The lead up to UFC 223 was, by all accounts, a shitshow. A Conor McGregor bus attack meant that Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg had to withdraw from the card and the main fight of the night between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Max Holloway was plunged into uncertainty after the Hawaiian was declared medically unfit to fight by the New York Athletic State Commission.
This news sent the company into a frenzy as they searched for a fighter to replace Holloway. First Anthony Pettis was mentioned, but there were reports that the UFC couldn't agree a fee with the 31-year-old. Then Paul Felder was talked about as an opponent but the UFC are said to have ran into trouble fixing the fight because of where the American was ranked. Eventually Dana White managed to fix a fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Al Iaquinta.
NYSAC executive director Kim Sumbler has been speaking to MMA Fighting and has explained how the search for a replacement fighter unfolded:
I was called into the room about half an hour before the weigh-ins were over, our last weigh-in time was 11:00, so it was about 10:30 in the morning. We were called into a room with my chief medical officer and Jeff Davidson of the UFC medical team and discussed Max’s condition. It was decided at that time jointly that we weren’t going to allow Max to weigh in.
Sumbler then revealed the sequence of events that led Anthony Pettis to rule himself out of a potential title fight:
Anthony hadn’t weighed in yet, so we went and talked to his team, Anthony was a little over. He was 0.2 (pounds) over and him and his team discussed if they were going to lose the additional 0.2 pounds so that they could fight for the title or not.
I asked Anthony directly, I had him look me in the face because he was writing some paper work and I said, ‘Anthony, I want you to turn and look at me,’ and he did. And it was in front of the UFC and his team, and I said, ‘Anthony, do you want to lose the extra 0.2 (pounds) and he said, ‘no, I don’t,’ and I said, ‘okay,’ and he took this great big jug of water and he drank it and I said, ‘guys, go pick up the scale’. And that was the end of it. I said I would approve a three-round fight, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for a five, I’ll approve you for a three-round fight against Khabib’. He went to go and do negotiations (with the UFC) and that was the last I heard until they presented me to Al.
Sumbler rejected the reports that Paul Felder was ever in serious contention to replace Holloway, clarifying that Pettis and Iaquinta were the only two fighters offered up to the commission:
Paul Felder never came into play. He was never presented to me as an opponent, ever. His name was talked around the commission room with other fighters, other managers and other people, but the UFC never presented me Paul Felder as a potential opponent for Khabib.
Al Iaquinta would eventually face Nurmagomedov in the octagon on Saturday night, the Russian dominating the American, winning the bout by unanimous decision, but the event closed an embarrassing week for the UFC and as constant negative press surrounding weight cutting gathers pace.