Paul Felder figures he was about 16 years old when he first became a performer. Whether it be dressing up like Pee Wee Herman and Superman or creating illustrations, Felder was very much in touch with his artistic side, which wasn't too prevalent an attribute among kids in tough South Philadelphia.
Felder went to the University of the Arts for acting and started working for theater groups across the city. Soon enough, he was starring in plays and gaining critical acclaim from newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer for his work.
Much like most other young actors in theater, Felder dreamed of one day moving to Hollywood and making it big in movies. Plenty of people thought he could do it, too.
One day, though, Felder dropped acting and decided to focus on his other profession: getting punched in the face for a living.
Felder grew up training in traditional martial arts like taekwondo and karate. He picked up MMA when he was older and began training feverishly. It didn't make for a good look on sets.
"I was training throughout shows and I was kind of getting in trouble for it, because I was showing up with busted noses and black eyes and stuff," Felder told MMAFighting.com. "I started getting cauliflower ear and people were like, 'When are you gonna stop doing that bullsh*t, dude?'"
Those words and others like them set Felder off. Acting was his career and he enjoyed it. But, in his heart, he was a martial artist.
"I was like, we're gonna stop right there, because being a martial artist to me is far more important than that," Felder said. "If I get back into acting because of my fame in fighting, awesome. But I'm not gonna give up fighting. There's no other feeling than stepping into that cage."
Felder dropped acting and took on MMA full-time. Now, almost two years later, the decision looks brilliant. Felder is 2-0 in the UFC and pulled off a highlight-reel spinning backfist knockout against Danny Castillo at UFC 182 on Jan. 3 that is a candidate for Knockout of the Year. On Saturday at UFC on FOX 16 in Chicago, Felder has a chance to crack the top 15 -- or higher -- against ranked lightweight Edson Barboza.
The transition was not an easy one. "The Irish Dragon" had to convince the people in his life all over again that this unorthodox profession was going to be the one he'll make it big in.
"It was tough on my mom more than anybody," Felder said. "I went to this school and I finally got people believing that I could do that [acting] stuff and out of nowhere her son is signing up to get punched in the face for free in an amateur fight. She's like, 'What are you doing? Are you out of your mind? What if you get hurt?'"
Felder, 29, hasn't gotten hurt often. He's a perfect 10-0 and against Castillo he looked like a serious prospect in the UFC's 155-pound division. The stage was a big one, too. Felder starched the longtime UFC and WEC veteran on the FOX Sports 1 prelims of UFC 182, one of the UFC's biggest events of the last few years. More than 1 million people watched the prelims and saw Felder's KO.
There was no acting involved, but Felder's comfort in front of an audience, especially against someone with far more experience than himself in MMA, was evident.
"It is a different thing, but it's still crowds," Felder said. "It's still cameras, it's still attention, it's still cheers, it's still boos and all that stuff that comes with it. Since I've been 16, I've kind of enjoyed and purposely put myself in front of crowds. I think it does help."
As for the spinning back fist, it was hardly just a Hail Mary. This is something Felder has become known for training at Renzo Gracie Academy in Philadelphia with coach Daniel Gracie.
"You can ask the guys in the gym. If you hit me with a good leg kick or body kick that kind of turns me, I just spin. I spin through it. It's something I've always done with my taekwondo background. You use that momentum and surprise your opponent. I've hit people accidentally really hard with spinning back kicks and spinning back fists when I'm not trying to hit them in the gym, but the momentum is so strong if you walk into it, it's devastating. And that's exactly what happened."
Felder did part of his training camp for the Castillo fight at Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone's ranch in New Mexico. Some of his striking looks a bit like Cerrone's, but Felder said that was more about emulating him from being a fan than training with him for a few weeks. The work he got out there was huge, he said. And "Cowboy" has quickly become a good friend.
"He's got his persona and that's all true -- he's a bad ass that will fight anybody," Felder said. "But if you're on his good side, he's a great guy to have on your side."
A ranch in the shadows of Albuquerque isn't exactly the bright lights of the Sunset Strip, but Felder is happy. Maybe he would have made it big in acting had he stuck with it. But right now all he wants to do is be a star in the UFC. His breakout performance against Castillo has opened the curtain, err, door.
"I would say it would be like a young, up-and-coming guy off Broadway getting picked out of the crowd by a producer for a role in Hollywood," Felder said. "It would be kind of like that. Where it's like, 'Oh, you got your chance.' It doesn't mean you fully made it yet, but people are going to know who you are for a little bit. Now it's up to you to decide on how you take that opportunity. I feel like I've been giving an opportunity now to take this little bit of attention and show them that it's not a one-night fluke, it's who I really am and that I belong."