When the cage door unlocks and their fight is over, Chris Wade is looking forward to shaking his opponent’s hand.
“I just want to thank him for giving me a bout,” he said.
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Wade will face newcomer Mehdi Baghdad at UFC Fight Night 81 Sunday night in Boston. Victory always is the goal, but Wade’s happy the fight is even happening after it appeared in jeopardy just a week ahead of the show.
After finding his way on the card as an injury replacement for Beneil Dariush against Mairbek Taisumov, Wade was left without an opponent himself reportedly due to issues with Taisumov’s visa. Baghdad (11-3), the current RFA lightweight champion and a contestant last season on “The Ultimate Fighter,” took the opportunity to make his UFC debut.
The late change may be a problem for some, but for Wade, it’s just another turn in a long road back to competition.
The Islip native last fought in June, beating Christos Giagos via unanimous decision. A few days after the win, Wade was offered a short-notice fight against Ramsey Nijem, but turned it down to allow a hip injury to heal. After two weeks, Wade received another offer, this time to fight Canadian up-and-comer Olivier Aubin-Mercier in Canada.
With his hip feeling well enough to train, Wade accepted the bout, seeing it as an opportunity to raise his profile against another highly touted prospect.
“I just want to compete while I’m sort of in my prime as many times as I can,” Wade said. “No person wants to be in their profession and only compete two nights in a year. I was trying to get on a roll, earn income, rise in the rank — the whole nine.”
Wade had a month to prepare, but his big plans were derailed on the first day of training camp. While working with an unfamiliar sparring partner, Wade’s leg was caught in an awkward position while being thrown.
“He tried to finish the throw anyway and I just felt ‘pop’ in the back of my leg,” Wade said.
Wade tried what he could to heal quickly so he still could fight.
“They sent me to cryotherapy to try to ice it down, I spent like a week trying to rehab my leg, but my hamstring just kept failing on me,” Wade said. “I was on one leg, basically. I couldn’t wrestle, I couldn’t take that guy down, I couldn’t kick my leg up past mid-height.”
Wade (10-1, 3-0 UFC) is confident he would’ve defeated Aubin-Mercier if healthy, but he listened to the advice of teammates at Long Island MMA and bowed out of a fight for the first time in his professional career.
While he doesn’t want to live in the past, Wade knows what could have been had that fight gone down.
“It would’ve put me in a better spot. I would’ve fought again probably in the fall,” Wade said. “Who knows where we’d be? You can’t dwell on it, but it’s frustrating opportunity-wise trying to continue to climb in the ranks, especially in my division where there’s 140 guys so you want to climb consistently.”
Opportunity isn’t the only thing Wade lost by pulling out of the fight.
For professional mixed martial artists, who work as independent contractors, not competing means not getting paid.
“I like working out, don’t get me wrong, but I like getting paid, too. Who wants to go six months without a paycheck?” Wade said.
As a relatively new fighter in the UFC, Wade isn’t making the big money that typically comes with being a professional athlete. He earned $12,000 to show, plus a $12,000 win bonus, at his last fight. The time off forced him to string that check out as long as he could, a tough task for a 28-year-old with a young daughter on Long Island.
“If I was Alistair Overeem, I could make it work a lot easier on Long Island making a half a mil every time I fight,” Wade said. “You know how it is to live here, it sucks, I’ve got a house and stuff.”
The time away from competition forced Wade to utilize other sources of income.
“Going six months without work and you turn back into one of the aspiring amateur guys,” Wade said. “You’re doing private lessons, you’re teaching classes, you’re just trying to make ends meet and you’re a professional athlete.”
Non-health factors aside, Wade made the right decision to pull out. After trying to rehab again, a low-grade tear of his hamstring near the insertion point of his hip was eventually discovered.
Wade called his recovery from the slow-healing injury a “mental gut check” as he battled through pain and various setbacks, using the time off his feet to improve technique.
“He’s always working,” said teammate Ryan LaFlare, a UFC welterweight. “Even if he’s hurt, he’s in the gym working. He wants to fight, he’s a fighter.”
By late October, Wade felt well enough to go, but there wasn’t a matchup to be made just yet. For the next month, he pushed his manager for a fight as soon possible.
In the first week of December, he said his manager told him to begin planning for a fight on Jan. 30 when the UFC returns to Newark. But before Wade could be booked for New Jersey, he was offered to fight Taisumov as an injury replacement, taking it almost immediately and without discussing with coaches.
“It really doesn’t matter who with Chris, it’s just a matter of when and where,” LaFlare said.
Wade was set to go and had a game plan for Taisumov, but he received a call from his manager nine days ahead of the fight telling him the Russian fighter couldn’t compete.
After a few tense hours in which the bout’s status remained up in the air, he finally got word Baghdad would step in on short notice.
The switch may have caused problems for some, but Wade said he has plenty of experience with late opponent changes, both from his time fighting on the local MMA circuit as well as his high school and collegiate wrestling days. He respects Baghdad’s pedigree, which includes a Muay Thai world championship, but believes his own wrestling background is comparable and he’ll be able to take advantage of his opponent’s long frame.
“If you sit out in front of him, yes, he’ll put a combo together and finish with a high kick or a body kick, but that’s if he’s backing you up and if you’re in retreat mode straight back,” Wade said. “You’re talking about a 6-foot man who’s making 155 pounds. There has to be a narrowing somewhere in the body.”