Paul Felder refused to become a cautionary tale about a fighter who stuck around the sport for too long.
Despite still being ranked among the best lightweights in the world, the 37-year-old veteran started to realize that his days in mixed martial arts were numbered when he no longer got excited to go to the gym much less put his body through the rigors of a training camp.
“I really waited until I knew,” Felder said at the post-fight press conference. “After the [Dan] Hooker fight, it was kind of emotional and I lost the fight and I’m far away from home and it was a struggle. But then I did find that fire again when I got the [Rafael dos Anjos] fight. I went back and did camps and I was helping Sean Brady get ready for fights and I was hitting pads, I was lifting again, I was doing all those things and just slowly over time I started drifting back towards doing my own things and really just loving doing this triathlon stuff on my own, having time, seeing my daughter everyday after school, dropping her off at school. Training in my own little pain cave at home in the garage and getting stuff done.
“I don’t think I’m going to get to the belt. I think this is the first time where I finally really think after those two losses in a row, watching guys like ‘Jacare’ [Souza] break their arm, watching guys like ‘Cowboy’ [Cerrone] fight five more fights than I think they should. I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve said from the very beginning of this sport, I won’t be that guy that fights past his expiration date and I think it’s here. I think it’s a touch early but I’d rather it be a touch early than a touch late.”
According to Felder, before he accepted an extremely short-notice fight against Rafael dos Anjos this past November, the UFC actually gave him a brand new contract with the kind of pay that would serve as an incentive to continue on with his career.
Regardless of the money, Felder just didn’t have that same drive any longer and once he realized the change that was taking place inside of him, it was time to hang up the gloves for good.
“If a brand new contract just handed to me by the UFC without even negotiating, after that RDA fight, they took my contract, which still had three more fights on it, threw it out and said ‘here’s your new one.’ It was a good one. It’s one I’ve always wanted or close to it. Obviously, if I keep winning fights it will get better but who am I going to fight? Who am I going to fight right now?” Felder said.
“There’s plenty of guys below me that are amazing. Islam Makhachev, Diego Ferreira, Gregor Gillespie, yeah they can probably beat me, I can probably beat them, I’m not excited about it. Tony Ferguson, three-fight losing streak, not excited about that. Don’t want to do that. Don’t want to do a week in the hospital, breaking my orbital, breaking my face, puncturing a lung, more scars and cuts than I can even count. I don’t want that anymore.”
While he’ll always love fighting and the career he put together, Felder understood that getting ready for another top-ranked opponent would require more than he had to give these days. That’s when he knew it was time to retire and let the lightweight division move on without him.
“That spark that I need to fight, especially the way that I fight, it just wasn’t there anymore,” Felder said. “If I’m not itching to even get to training to get to do this stuff and I’m getting fight offers. The only reason it took this long is I gave everybody a chance to really convince me. The UFC was really good and really patient with me.
“Sean Shelby called me several times. Had a conversation with me to see where my head was at. We had this conversation twice now recently and the second one I finally called him back the other day, I was like I’m retiring on Saturday. I’m done.”
As further proof that his career was really at an end, Felder admits that he didn’t even get fired up after watching former opponent Charles Oliveira go out and become UFC lightweight champion recently.
Prior to the Brazilian’s current nine-fight win streak, Felder was the most recent opponent to defeat him after he bludgeoned Oliveira with elbows to earn a second-round knockout.
“No, it didn’t [give me that spark],” Felder said when asked about Oliveira’s recent triumph. “If you’re the last guy to knock out the current champion … cause it’s not the same guy. He’s a beast now. I’m not saying I couldn’t potentially beat him. I still think to this day that there’s not a guy on this roster that any given day I couldn’t beat but I just don’t think that I’m going to get the fights and then string together the wins that are going to get me the momentum to get to that fight.
“I’ll just hold on to that knockout of Charles Oliveira and get the hell out of here. You’re never getting that one back buddy. I knocked your ass out but now you’re champion and you look great doing it.”
Long-term health also remained a concern for Felder as he looked towards the future.
While he avoided any lingering injuries that are still haunting him, Felder was well aware that there were no guarantees he’d remain this healthy if he continued fighting.
In the end, all of those reasons added up to Felder making the decision to retire and walk away with his mind and body intact, which is sadly more than many prominent combat sports athletes can say after a career spent taking punches.
“I don’t want to get hit in the head anymore,” Felder said. “I don’t have any major health concerns right now that I’m worried about but I’ve been some battles and I’ve been in more battles than I’ve been in the octagon that I’ve been inside the room. I used to spar really hard and I’ve sparred really top-level guys for years and years and years and I’m creeping up closer to 40 everyday.
“I want to be able to do sports and do other things and do activities with my daughter and play with my dog and do stuff like that.”