Chris Weidman: Seven weeks into his own era

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting


In the fight game it’s become an almost damnable offense to align with Rocky. By 2013 that analogy has become as disfigured as the painting up there in Dorian Gray's attic. Never mind the clichés, the math doesn’t lie: There can’t be 50 one-of-a-kind anythings.

Yet Chris Weidman, the Long Island fighter who defeated the UFC’s longest running nightmare, Anderson Silva, tempts you into such unimaginative comparisons. He has what you might call considerably leeway in the matter.

For one, he just took out the real life Apollo Creed -- a long-tenured but aging champion, a box office "king of sting" who stalked the middleweight landscape for nearly seven years and left a trail of casualties that ran out the door. A streak like Silva’s was never meant to happen in four-ounce gloves. That Weidman arrived in Vegas as a no-frills blue-collar sort who was going up against not only pageantry, entourages and mystique but historical gravity -- and somehow managed to conquer it all -- only eggs the Rocky comparison on.

But six weeks after downing the champion with a left that Silva invited to his chin, Weidman is at Ray Longo’s in Long Island, and he’s still just one of the neighborhood guys. The street is still a little too stark and industrial to fit nicely in a place called "Garden City," and it’s made all the more gray by the rain. The champ has the same faces around him, "busting his balls" about the little things that make up the day. The most obvious difference is he has a belt, somewhere, that he keeps handy for people who want pictures with him and that piece of improbable gold.

"It was in my car for a week, the car I don’t use, just in there melting," he says. "But honestly, it’s just wherever. Sometimes in my little office on the spare bed. Sometimes I forget where I put it."

The differences also show up in the treatment. Weidman says he is recognized wherever he goes now, which wasn’t necessarily the case before July 6. In Long Island, he can’t go anywhere without a hero’s handshake or a picture. He’s the local boy who made good. Media requests have tripled. If that weren’t enough, Nassau County officials carved out a day for him -- July 17 is now Chris Weidman Day. It’s all part of the challenger-to-champion upgrade. Even when he was vacationing in Hawaii after "The Feat," he couldn’t escape woodwork paparazzi. He says people were running after his rental car each time he ventured out of his hotel.

That’s the magic of a well-timed left against a guy who doesn’t lose. Six weeks into his own era, Weidman’s loving it.

"This morning I’m going to my car to leave, I’m late and everything like that, but then the neighbor runs out and says, hey, the whole girl’s volleyball team wants to meet you," he says. "So I grabbed my belt, because I know everybody wants to take pictures of me with my belt. I did that for 15 minutes then got back in my car and I went to my barber. I had to keep a promise to him, too."

This champion will never be accused of being "organized." With Silva, believe it or not, Weidman had his first actual fight camp of his career. "Every fight to this point had been literally this haphazard training," his jiu-jitsu coach John Danaher told me a few days before at Renzo Gracie’s in Manhattan. "He would come in here on a Monday, about a week or two before a fight, learn some moves and then go out and submit the guy."

Danaher points to Weidman’s 2011 bout with Tom Lawlor as an example. He’d just started practicing the D’arce choke just days before trying it out on Lawlor in live action. His rehearsals came in the fights themselves. "He came back to the locker room and everybody was laughing that he pulled it off, and he just said, ‘that’s how I roll,’" Danaher says.

As for Longo, he’s most operational in "haphazard" situations -- only his term for it is "grass roots." He doesn’t need "fancy machinery," he says. And it’s worked for him in raising champions from the ground up -- those real life Rocky types that proliferate his gym. Matt Serra had his first fight with Longo, and so did Weidman. Just a couple of neighborhood boys who happened to dethrone two of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet in Georges St-Pierre and Silva respectively. There is more than a geographical coincidence in play going on at Longo’s -- there is Longo himself. That Danaher brought in a detailed syllabus for them to adhere to in preparing for Silva was novel and needed. A disciplined Weidman was even better than the fly by the seat of his pants Weidman.

And everything is happy. The running joke at Longo’s is about Silva’s sizable entourage, which rippled through Vegas casinos like a giant black and yellow Chinese New Year dragon all week leading up the fight.

"He had like 40 guys with him," Longo says. "What a bully mentality." He tells a story about how, just before going out to the scale at the weigh-ins, Silva walked behind Weidman and stood within an inch of his head. "That to me is telling about a guy. You’re posturing in front of your friends? What is this, second grade? You’re a grown ass man."

In fact, Longo says, there are so many people in Silva’s orbit during fight week that he has drafted a bit of fear from it. His greatest concern, he half jokes, is that Silva will draw motivation from the singer Usher’s post-fight pep talk -- namely that Silva will vow never put himself through another ridiculous Usher pep talk again. A video blog that Silva put out a couple of days later caught the speech as it happened. And Longo’s right: that’s too much for any human -- superhuman or not -- to endure twice.

"Are you kidding me? I would rather do anything than listen to Usher give me a speech again," Longo says. "That bit of motivation scares me."

Just then a man drifts into Longo’s, where the door is always open and it’s not uncommon for random people to do. He says he’s there to see Weidman. He has the friendly pushiness of such Long Island types, wants to know the rates the gym and if he can look around. He says he’s a friend of a friend of Weidman’s, some lifeguard at the beach that they share in common. "Oh yeah, sure," Weidman says. "Would you mind showing me around," the visitor asks. Weidman says he can’t because there’s a film crew at work putting together a video feature on the new champ for late December.

Still, he stops everything and runs down the benefits of training at Longo’s. The man interrupts the spiel to congratulate him on winning the belt, and says he’s originally from Franklin Square but now lives Deer Park. He’s a neighborhood guy, too. Weidman says "oh yeah? I just signed a contract on a house in Dix Hills."

They talk about routes through Long Island, commute times, the L.I.E. It’s New York small talk. Then the man leaves.

Everybody but Weidman noticed the ankle monitor tethered to the visitor’s leg. His gym mates tease him about it afterwards. There are wisecracks about Weidman inviting danger into his life -- or worse, that danger can show up to him and he’ll thrust out an oblivious hand to greet it. "What, what, you think he was a murderer or something?" Weidman asks. "He’s looking to get in shape before he goes inside," says one of Weidman’s guys. "I guarantee he’s looking to kill you," jokes his fellow Hofstra teammate and MMA fighter, Jon Bonilla-Bowman. "I’m going to take you and use you as my bulletproof vest," Weidman says back.

It goes on like this for couple of minutes, but then somebody throws a bit of logic over the room that catches up with Weidman’s new circumstances on the fly.

"Maybe that’s why Silva has such a big entourage," somebody says.

Six weeks into his being a champion, Chris Weidman’s got a lot going on at once. And these are the kinds of things that dawn on greats in the making.

#


But the biggest difference between this before and after picture is that Weidman, a prizefighter forever in debt, now has money to burn. He is, by definition, new money. He has a good workable car now, that he owns outright. He just got the new place in Dix Hills in Suffolk County, which is nicer than his house that was compromised in Hurricane Sandy, if a bit of a longer commute into Longo’s. That $80,000 load he had at Hofstra, where he earned a degree in psychology and was a two-time All American wrestler, is now paid off.

That’s a far cry from where he came from, even as short a time ago as earlier this summer.

"He was essentially homeless," his coach Danaher says. "He was financially completely bankrupt. I remember I had to lend Chris thousands of dollars out of my own pocket just to keep him solvent while he’s preparing to fight Silva. And his life was essentially in chaos. One day when people know the full story of what happened, I’m not kidding when I say this, it’s like a goddamn Hollywood movie. It’s Rocky Balboa. It’s insane."

Weidman himself talks about his hardships before his strong left hand changed his portfolio.

"I could never do much," he says. "Everything was about not having money. We bought a dog, and we financed it -- a $1,400 dog. We had no money, so me and my wife had to put our names together with our credit just to finance a dog. This was well before [the title fight with Silva], but it took like three years to pay it off, so I ended up paying like $3,800 for a $1,400 dog."

That dog is a shiba inu, the Japanese breed with deep ancestral bloodlines to the times of the samurai, that he and his family have named Leila.

"I’ve never had anything," he says. "I just wanted to one day live comfortable. Like, be able to go out to lunch with my friends without being like, crap, I don’t know if I can afford this bill right now. I shouldn’t be doing this. That’s all I really wanted. And because of the UFC and where I’m at now? I don’t have to worry about."

The UFC did provide relief for him heading into UFC 162, while he lived with his parents with his wife and kids during the construction going on at his house. And some of his sponsors provided up-front money to see the thing through. The help allowed him to bring in Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson, to emulate Silva, and to split time between Longo’s and Renzo Gracie’s with Danaher. Longo even brought in a former Golden Gloves boxer named Adam Willett, who got worked pretty well in the gym by Weidman. This was one of the reasons why Longo, sipping a grapefruit and Grey Goose at the MGM Grand the night before the fight, told me that he thought Weidman would knock Silva out.

It all does have a cinematic feel to it.

"The guy had nine fights," Danaher says. "Bankrupt. Homeless. With a completely broken shoulder. As far as I’m aware the only guy who came off of major surgery and won his next fight was Georges St-Pierre -- and Georges had more than twice the amount of healing time that Chris did. He got a full year and a half off. Chris had six months."

Now his shoulder is healed, he has a new house under contract, his debt has lifted, he has his own day of celebration, and he is a champion that gets swarmed on visits to Hawaii.

"I’m fortunate," he says. "I never thought I’d be in this position. It’s amazing to be here. Even though everything I was going through with Sandy and financially, it still wasn’t the worst spot I grew up in my life. When I was coaching at Hofstra, I had a lot less money. I grew up with a lot less."

It wouldn’t be a Rocky story if he didn’t.

#


But ultimately, in the bigger sense of things, Weidman is the same person that he was before slaying the division’s boogeyman.

"Without a doubt, he’s the same guy," Longo says. "You can see by the way he’s walking around here, goofing around. I’ll always know Weidman Day is July 17, because that’s my anniversary -- I had to share my 20th anniversary with him. Between all those things going on, and I was in the same room with him as it happened, but we never got to talk. Then he went to Hawaii.

"When I finally saw him when he was back I said, ‘can you believe you’re the middleweight champ of the world?’ And he said, ‘no.’ He’s the same solid dude, just like Matt [Serra] was when things changed for him."

After he’d posed for pictures with the girl’s volleyball team and then his barber, and before he came to Longo’s to film his segments for the UFC video feature, Weidman made time to stop at a deli and give a kid a shirt. The kid is Justin Romanello, a Long Island boy who is battling stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, whom Weidman met as a board member of an MMA-themed non-profit called Live to Fight. Weidman is his hero. And this is something that Weidman doesn’t take lightly. He is genuinely touched by it.

He wants to give the boy more than a shirt. He begins thinking out loud, "I wonder if the UFC would allow him to walk out with me for UFC 168?"

The sight will be back in Las Vegas on Dec. 28. The opponent will be the same. This time Weidman will be defending his title, and Silva -- for the first time in a long while -- will be the challenger. Weidman will have his second full, real camp. Silva will arrive with his entourage.

"I would love to have him walk out with me," Weidman says, as if forming a version of an entourage of his own. "How great would that be?"

Greater than fiction, of course. Much greater than fiction.

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