NEW YORK -- From the beginning, for Chris Weidman, it was not just great expectations, it was the grandest of expectations. This is a guy, after all, who only decided to get into mixed martial arts after watching and analyzing Anderson Silva and coming to the conclusion that he could and would beat him.
Think about that for a second. In the summer of 2008, when Anderson Silva had already been the champion for two years, and Weidman had yet to take a single MMA class, he looked at the man generally regarded as the sport's G.O.A.T. and reasoned he could win.
How presumptuous? How brash? How … about if it actually happens?
Anyone looking from the outside would say his deduction was crazy, but to Weidman it became the all-encompassing push of his life. As soon as he got his then-fiancee, now-wife Marivi on board -- her only demands were that he supplement his meager coaching salary and come home without any black eyes -- Silva became his target.
"Honestly, I just knew by the time I get to him I’m beating him. I knew that for a fact, even in the beginning," he said on Monday, just before flying to Las Vegas for his headlining spot at UFC 162. "I said, 'By the time I’m there, I’m beating him.' While I was in UFC, honestly, I thought I could beat him day one but I didn’t want to come out and say that because I didn't want the attention I'd get from it. But I felt I could beat him from day one. Give me a full training camp and I felt I could beat him."
As bold as that sounds, Weidman was hardly alone in that belief. Before he ever stepped foot in the UFC octagon, his trainer felt the same way. Back in late 2010, I was talking to his trainer Ray Longo, and asked him about this prospect I'd been hearing about. Longo said the hype was legitimate, and that he felt confident putting Weidman in the cage with anyone on the UFC roster.
"Anyone?" I asked. "Even Anderson Silva?"
"Anyone," he said then.
When reminded of that conversation in the present day, Longo laughs. He remembers it.
"I don’t know if I was as confident back then as I am today, but man, I've got to tell you, I believe in this guy’s abilities," he said. "He’s a prodigy, a special kid. He’s going to do it on July 6."
To hear Weidman tell it, he has to. When he first made the plunge, it was about opportunity. Weidman was living in his parent's basement, just trying to make ends meet while planning for a wedding. He was making $15,000 a year as an assistant wrestling coach at Hofstra and working on a masters degree which he thought he would put to use as a physical education teacher. He had such little expendable income that he chose to keep his clothes in garbage bags instead of splurging on a new dresser.
That existence served as a reality check. Weidman admits that in his wrestling days, he wasn't always the hardest-working athlete, not at something that came fairly easy to him. That, he knew, had to change. When he dedicated himself to the sport, it was all or nothing. And that's why now, as he steps on the precipice of history, everything that's come before colors the outcome.
"If I don’t win this title, it’s a complete failure in my mind," he said. "I got in the sport for one reason, to be champion. When I decided to make the transition from wrestling to MMA, it was going to be a big sacrifice on my family. I had to make the decision, 'I’m going to work hard every single day. I'm going to do the best I possibly can with the athletic ability I have.' I knew I had potential, I knew I had talent. But it’s easy to waste that, especially when you have talent. I could beat a lot of guys in the room not really working hard. But I wanted to be known as the hardest worker in the room, which wasn’t always my main thing before I got to MMA. I said if I’m going to do this and my family is going to have to go through this. I'm working my ass off to be No. 1. The only reason I’m going to do it is to be world champion."
The prevailing notion on Weidman is that with his wrestling background and ground skills -- he's a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt -- he can stifle and maybe even beat up Silva on the ground. But Weidman won't limit his options; he believes he can win anywhere. Longo said a top UFC fighter that recently sparred with Weidman couldn't believe his hands, and Weidman says he's sent more than a few boxers packing their things after a sparring session. He's not afraid to throw down with the champ. He wants to. He wants things to get dirty.
"If you go in the cage with insecurities, he’s going to feed on it, he's going to mess with you," he said. "He's going to make that insecurity grow and make you feel, 'Wow, I really don’t belong in the cage with this guy, he can knock me out any time he wants.' You see guys melt down, almost give up because they’re so mentally beaten. Well, he’s going to have to go through hell to do that to me."
It's been a year since he last fought. It has been a trying time. For a while, it appeared he would not be given the Silva fight. He's had shoulder surgery and his house was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. One of his mentors, Matt Serra, suffered a major health scare when it was discovered he had a condition that caused blood clots and forced the removal of a rib.
But things are trending in the right direction. He's days away from fighting the G.O.A.T. He says he didn't need to ice his shoulder a single time in camp. He's back in his house after months of renovation, and Serra is on the mend. But he can't travel, and in his place, Weidman's father Charlie will be in his corner. His presence will not be strategic but spiritual, lending a father's positivity to a challenging situation, the same way as it was back when Chris began wrestling in the second grade.
Charlie will be Chris' reminder of why he's doing this. He can remember his father coming home from a hard day of work and still sharing himself with his kids. Chris, now a father of two himself, says that's something he's still working on. This journey has been that taxing. But it was always as much about building a better life for that family as it was about being No. 1.
The way Weidman sees it, there is fate in this story. He never got that black eye that would have sent him out of the sport. He healed just in time to take this fight. His family is back home. His dad is in his corner for the first time ever.
"I feel everything is lined up perfectly," he said. "I have zero excuses to lose this fight. I just feel like it's perfect timing in every possible way. I do feel all the stars are aligned for me to win this belt. I can’t see me losing. I don't see it happening."
His goal now is to shine, to look unbeatable, to announce a new world order. As far as Weidman is concerned, from the beginning, this was the only possible ending.