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For Saturday’s fighters, UFC 216 in Las Vegas comes with a heavy heart

LAS VEGAS — Evan Dunham can see the glittering lights of the Mandalay Bay from his front yard, clear as day.

He saw them again last week, when he ventured into town to catch up with some friends before UFC 216, a nice way to get his mind off a fast-approaching fight week. There was a new face in the group that day, a co-worker of a good friend. Dunham and her traded laughs and shared stories. Then, on Sunday, a nightmare befell the city Dunham calls home, and the frantic scouring through the contacts list in his phone became the only thing that mattered. Several friends were out on The Strip. His parents as well. Were they okay? Dunham didn’t sleep much that night. Few did. By the morning, names of victims had begun to trickle out, and the woman Dunham met just days earlier was among them. Another life taken too soon. Another of the 58 innocents slain in the deadliest mass shooting in United States history.

That was less than four days ago. Now a fist-fight feels like a rather trivial thing.

“Everybody in Vegas was affected one way or another,” Dunham says. “Even if it’s just knowing somebody that knew somebody. We’re a small community in Vegas. People don’t think of it that way. They think of it as come in and go. But people that live here, it’s a small community, and everybody is pretty strong out here because Vegas isn’t an easy place to live.

“It’s shocking and frightening. It’s absolutely insane.”

These stories surround UFC 216 fight week, an inescapable part of the quiet heaviness that looms over the city that never sleeps.

Tony Ferguson was leaving Wal-Mart on Sunday night when he received a panicked call from his wife. She and their son were at their hotel. The two had just gotten back from church and were about to walk down to the music festival to listen to some songs. But they didn’t go. They couldn’t. Because tragedy struck before they had the chance.

By the time they talked, The Strip was erupting in chaos, so Ferguson stayed inside Wal-Mart, desperately trying to figure out what was going on until he saw a collection of strangers huddled around a radio, listening to the local reports. He was stunned. He was angry. He was scared. He wanted only to get back to his son, to his wife, but she wanted him to stay until everything was safe.

“So I stayed,” Ferguson says.

So he stayed and paced back-and-forth through the toy aisle in that Wal-Mart for what felt like hours, looking for something. Anything. It didn’t matter what. “Completely out of the ordinary,” Ferguson says. “I bought him a Transformer and I did it just because it was the one thing I could take off of my mind, to think: ‘This, I know he’s going to enjoy this.’ Then once we got back to the spot, I gave him a big, sweetest hug, and I gave my wife the same thing.”

The next morning, Ferguson awoke to news that one of his friend’s daughters was among the 500-plus victims injured in the attack. Shot through the leg. He says it’s surreal to consider.

“People lose people everyday, man,” Ferguson says, shaking his head, “but not to that kind of stuff.”

Beneil Dariush was walking down The Strip by the Bellagio when the shots first rang out through the night. He says he often likes to go for long walks on Sundays, anything to help his body move and relax on his day off, especially before an important fight week like this. He didn’t know about the concert. If he did, he figures he would have gone. He and his fiancée are both big fans of country music ... and that’s the one question he can’t seem to shake.

What could’ve been had they known?

He says it breaks his heart, everything, all of this, “and it’s just ... the more I think about it, the more it just messes with my head.”

Dariush spent all night Sunday watching the news. He, too, couldn’t sleep. When he finally did, “two people had passed away and there were 50 injured,” he says, “and when we woke up it was 59 and 500 injured. I just, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I was right there. And that doesn’t change anything. It’s just, I feel bad. I don’t know how to explain it.

“It’s so strange. They say the show must go on — they’re not kidding about that, man. Everything’s supposed to be back to normal, but what do you expect? People have to get back to their normal lives. They don’t really have a choice in that. But you do see the difference. You do see people a little bit more tense, a little bit more ... there’s a heaviness to them. They’re more worried. You see the extra security, the extra police, which all obviously just reminds us of what happened. It’s all around us. The show must go on, but it doesn’t mean we don’t see it.”

The fight community is a small one, a close one, and for many, Las Vegas is home. A communal home where history is made, where dreams are captured and lives are forever changed. Regardless of the inherent strife the game is built upon, we’re all in this together. That was never more clear than on Wednesday at UFC 216 media day.

Tears were shed, hugs were shared. Through bloodshot eyes, many locals admitted to not having slept. Three days after tragedy, a community in mourning began to pick up whatever pieces of normalcy it could, together as one. Several UFC employees, figures who those within the sport have known for years, were there in attendance at the concert on Sunday. They escaped with their lives. Fortunately. But everywhere one looked, from the magnified police presence to the empty streets to the light-up billboards strewn around town proudly displaying the hashtag #VegasStrong, reminders of those who didn’t were omnipresent.

Some fighters, like Ferguson, admitted they were surprised UFC 216 was continuing as planned. Many more, off the record, echoed the same.

“It’s hard just to even talk about the fight. There’s so much bigger things in life,” said Kevin Lee, who challenges Ferguson in Saturday’s main event. “Me and Tony, we might have a lot of back and forth, we might have a lot of disrespect, I might not like him, and at the end of the day he’s going to be disappointed with the result — but I hope he goes home. I hope he enjoys his life, he enjoys his family, and he can keep on living. I would hope the same for me.”

In the end, UFC 216 will go on — because as Dariush says, the show must go on.

The event will be the first major stage for the city since the shooting. Lee, who trains out of Las Vegas, says it’s going to be a celebration. A celebration of life. A celebration for his adopted home. “A celebration for all of us,” he says. “They’re going to know.” Lee swears he’s not going to let one coward ruin all of that. And in a way, it’s fitting. Long before the Las Vegas Raiders or the Vegas Golden Knights, the UFC was the home team in the desert. It always has been. On Saturday night, it will be again. A beacon of positivity, however small, for a city that has given the fight game so much.

And on that, all involved agree.

“Fighting is where I feel most alive,” Lee says. “I’m going to go out there and I’m going to live, and I’m going to show the people what living really is. It’s going to be in the moment, it’s only going to be about that moment, and that’s how we’re going to live every day. So it’s going to be a celebration.”

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