Perhaps nobody understood the joy on Mike Winkeljohn’s face when his longtime student Holly Holm won the world title more than Ray Longo. Winkeljohn has been with Holm out in Albuquerque since she was a kid coming up the ranks in boxing. When she defeated Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 a couple of weeks back, Winkeljohn — and Holm — realized a moment that all those years were leading towards.
Longo has had that same feeling, not once but twice. He had it first when Matt Serra — a kid from Long Island, that he helped mold from the earliest days — upset Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69 in 2007. He had it again when Chris Weidman, another kid from the neighborhood, defeated the greatest fighter in the game, Anderson Silva.
These weren’t transplants who came in; these were fighters who grew up around the same stretch of land that Longo himself did. As Longo gets Weidman ready for his next title defense at UFC 194 this weekend, the coach said there’s no greater feeling than see the local dreamers grow up to be big deals.
"Again, we’re really going on that home grown talent thing," he said during an appearance on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. "There’s really nothing better than that. We really saw it, for the first time, I saw it with [Mike] Winkeljohn and Holly Holm. You know he had that kid from the beginning, but he seemed like a different person when speaking about her. You saw the connection. There’s a passion. It’s so much more than just taking a guy who maybe didn’t start with you are something like that. It’s a deeper connection, and I really saw like a more animated Winkeljohn.
"He seemed like a different person to me and I really think that’s because he watched this girl grow, he’s been with her from the beginning, and what’s a bigger feeling than that? To go out and pull off a great upset like that? So, I like it because I know I’ve experienced it a couple of times. I love it."
Longo’s small cast in Long Island has gotten deeper in recent years, with Stephen Thompson (who helped Weidman figure out Silva), Elias Theodorou and Chris Camozzi working with his regulars.
But the mainstays are the guys who came up in New York, like Aljamain Sterling (who fight’s Johnny Eduardo on Thursday), Serra and Weidman. He said if that’s his claim to fame when he leaves fighting, he’ll take that.
"That’s the beauty of doing what we do, when you can take people from the neighborhood, let them accomplish their dreams, get them to the big show," he told Ariel Helwani. "Man, I’m cool with that. If it ended tomorrow, I walk away a happy man. It’s been a great ride and it’s those moments that I’m going to cherish for a long time."
Longo’s next moment to cherish — after he agonizes about it — will come this weekend at UFC 194, where Weidman will try and defend the middleweight title against Luke Rockhold. Though the back-and-forth between Weidman and Rockhold has been subtle, it’s been one of intense confidence from both sides. Rockhold has appeared totally at ease in his media appearances, the same as Weidman. Neither is willing to budge an inch.
Asked if he thought Rockhold genuinely believed he was going to beat Weidman this weekend, Longo said there might be a degree of posturing in play.
"I tell you one thing, he better believe he’s that much better than Chris Weidman because he’s going to find out soon why Chris is the champ," he said. "I think he’s almost trying to psych himself up. I think I heard him say he’s going to toss Chris around, I mean…I think he has to do what he has to do to keep himself in the fight, but he’s going to get a reality check in a couple of days."
With Weidman having not only defeated one of the game’s icons in Silva once but twice, Longo was hesitant to call his champ’s fight with Rockhold the biggest challenge of his career.
"I think it’s hard to make that case, considering who Rockhold’s fought and what Anderson Silva had done in the game," he said. "Listen, they’re all huge fights. Every fight is going to be big from this point on, so it’s weird question. But we’re taking this fight like any other fight, we’re definitely not overlooking it.
"But I think going into the first Anderson Silva fight, I mean if you were human you had to be a little worried, you know what I’m saying? The guy was considered unstoppable and the greatest of all time and all of that stuff. I can’t see it taking on a different light than that. Rockhold is really just a well-rounded, talented kid, he really is. I just really think I have the better guy and that’s where it’s going."
Asked what concerned him most about Rockhold, who has won four in a row — all via finishes — Longo said there were a few things, but nothing Weidman can’t handle.
"I think he fights long," he said. "I think he knows how to use his height, and his range. So it’ll be interesting to see how Chris deals with that, but I think that we did a good job of preparing him for that. But you know, he seems like he always fights good going backwards like that. So, we looked at a couple of things, but I would say that’s it. Like, again I think he’s an opportunist and if he gets a chance he jumps on top of it. I think he does that good, but other than that I think Chris does everything better than him."
Longo's prediction: An early night for Weidman.
"I'm predicting a knockout," Longo said. "I think it's early. I think it's going to be early. I think Weidman's going to do what he always does. He's very confident, he's going to walk across the ring. The other guy thinks he's going to meet him in the middle, which I hope he does, and we'll see what happens."