick of Terry Etim. How will Felder react when facing an elite striker?
Having been the underdog against jiu jitsu specialist Saggo, Felder has already proven his takedown defense. He also topped a wrestler in Castillo, using his kicks and combinations to keep the then favorite out of grappling range. Barboza seems to present none of these challenges, opening the door for a contest that will likely play out on the feet.
Felder and Barboza do have one common opponent (Castillo), which allows interjection from the imperfect science of MMA math. If Felder stopped Castillo in the second frame, and Barboza needed all three rounds to earn a majority decision (that should have likely been scored a draw after Castillo nearly finished the Brazilian in the first period), will Saturday’s contest even be close?
This is, of course, a prime example of why MMA math is complete garbage. But it does highlight how quickly Felder has gone from prelim unknown to main card draw in just three bouts. And Saturday’s contest with Barboza, which is expected to be the flashiest fight of the night, save the main event, may end up being one of the best standup battles of the year.
So while Paul Felder may forever be best known for his spinning back fist knockout, joining Shonie Carter and John Makdessi as the only combatants to ever land the finish in the Octagon, it’s safe to say that his best days are still ahead of him.
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