Why the public remains skeptical on Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Whether Chris Weidman can really beat Anderson Silva and end several of the most impressive streaks in UFC history will be answered on Saturday night.

But when it comes to the promotion of UFC 162, the question is not whether Weidman can do it, but whether the company’s marketing machine can convince the casual UFC fan that he can.

Silva has always been a situational draw. Unlike someone like Georges St-Pierre, Chuck Liddell or Brock Lesnar, whose mere presence in a main event guaranteed substantial business, Silva has always needed an added element, whether it be the charismatic opponent, the interesting story, or someone people perceived as a legitimate threat.

One year ago this week with Chael Sonnen as Silva’s middleweight title contender, UFC delivered its biggest gate ever in Las Vegas. It also, and by a substantial margin, did the best pay-per-view numbers of 2012, with an estimated 925,000 buys.

Silva has also drawn strongly against Forrest Griffin at a time when Griffin was still one of the most popular fighters and biggest draws in the company. And he did well with Vitor Belfort, because when it comes to a television commercial, few look better than Belfort with all the years of explosive knockout finishes to splice in.

Many of the most impressive records in UFC history are on the line Sunday. Silva’s 16-fight winning streak is five more than second place Georges St-Pierre. His ten straight title defenses are two more than St-Pierre. And his six years and nine months consecutively as champion is well ahead of St-Pierre’s current five years and three months. In that sense, a win by Weidman is not only a title change, but has huge historical significance when it comes to all-time records. If he wins, with the benefit of hindsight, it would realistically be one of the most historic fights in company history.

Few on the inside will argue that Weidman doesn't pose more of a challenge to Silva than the aforementioned three. But when it comes to the fan base, that’s a different story.

Weidman has had five fights in the octagon since debuting a little more than two years ago. All were wins, and all pretty well one-sided. But he has never made that imprint on the public like Sonnen, Griffin or Belfort had done prior to their matches with Silva.

Weidman doesn’t have Sonnen’s promotional gifts, Griffin’s charisma, nor Belfort’s highlight reel. He’s undefeated, never been in trouble, but also, due to situations and timing, never made the imprint in the memories of the public. With a win, he’s an instant top star. But to do the kind of numbers Silva did with the aforementioned three, he’d have to already be a top star, which he’s not.

That’s why, on Monday, the company sent out a release. They had quotes from 16 of the company’s top fighters, and two other well-known former fighters, asking for their predictions for Saturday night’s showdown at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Not every fighter predicted Weidman would win, but roughly a dozen did. The rest hedged their bets somewhat. Not one predicted Silva would win. Still, the odds have grown over the past week to where Silva is now a strong 5-to-2 favorite as a consensus, and as much as 10-to-3 in some places. The story UFC has wanted top tell is that the insiders, the ones who know the best, believe the guy not only has a shot at beating Silva, but should actually be expected to do so. But the growing odds in favor of Silva indicate the public isn't buying it.

The UFC came in with high expectations. Between the holiday weekend, the main event and the Fan Expo also bringing fans into town, UFC charged the same ticket prices they did last year for Silva vs. Sonnen. That show produced a gate of just under $7 million and that closed-circuit locations had to be opened up in Las Vegas to handle the overflow after the MGM Grand Garden Arena sold out.

This year, the tickets sold to the public have topped $3 million, a number that doesn't include purchases by casinos. The gate is healthy and the arena will end up close to, if not completely full. But it’s nowhere close to the ticket sales of last year at this time, and closed-circuit locations aren't needed for an overflow of people who won't be able to get in. If anything, given the number of people coming in for the Fan Expo, there are a ton of very ardent UFC fans who will be in Las Vegas, who are not willing to pay the ticket prices being asked to see a match that, if the fighters asked turn out to be correct, would be the most historically significant fight in years.

The problem in selling the idea Weidman can beat Silva comes from a combination of how dominant Silva has been, and the lack of a signature moment from Weidman.

In Silva’s last four fights, he’s made it look like he’s playing on a different field from everyone else. The last time he appeared to have a challenge, the first Sonnen fight, may end up as the defining moment of his career where he won a fight that looked two minutes away from being a one-sided loss. The rest of the nights, he’s looked like Usain Bolt racing against high schoolers.

Weidman was just a guy on the card in his first three UFC fights. His debut against Alessio Sakara on March 3, 2011, was a decision win against a non-contender on a relatively low rated show that aired on Versus. His win over Jesse Bongfeldt was a Spike TV preliminary match before a pay-per-view. Win No. 3 over Tom Lawlor came on a Facebook fight with very minimal viewership.

The only Weidman fight before a big audience would be the fight most know him by. On Jan. 28, 2012, Weidman took a fight at the last minute, had to drop 32 pounds and didn’t have a fight camp, while facing Demian Maia. Weidman was very tired by the second round, but he still clearly won. But people who saw that fight were not thinking that they can’t wait to see him battle Anderson Silva.

On the other hand, his most recent fight led to a lot of people thinking the opposite. Weidman, in a main event against Mark Munoz, totally dominated a former NCAA champion in every aspect of the game, before knocking him out with a brutal standing elbow.

The problem was, that fight was on Fuel on a Wednesday, and almost nobody saw it. Since that time, a year ago, largely due to shoulder surgery for a training issue, he hasn’t fought since.

That’s part of the reason for the divergent views. A lot of fighters saw that fight. The idea he could take down Munoz, a far better wrestler than Silva, at will, is a key argument for those who believe he can win. But the vast majority of UFC fans didn’t see it. To them, he’s still the guy who got really tired in round two against Maia and struggled,. And now, he’s facing the greatest of all-time. And if that’s your frame of reference, it would be virtually impossible to convince you he’s got any shot.

With a few days left, things aren’t likely to change. Weidman isn’t the type to make crazy charges in the media in the final days like Nick Diaz did to garner interest that swell last minute purchases for even a fight people think they know the outcome to. He’s not the type to throw endless insults at Silva to the point Silva will vows to hurt him badly, the way Sonnen did.

He’s just a guy that has never lost in MMA, and seems extremely confident he can win. And stylistically, he very well may. But the public doesn’t seem to believe it.

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