Day's big gamble pays off

The story sounds like a Canadian version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Jason Day had purchased a 1992 Volkswagen Jetta, which he endearingly called a piece of crap, packed enough clothes for a four-day trip and headed off with Lee Mein in search of riches in Las Vegas.

Day and Mein weren't hoping to get rich at a blackjack table or to get hot on the craps table.

They were hunting for a job and had driven 19 hours nonstop with no guarantees of getting lucky.

"When I tell the story, it does sound a little strange sometimes," Mein said.

Mein promotes the Rumble in the Cage mixed martial arts shows in Western Canada and is a fight trainer. Day has become one of his prized pupils.

They dreamed for years of reaching the UFC, but there were times each man had his doubts whether they'd reach it.

But a chance encounter with fight manager Dean Albrecht opened the door to what Day says will be the culmination of a dream.

Day, a native of Lethbridge, Alb., will fight Alan Belcher on April 19 at UFC 83 in Montreal.

If it weren't for that grueling drive in the beaten-up car – which needed a little TLC and forced an unexpected stop in Butte, Mont. – neither man would be more than a footnote on the MMA scene.

They were so eager, though, for a chance to fight in the UFC that they were willing to make an unbearably long drive with a remarkably low chance of success.

"If worst came to worst and we didn't get a contract, at least we'd have gotten to see the card," said Day, a middleweight who has compiled a 15-5 record with notable wins over David Loiseau and Jonathan Goulet.

Albrecht was throwing a party prior to UFC 74 in August in Las Vegas for people connected with the MMA industry. He had invited UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, which he conveniently mentioned to Mein.

Mein had spent much of the last six years molding Day into a fighter and knew this could be their only shot at hitting the big time. Money was tight, so there was never a realistic chance of flying to Las Vegas to meet Silva.

But for the chance to talk to Silva and see if he really was interested, they decided it was worth a gamble. Not all of the gambling in the world is done by dropping quarters into a slot machine or chips onto a felt table.

"I had heard from people in Canada, other managers and people who have been around, that if Jason wins two more fights, he's in (the UFC), but I never heard that from Joe Silva himself," Mein said. "And if I did hear from Joe, I knew there was a chance he wouldn't tell me what I wanted to hear."

But Mein and Day met Silva and heard the magic words: Silva was interested.

He had no fight to offer, though, or any specific plan. And it stayed that way until Patrick Cote had to pull out of a fight with Belcher and Silva wanted Day as the replacement.

Day was beside himself. When he was in high school, his friends were into the early UFCs, but he was largely indifferent toward it.

"It seemed barbaric, to be honest, and I didn't see any thrill in it," he said.

He said his interest in the UFC changed when it began to adopt rules and got away from the 'anything goes' concept that plagued its early days.

The brand name had become synonymous with the sport, so much so that Day would often say he was an Ultimate fighter because it was the only way to make the average person understand what he did for a living.

"No other show in the world has the public recognition that the UFC does," he said. "If I say I fight MMA, nobody knows what I'm talking about. But if I say I fight UFC, they all know. It's the place to be if you're an MMA fighter."

Day's base was jiu-jitsu and his striking was so bad that, well, Mein was frustrated nearly every time he saw Day throw a punch.

Mein's philosophy is to inflict punishment and end fights and Day had little ability to do that if the fight was anywhere but on the ground.

"His standup was horrible, completely horrible," Mein said.

Day recognized that, however harsh Mein's words sounded, they were correct. And so he set off to Calgary, a two-hour drive from Lethbridge, to learn to box.

Day had built a small name for himself in Lethbridge, but nobody knew who he was in Calgary. And to Mein, that was a good thing.

"They didn't care who he was and they didn't know who he was," Mein said of the boxers in Calgary. "They just saw him as another guy to beat up."

And, for a while, they did. But slowly, Day began to develop confidence in his striking that he had never had previously.

And he suddenly became much more dangerous.

"When you have more than one thing going for you, you always feel better about things," Day said. "If all you can do is fight off your back and you can't take a guy down, you just kind of can lose hope. But if you know that no matter where the fight goes, you're going to be OK."

The fighter and his coach are both doing OK. But in two months, when the first UFC show debuts in Canada, they'll both be doing a lot better.

"If there is anything that could be better than fighting in the UFC, it's fighting in the UFC in Canada," Day said. "This is beyond what I could ever have dreamed of. I just hoped to get a chance some day and now, I'm in a situation like this. Hard to believe. It's really sometimes hard to believe."