The 32-year-old light-heavyweight was in Colorado last December preparing for a local show when he got the phone call.
"They said if I was willing to fly to Australia and fight in nine days, they were going to give me a UFC contract. And I was like 'Heck yeah, let's do it.' So I jumped on an airplane and flew to Australia."
Donovan (8-3) was rewarded with a win over Canadian Nick Penner. The back-and-forth bout, which lasted four minutes 35 seconds, netted both men an extra US$40,000 for fight of the night.
A firearms enthusiast, Donovan treated himself by buying a new rifle and saved the rest.
While acknowledging it was a "very intense" time, Donovan calls the adventure "a great experience, man. A blessing."
Donovan takes the third step on his UFC journey on Saturday night when he opens UFC 167 against Gian Villante, a late replacement in his own right, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Both men are coming off a loss to Ovince St. Preux, a former University of Tennessee defensive end. Donovan was knocked out in the first round in August while Villante, a former Hostra University wrestler and linebacker, lost his UFC debut at UFC 159 in April via majority decision.
The fight was stopped in the third round on an unintentional foul, after Villante was poked in the eye. St. Preux won a 30-28, 30-29, 29-29 decision.
Villante (10-4) is taking the Donovan matchup in 19 days notice, stepping up to replace Robert Drysdale.
For Donovan, the change of opponent is severe. Drysdale is a jiu-jitsu master while Villante, who trains with UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, has scored six of his 10 wins by knockout.
"I think it's a different type of fight in a good way," said Donovan. "I don't by any means think that Villante is an easier fight but I think it is a fight that allows me to be me a little bit more. With the Drysdale fight, as good as his ground game is, there could be a tendency to have somewhat of a cautious game plan. ... I can kind of play in all areas of the fight without being too cautious."
Donovan sees Villante as a strong wrestler with an "interesting" striking style.
"He's a well-rounded guy, kind of the modern mixed martial artist. Kind of good at everything. Things he likes to do, I like to do as well and I think that I do those things better. Only time will tell but I'm excited about the fight."
Donovan had early success against St. Preux, taking him down. But when St. Preux managed to reverse positions, he found himself in trouble.
"On the one side, I learned you can't slack off at all," he said. "I rested a little bit on the bottom, I didn't break his posture down, I made one or two mistakes and it cost me the fight.
"The lesson is just to stay sharp and know, at this level, there's no room for even one mistake because it can cost you the fight. I went back and looked at the Ovince St. Preux fight and up to that point, I was really happy with the way it was going. I felt like I was landing my strikes, I felt like the game plan was working well — the stuff on the wall, the clinch-fighting. And then I guess I just got a little impatient. I tried to force it to the ground and that's what happened."
This time out, Donovan promises to temper his aggression with patience.
Donovan is trying to appreciate his MMA journey along the way and recalls a recent conversation with a friend who told him to think back to several years back when Donovan needed potentially career-ending shoulder surgery.
"He told me to imagine if I was sitting down with that version of myself at a table and how I should appreciate all these great things that have happened recently. It's easy to get caught up in the stress and stuff. On your first (UFC) contract, if you lose more than once there's a chance you can get fired. Things like that.
"I'm just trying to focus on the positive, focus on fighting my best. And trying to enjoy it. It's a lot easier to enjoy (it) after the fight. During camp, it's all business."
A native of Walterloo, Iowa, Donovan trains in Denver where the BJJ black belt runs a jiu-jitsu academy — High Altitude Martial Arts — with fellow UFC fighters Nate (The Great) Marquardt and Elliot (The Fire) Marshall.
Donovan's martial arts career has meant he has not had to use his degree in media arts from the Art Institute of Colorado, where he studied broadcast graphics and TV animation. He also worked as a security guard in the psychiatric ward of a Denver hospital, earning the nickname donnybrook from one of his co-workers.
"It was very very intense," he recalled. "That job made me appreciate all the little things in life because you see some of these people in there — they had lost their minds and they had nothing.
"I think that was one of the things that go me out of media arts and stuff as well. I was like 'man, life is short. I want to do something that makes me happy.' And that job helped turned me towards mixed martial arts, definitely."
He had started learning jiu-jitsu when he was 17 but says he didn't start taking it seriously until he was 22 or 23.
Donovan looked to make the career switch to fighting when he and Marquardt went on a road trip to Albuquerque, N.M. to help Keith (The Dean of Mean) Jardine prepare for a fight.
A week with Jardine, Rashad Evans, Joey Villasenor and Georges St-Pierre and the fighters' camaraderie and lifestyle won him over.
"On the drive home, I made up my mind. I was like 'Man, that's what I want to do.' I went back to Denver and started working at it."
For this fight, his training took him to California for a week to train with his friend Brendan (The Hybrid) Schaub.Suggest a correction