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Local fighters look to honor Las Vegas at UFC 216

Kevin Lee, Tony Ferguson drop animosity in wake of tragedy

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L.E. Baskow

Evan Dunham answers a question during the UFC 216 media day at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

Evan Dunham’s young daughter was restless and couldn’t fall asleep for hours on end Sunday night.

The insomnia baffled the 35-year-old UFC lightweight, who mused what was causing something so uncharacteristic while he tried to help put her to bed. Then, once she finally drifted off around 2 a.m., Dunham caught word of the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival and drew his own conclusion.

“I think she just kind of felt the negativity in the air,” Dunham said.

Dunham then became the sleepless one, devouring the news all night while texting anyone in his phone book whom he thought might be around the Strip. Everyone Dunham reached out to was safe, but he felt the heartbreak of the community where’s he lived for nearly a decade as the sunrise ushered in a new day.

He was relieved to find out UFC 216 would continue on as scheduled, starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. To Dunham (18-6 MMA, 11-6 UFC), the event now feels like more than a chance to set a career-high with a fifth straight victory in the octagon when he fights Beneil Dariush (14-3 MMA, 8-3) to open the pay-per-view card.

It feels like a chance to give his adopted home something to cheer about in the middle of a most trying time.

“Part of me wants to go out there, game plan, forget it and scrap hard like I used to,” Dunham said. “But I’m a little smarter than that now. My goal is to go out there and get a win for the city.”

Dunham isn’t the only one spending fight week thinking about the tragedy. The UFC has pledged $1 million to the victims’ families, and plans to dedicate the pay-per-view to the city.

Dunham’s teammate at Xtreme Couture, Kevin Lee (16-2 MMA, 9-2 UFC), has also battled a heavy heart ahead of his interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson (22-3 MMA, 12-1 UFC) in the main event. Lee was already asleep in Los Angeles on Sunday night during the massacre, but like many locals, woke up early the next morning to scores of texts checking on him.

Lee found it, “hard to even talk about the fight,” for the next couple days, but eventually decided he wanted to give Las Vegas something to celebrate.

“I’ve got a job to handle,” he said. “I’m not going to let one man ruin that. He’s a coward. It ain’t going to happen. I’m going to go out there, do my job and show the folks.”

Lee and Ferguson have been highly antagonistic towards each other ever since their fight was announced in August. That’s not unordinary considering the brash nature of the two fighters, let alone with the high stakes UFC 216 offers with the winner potentially earning a shot at lineal lightweight champion Conor McGregor.

But the hostility was greatly minimized at Wednesday’s media day at T-Mobile Arena. Ferguson said it didn’t feel appropriate to exchange insults through the media given the circumstances, and Lee mostly agreed.

“There are so much bigger things in life,” Lee said. “Me and Tony, we might have a lot of back and forth. We might have a lot of disrespect. I might not like him, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be disappointed with the result, but I hope he goes home, enjoys his life, enjoys his family and he can keep on living.”

Although Ferguson resides in Orange County, Calif., the tragedy may have resonated the strongest of any fighter on the card with him. He said his wife and family nearly decided to attend Route 91 upon hearing the music after exiting a nearby church hours before the shooting as a way to occupy themselves while he trained.

They ultimately decided against it, but were still on the Strip when Ferguson finished his workout and realized what had happened.

“The things that happened put it all in perspective,” Ferguson said. “Immediately, the fight didn’t matter. The animosity and everything that everyone was saying doesn’t matter.”

The big break in Ferguson’s career came six years ago when he filmed and won the 13th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in Las Vegas. The city holds special significance to almost every fighter, especially those who uproot and move here permanently like Lee and Dunham.

To Dunham, Vegas Strong registers as more than a phrase.

“People that live in Vegas are tough,” Dunham said. “Most of us are from somewhere else, and we moved here. In order to pick up from where you’re from and move to Las Vegas and survive and thrive, you’ve got to be pretty tough. A lot of these guys that work in the industry have tough hours so I think everyone will bounce back pretty quick.”

“I’m ready to get in there, carry Vegas on my shoulders, get after it and put on a show for them.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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