The tight left hook landed, Damon Jackson fell to the canvas awkwardly, and Dan Ige walked off triumphant, adrenaline coursing through his body, filling him with the kind of ineffable feeling only those that have been in his position can fully comprehend.
But after strutting around the cage with a single finger raised to his lips, a signal to those that had written him off to be quiet, the Hawaiian featherweight disappeared into the arms of his head coach Eric Nicksick and the bravado instantly faded. The two men exchanged quiet words, each man’s eyes filling with tears, before Ige embraced Jackson’s coach, Sayif Saud, and checked in with his opponent, the two veterans conversing about shared experiences and mutual respect prior to the official result being read aloud.
Standing in the center of the Octagon with referee Jason Herzog poised to lift his hand aloft, Ige fidgeted and fought back tears; an ocean of emotion built up over two incredibly trying years desperate to be let loose. Speaking with Paul Felder in the cage after the bout, his voice trembled a bit — everything he’d been through, all that he’d worked on prior to that moment shifting inside him, ready to come pouring out.
“I think what led me to it was time,” Ige said as we talked about the difficult personal journey he embarked on prior to that contest. “I had to go through a rough season of losing three times in the course of two years and not understanding why.”
Saturday night in Las Vegas, Ige puts a two-fight winning streak on the line against fellow ranked featherweight Bryce Mitchell.
This is how he got there.
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From June 2018 to May 2020, Ige rattled off six straight wins to climb into the Top 15 in the ultra-competitive featherweight division. The run of success landed him his first main event assignment in a matchup with Calvin Katter.
After ending up on the wrong side of the results in a competitive bout with the New England Cartel member, Ige quickly rebounded with a 22-second knockout win over Gavin Tucker that instantly re-affirmed his standing as one of the best fighters in the division.
Three months later, the Xtreme Couture representative headlined for a second time, squaring off with and losing a decision to “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung.
Six months later, he suffered another loss on the scorecards, this time to Josh Emmett. And six months after that, a third straight decision loss to Movsar Evloev left the talented Hawaiian desperate to fix whatever was keeping him from performing at his best inside the Octagon. He’d never lost consecutive fights before, and now he’d dropped three straight, and four of his last five.
“I always thought it was just that I had to work harder, but I’m already working as hard as is humanly possible, and I couldn’t figure it out,” explained Ige, who followed up his win over Jackson with a hard-fought unanimous decision victory over Nate Landwehr at UFC 289 in Vancouver. “I couldn’t figure out why things weren’t clicking, and after the Korean Zombie fight, going through that — putting all that pressure on myself, becoming a dad, failing — I felt like I had to get it back right away.
“I went into the Josh Emmett fight and I remember walking out in the T-Mobile Arena numb — no feelings at all. With the knowledge I have now, I was depressed, but I didn’t know it. I was just going through the motions and showing up, doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Go through that fight, close fight, didn’t go my way, but again I just felt like I had to get one back because I had never lost two-in-a-row, and I can’t lose three-in-a-row, so I’ve got to get another one and I’m healthy.
“I took the Movsar Evloev fight — I don’t think a lot of people wanted to fight that guy — and I saw it as an opportunity where if I beat this guy, I’m back in it because no one wants to fight him; he’s undefeated. I saw it as more of an opportunity, rather than a bad matchup.
“They gave me 17 weeks to prepare and I went to Colorado because I had the Rocky mindset of ‘I’m gonna get out of my comfort zone, leave my family’ and I just burnt myself out mentally,” he added. “Going into that fight I was like, ‘I had 17 weeks to prepare, how am I tired doing a warmup?’ That’s a s***** feeling to feel right before you’re about to fight.”
The fight with Evloev was one-sided, the undefeated Russian sweeping the scorecards and earning a 10-8 score in the third from one of the judges. It was viewed at the time as proof that Evloev was the real deal, as even Jung and Emmett didn’t dominate Ige the way he had.
For the Las Vegas native, it was the lowest point of his career.
When you feel like you’re doing everything in your power to succeed and the results you’re after don’t come, it can be debilitating. The feelings are compounded when you start to pull apart every part of your efforts, looking for the places where your performance is lacking, where you could improve, give more, work harder, and find little more you can possibly do.
If you follow Ige on Instagram, you know he’s a tireless worker and consummate professional — a first in, last out type that turns up for every session, never cuts corners, and will always give you one more rep or one more round if that’s what you feel is required in order for him to be the best version of himself.
But sometimes it’s not more effort in the gym that is needed.
“After that fight is when I really started working on my inner self,” offered the humble family man. “I started going to therapy. I had a good friend of mine from church, completely outside of fighting, come over to my house every day and we would do ice baths, drink coffee, talk about life, talk about our feelings, talk about whatever is going on, but being very present about it, real about it, honest about it.
“During that time is when something clicked. I was like, ‘This isn’t about me working on my jab or my defense or strength and conditioning — it was about me working on my personal life and being more in tune with myself and my close relationships with my wife and my son.’
“When I was going through that season, I couldn’t really enjoy the time I had with my son because I wasn’t present — I was thinking about the next fight.”
He paused, the impact of that difficult realization and the sting of saying it out loud still understandably lingering.
“That’s when things clicked for me and I realized the importance of community,” continued Ige, acknowledging how important it has been for him to have a community away from the gym, away from fighting. “I started leading a men’s group and that’s helped me a lot.
“Being able to share the things I went through and realize it’s actually helping others because they hear I went through it — something about sharing and helping others helped me feel better about myself, helped me get through those hard times.
“All that led up to the Damon Jackson fight, and I felt so free in there,” he said, the smile on his face radiating through the phone. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself like, ‘I’m on a three-fight losing skid.’ I didn’t even think about that. It was just like, ‘I’m gonna go in there and let loose, be free with it, and whatever is supposed to happen is going to happen.’”
Late second round.
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The win didn’t change anything for Ige, other than to allow him to release the emotions and tension built up over two years without a victory.
Everything else that he’d been working on prior to that fight remained in place and continued to be prominent pieces of his personal puzzle. He’s also worked on giving himself a little more grace, as well.
“I remember going into fight week, I was like, ‘I’m going to hang out with my family and go eat a burger because I worked really hard,’” recalled Ige, who enters Saturday’s contest stationed at No. 12 in the featherweight rankings, two spots behind Mitchell. “Being a little loose with it helped me a lot with being able to go out there and perform.
“I listened to "Mighty Mouse” (Demetrious Johnson) on the Joe Rogan podcast and he was kind of talking about that. I don’t know if it was his first title fight in One Championship, but it was after someone close to him died. He was just like me — have to do everything right, do everything perfect — but he was saying that it was fight week and his last hard training session, they were at a kid’s birthday party and he had a beer, and his wife was like, ‘You’re really going to have a beer right now?’
“And he was like, ‘If I’m gonna lose this fight because I drank one beer, I should probably lose this fight.’”
“That mindset makes sense. I put in the work and me eating a burger right now — if I’m gonna lose this fight because of a burger or miss weight because of a burger, I should probably miss weight or lose this fight.
“We’re professionals and perfectionism isn’t the answer,” he added. “I know I can do everything right and still lose, and so I’m just having a little more grace for myself because I’m such a perfectionist that I beat myself up for eating a burger!”
Whether it’s a beer or a burger, Ige is now affording himself the space to enjoy those moments with his friends and family, resolute in his knowledge that he’s done everything possible to prepare himself for the challenge ahead of him.
Going through that season of losing was daunting — a dark time for a naturally engaging and positive soul — but the self-discovery and new tools that came from it have filled Ige with a renewed sense of confidence that has translated into consecutive victories and another key opportunity to showcase his skills this weekend.
“I think that’s the story of my career — the resiliency in coming back from defeat,” he said. “I feel like I’ve unlocked another level, mentally.
“I’m very honest with myself, whereas before I could be tough externally, but had daily mental struggles. Now I’m a little more open about it, a little more vulnerable, and very honest with myself, and that has helped me unlock some new potential.
“To get two wins, get a streak going again, and start building that momentum again (was important) because I’m trying to go on a run here,” he added. “I’ve done it before and fallen short, but I didn’t come this far just to fall and stay down.”
UFC Fight Night: Fiziev vs Gamrot took live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 23, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!