Chris Weidman accomplished more before his first professional loss than many fighters do in a lifetime. He defeated Anderson Silva -- the man many consider to be the greatest fighter to ever grace the middleweight division -- not once, but twice in capturing the UFC middleweight title. He defended that belt in subsequent challenges from Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort. But happy endings are a rarity in the fight game, and for Weidman, his magical run came crashing to a halt at UFC 194.
The beating Weidman sustained against Luke Rockhold in Las Vegas stands now as one of the grisliest images of 2015. Rockhold badly battered the former champion with a third-round salvo of punches and elbows from mount, then finished the job with another assault in round four. For the first time in seven years, Weidman tasted defeat. Not only that, but the brutal manner of the finish left many to wonder: how would Weidman recover from such a career-altering setback?
But on Monday, speaking for the first time since UFC 194, Weidman made it clear that he's not looking backwards.
"The way I felt after the loss was, by far, the most surreal feeling I've ever felt," Weidman said Monday on The MMA Hour. "It felt like a bad dream, that I just wanted go back to sleep and just... make it not happen again. It felt like a bad dream, so it's definitely been a surreal thing. But emotionally and mentally now, I feel like I'm in a way better place than I've ever been.
"It was just a great experience for me. I could play back a million things in that fight I could've done differently, but I'm really happy I lost. I feel like if I would've won that fight, if I would've somehow figured a way to beat him up, I wouldn't have the opportunity that I have now to grow as a fighter and truly reach my potential. Now I feel like I have the freedom to change things that I've wanted to change for years. You don't want to fix things that aren't broken, so that kind of stops you from make changes. But now I feel more free than I've ever felt to change the things and do things that I wanted to do without feeling like I'm cursing myself, so I feel great. I'm real excited about the future. I feel like it's just going to create a whole different monster inside of me, and I'm excited to go out there and fight again."
Weidman struggled to articulate exactly when his unrest with his routine began, but when pressed, he admitted that he felt it creeping on him long before fight week. He fought off those feelings at first, but in retrospect, Weidman could see the signs. Throughout what should have been the most important camp of his life, the former champion struggled to find the spark that had propelled him through big moments in the past.
The realization of that complacency is exactly why Weidman is now so graciously accepting of the result that was handed to him.
"It's one of those things," Weidman said. "I felt weird in camp. The lack of excitement -- and I'm not making any excuses, I trained hard -- but the lack of excitement about it, I just couldn't trick myself into being extremely excited about it, for whatever reason.
"It was a slow thing. You kind of feel, like these little things that are off during camp, and then you walk to the cage and feel a little off, and then you lose. It was surreal. It was just weird losing. But then shortly after, you realize: you know what, this is part of the plan. This is what was meant to happen. He was a better man that night, and there's a million things in my mind that I know could've gone differently and I could've done differently during camp and in the fight.
"But I have no regrets," Weidman continued. "I really don't. Because now... now I have the ability to come back better. If I would've won that fight, I don't think my improvement from fight to fight would've been there. I think I would've stuck with the same things, the ‘if it's not broke, don't fix it.' Being undefeated for that long of a time, you just don't feel a need to change things. So I now I have that gift, to be able to just be free, and whatever I feel I need to do, I can do without second guessing myself."
Weidman made a point to state that he has no intentions of changing teams, and that his Long Island crew at Serra-Longo are "family."
His lack of regrets, though, extends even to the sequence that many have pointed to as the turning point of the fight. Midway through an otherwise tight contest, Weidman missed a sloppy wheel kick attempt, which allowed Rockhold to take the fight to the floor and advance into mount. The beginning of the end came from there, as Rockhold unloaded with hard shots and badly damaged the champion.
"I don't regret doing that, because I'm happy I lost," Weidman reiterated. "Everybody has been talking about the kick, and I do feel like I was winning the fight, but I was running on like two cylinders and I feel like I deserved to lose that fight, and I'm happy I did. I just felt like he was circling that way and I just felt I could go for a spinning back kick. He capitalized on it, he took me down. But that doesn't mean it should be the end of the fight for me.
"It's not the spinning back kick that I'm really critical on myself about. Was it a pretty spinning back kick? Did it change the momentum of the fight? Definitely. But there's things that I should've been doing that I didn't do as soon as I hit the ground, and there's reasons I didn't, and there's things that I'm excited about to change, to do things differently."
Nearly a month has passed since the night he lost his title, yet Weidman still grew emotional on Monday when recounting the toughest part of the experience -- when, the morning after, he delivered the news to his three children, including his adoring young son whose affection for his title-winning father has become an infamous sight on UFC pre-fight media.
"That was the hardest part of everything, man," Weidman said. "You've seen my son and my family so involved with my life, you've seen them on the Countdown shows, especially my son. He's just so vocal. He knows Daddy is a champion. He's so proud of me. He knows I'm fighting Luke Rockhold. He wants me to throw him down, beat him up, and he wants me to be the champion again. He knows Daddy doesn't lose. I was undefeated forever, and I don't lose. So for me to have to tell him myself ... that morning they came to my room and I told them the news, and especially for my son, it was very hard for me.
"I get emotional just thinking of it now. It was very hard. But at the end of the day, it's a month ago now. He still loves me. I'm still his hero. He still considers me a champion. He knows Daddy is going to have a good next fight. He wants me to beat up Luke Rockhold next time, he wants me to get him back. But it was a good learning experience even for him, for him to learn for his life -- that sometimes you do lose, but that's not what defines you. It's about what you do afterwards and how you get back up again. And I'm back up, better than ever, and I can't wait to show everybody who I truly am."