Former UFC Middleweight champion Chris Weidman covered over 5,000 miles the day before the UFC 205 press conference in New York City in September. A little over 48 hours before that, the Long Island native was at a “really nice Italian restaurant” in Manhattan, sitting across a table from UFC President Dana White – the two had business to take care of.
The 32-year-old did not have a deal to fight on the first card ever in his hometown.
“We had a long, nice dinner,” Weidman recalls. “But we didn’t come to terms on a contract. And then he felt that it was in everybody’s best interest if I head out to Las Vegas and meet with Lorenzo [Fertita].”
After years of talking to senators, assemblymen and even the governor a few times to advocate for the legalization of mixed martial arts in New York, Weidman was a contract away from fighting in the UFC’s first ever event in the state, at Madison Square Garden no less. The Hofstra graduate was one of two fighters – Ronda Rousey the other – peering over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shoulder in April when he signed a bill to legalize the sport.
But less than two days away from the press conference for New York’s first event in his own backyard, Weidman had to prepare himself for the possible reality that he might not participate in the historic event.
“It was like a dream come true to be able to fight there,” Weidman says of the chance to fight at Madison Square Garden. “But at the same time, I was in negotiation so I had to kind of stay strong on what I felt like I deserved and I couldn’t let that influence me and get emotional about my excitement.”
Weidman left that dinner without a deal and flew to Las Vegas the next morning to meet with Ferttita, the UFC’s former owner. The second-ranked middleweight met with the billionaire, who had been his point man for negotiations, at his house. But as Weidman left and got back on a plane home, he still did not have a contract.
“I still needed to talk to my wife about the things, and I needed to think about it a little bit. But the pressure was on obviously because they needed to announce the card,” Weidman says. “On the plane ride home as it was about to take off, Dana [White] called me and we hashed out a few things that we were disagreeing on as I was whispering to him on the plane sitting next to people. We got the deal done right there and then.”
After nights without much sleep, Weidman could finally take a breath, even if just for a moment. He would fly back home, nap and then take a car service to the city for the press conference in front of a delirious crowd, announcing that arguably the most well-known active New York-born fighter would get his shot to perform in front of his hometown friends and fans for the first time against fourth-ranked Yoel Romero at UFC’s NYC debut. It won’t be an easy fight by any means as Romero has not lost since joining the promotion. The Cuban-born has finished his opponent in five of seven UFC fights.
“We’re going to blow the roof off the place,” Weidman’s Serra-Longo teammate and eighth-ranked UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling believes. “It’s going to be a crazy moment for everybody.”
In a sense, though, the scene is going to be all too familiar for Weidman.
As a kid, his uncle would take Weidman and his siblings to the circus and hockey games at Madison Square Garden. While he certainly didn’t like the home team (Weidman is a huge New York Islanders fan), he begrudgingly went to see the New York Rangers play. Over time, he’s learned to appreciate the Blueshirts more. Since Weidman has risen in prominence as an athlete, he has had plenty of opportunities to live out his dream of spending time behind the scenes at the Garden.
“They bring me to the locker rooms, I meet all the players,” Weidman says. “They hook me up. It’s awesome.”
Yet the fighter doesn’t take anything for granted. Weidman knows that when he’s in the Madison Square Garden locker room getting ready to go out in front of a frenzied crowd for his own match on November 12th, that he’s got to enjoy the moment. His fight in his city. There aren’t many opportunities like this in life.
The venue also serves a symbol for Weidman. The New Yorker sometimes trains at one of Renzo Gracie’s legendary academies, just a block away from the World’s Most Famous Arena, and passes it regularly.
“You’re walking right past Madison Square Garden all the time, so [I’m] very familiar,” Weidman says. “Sometimes you take a second you look at it, you think about it and you realize the importance of the possibility of me fighting there soon. Now it’s a fact that I am going to be fighting there soon. So it’s a cool thing.”
This will not be just any fight for the former champion, though – the last time he stepped into the Octagon, he lost for the first time in his mixed martial arts career. Luke Rockhold, who would lose the belt in his next fight to current middleweight champion Michael Bisping, knocked Weidman out in the fourth round last December at UFC 194.
“That was about as bad as I’ve ever seen anybody after a fight as far as how it hit him,” one of Weidman’s trainers and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra says. “Devastated is an understatement. He was just beside himself.”
After beating Anderson Silva, one of the greatest of all time, twice and defending his belt two more times after that, Weidman’s loss left him off the top of the middleweight mountain for the first time in a long time. It looked like he’d get a shot at summiting again in a rematch with Rockhold in June at UFC 199, but he had to pull out from the fight.
“I felt so good in training and two weeks before the fight, nothing even crazy happened. My neck just went out and it was done. I had a bad herniation in my neck,” Weidman says. “I got an injection into it and it didn’t do any good, so it was really bad. I went to the doctor and they said it was dangerous for me to continue and so unfortunately I had to pull out of the fight, which sucked. I wanted it bad.”
But not only was he forced to pull out of the fight – Weidman lost his chance at regaining what was his belt. When he steps in the ring against Romero, he will be competing in a non-title matchup for the first time since 2012.
“The fight really is a championship caliber fight,” Weidman’s trainer Ray Longo points out. “So obviously we’re not overlooking anything and Yoel is tough. But I mean if Chris was still the champ he could be fighting Yoel Romero and defending his belt. So it is a championship caliber fight. The guy’s right up there.”
Nobody at Weidman’s gym thought he needed any extra motivation, though.
15th-ranked light heavyweight Gian Villante has known Weidman since he messed around with (and lost to) his now good friend and fellow Hofstra alumnus in a wrestling match during high school when he was in tenth grade and Chris was in eleventh. Villante, who is fighting on the UFC’s first card in Albany this December, said that even after losing to Rockhold there is one thing that has stayed the same since they were kids.
“The guy don’t like losing,” Villante says. “With anything – video games, a race up the stairs, fight, anything – this guy will not lose.”
Villante remembers hanging out with Weidman during fight weeks, playing games such as FIFA with Weidman to wind down before going to sleep. But there was a problem – Villante wouldn’t lose, so Weidman wouldn’t let his buddy hit the hay until he won. It didn’t matter how late at night or at times how early in the morning they had to play until.
“The guy hates losing and that’s a fucking game of FIFA,” Villante said. “That’s a video game, imagine what that is in real life shit where it’s taking food off your family’s plate and potentially losing the roof over your kids’ head? So magnify that times a million and that’s where he’s at right now with wanting to kill Yoel Romero…you look at your kids’ faces every morning and if he’s losing in a video game and he’s going that nuts, imagine losing a fight.”
Weidman tasted what it was like to lose for the first time, but those around him said that it might have helped despite the disappointment.
“I think that you’re gonna see the best Chris Weidman to date,” Serra says. “I think he’s going to put a beating on Yoel Romero and then beat up Michael Bisping and get the belt back.”
But as Weidman said himself, first things first – he has to take care of business on November 12th, on one of the grandest sporting stages in the world. Perhaps Serra puts it best: “What better way to start his way back then to do it at the Garden?”