Canadian fighter Mitch Gagnon was just drifting off to sleep on Boxing Day when he was startled by a late-night phone call.
His manager was on the line with some great news. After paying his dues over the last few years on lower-level mixed martial arts cards, Gagnon would soon get a turn in the UFC spotlight.
The Canadian bantamweight will fill in for the injured Eddy Wineland in a bout against Johnny (Brutal) Bedford in Chicago on Jan. 28.
"I can't really describe the feeling," Gagnon said in a recent interview. "For four years, I dedicated my life to the sport and it's finally paying off. I'm just really grateful for this opportunity and I plan on making the best of it."
Rashad (Suga) Evans will take on Phil (Mr. Wonderful) Davis in the main event at the United Center. It's the second show for the UFC under its seven-year television contract with Fox.
Gagnon, a 27-year-old from Sudbury, Ont., has won six straight fights in upping his record to 8-1. He's coming off an October submission win over David Harris at Ringside MMA 12.
Bedford (18-10-1), meanwhile, was one of the 135-pounders featured on Season 14 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
At five foot 10, Bedford will have four inches on Gagnon. Looking up at his opponent is nothing new for the Canadian, who used to fight as a featherweight.
"If you look at my previous five fights, I think the shortest guy was five foot nine," Gagnon said. "So I'm used to this disadvantage ... he's tall and for some reason I match up well with tall opponents."
Gagnon, who works as a trainer at a local MMA training facility he co-owns, spent his early years in wrestling and judo before focusing on mixed martial arts.
"I've been training pretty much all my life," he said. "It was always a goal of mine. I didn't know if I was going to actually do it professionally or not, but I knew that I wanted to be involved in it."
With support from the local community and sponsors, Gagnon has been able to get away from work to focus on training.
"I've been able to train with other camps and just get a feel of these high-quality training partners that are in the UFC and just get a feeling for what they do," he said. "The preparation is pretty much the same. I'm still training for a professional fight and I take it very seriously."
Bedford, a 29-year-old native of Oregon, Ohio, also has a wrestling background.
He admits he doesn't know much about his Canadian opponent.
"I know this is his UFC debut and I am looking forward to showing him the difference between UFC fighters and the guys he is used to fighting," Bedford said on the UFC website.
All of Gagnon's victories have come via submission and all but one came in the first round. He plans to pounce early and often against Bedford.
"I think my wrestling, my tenacity, my aggression will dictate the fight," he said. "I think that's where I'll be able to capitalize on his mistakes.
"He makes mistakes when he's being pressured. That's where I'm going to expose him."
As for the brighter spotlight of a UFC event, Gagnon said his only focus is performing well in the octagon.
"I feel great — I feel the same way I do with my other fights," he said. "Those are questions I'll have to answer after the fight, to see how I felt there at the venue, at the weigh-ins, at the hotel, just preparing leading up to the fight in the week out.
"Right now I'm doing the same thing I always do. I specialize my training on what kind of opponent I have and go from there."
He added he'll be ready if the fight goes the distance.
"I just go for it," Gagnon said. "I try my hardest, I push the pace and fortunately I was able to get quick victories during my short career so far."
Gagnon will walk around at 150 pounds before cutting about 15 pounds in the week before the fight.
"I feel good, my head is right," he said. "I'm focused and training hard. I'm loving the process."
Notes: The Score Fighting Series will return to Hamilton on March 16. A bout between John Alessio (33-14) and (Diamond) Ryan Healy (19-9-1) has been confirmed for the card at the Hamilton Place Theatre. Series veterans Rich Clementi, Josh Hill, Alex Ricci, Shane Campbell and Lyndon Whitlock are also expected to appear.