It has now been 26 months since Chris Weidman last won a fight. Before that dubious distinction, he’d gone 31 years undefeated in the profession of mixed martial arts. This is the very definition of streaky. But it’s also an interesting psych job for anyone that had began whispering Weidman’s name in the pound-for-pound conversation after he had defended his middleweight title against Vitor Belfort at UFC 187.
Doubly interesting given that Weidman himself is a psych major out of Hofstra. Weidman is (roundabout) proof that the fight game is 90 percent mental. Even those who’ve been staring at him since he debuted in 2011 can’t quite figure him out.
What happened to “The All-American,” who was given his own day of celebration (July 17) in Long Island? The guy who made Anderson Silva pay for in-cage shenanigans and then snapped his leg into an ugly angle, like a corner bending an entourage? The one that rendered Mark Munoz useless (before smoking him with an elbow), and took out Demian Maia (despite cutting nearly 30 pounds in a matter of days)? The fearless champ that was talking casually of moving up a weight class to challenge Jon Jones, before Jones himself fell on hard times?
Heading into his fight with Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday night, that version of Weidman feels trapped somewhere inside himself. Then again, nothing makes complete sense with Weidman’s situation — where he is, where he was, or where he’s going. Here he is headlining a card on Big FOX on a three-fight losing streak, tailor-made for him in his native Long Island, against a guy who is quietly trying to smash the entire lot of UFC down-and-outs. It’s the most unideal ideal situation Weidman could ever hope to be in — a former champion trying to regain his bearings against a contender just coming into his own.
The game is mental, they say? The game isn’t even a game. It’s just a bunch of thought that keeps a fighter up at night waiting to be turned to action, or delusion. That’s where Weidman is. Finding out if he can or can no longer. His last fight against Gegard Mousasi seemed to prove that he can. Yet he lost, controversially, like the wheels of fate are no longer his to helm. That’ll mess with you. Two years have gone by, and he’s still stuck on 13 wins.
Thirteen is a mental number. It isn’t even allowed on elevators.
And really, Gastelum is on a ridiculous little run, which makes the matchmaking peculiar. His record shows he’s 2-0-1 in his last three bouts, but the marijuana he popped for didn’t aid a damn thing in his fight with Belfort back in March. He destroyed “The Phenom,” just like he has most he’s faced since 2015, back to the exact time Weidman began to drop off. Tim Kennedy is a freak of sinew and unnerving motivation, and Gastelum just sort of sapped his will, sent him off into retirement. Before that, Gastelum snatched whatever was left of Johny Hendricks’ vitality. He has it in a little bottle out there in Yuma.
In fact, Gastelum has become that guy the UFC calls to deliver old glories to some kind of bottom line — to show them, through physical force, that they no longer are who they think they are. He was booked to fight Anderson Silva next until the silly pot thing from the Belfort fight derailed the plan, which shows just what they think of Silva (and even more so what they think of Gastelum, who requested the gig in the first place).
That’s what Weidman is stacked with: Taking out the 25-year-old buck who is building his name by taking out legacies. That’s a lot of deep thinking for a casual FOX audience, but in basic terms Saturday night’s main event at the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum boils down to this: Weidman is in a do-or-die situation, and Gastelum is a rough draw. He isn’t built so much like a homecoming patsy as he is a bank safe. Not that Weidman wanted easy. He didn’t want a “tune-up” fight, or even a “get well” fight. He didn’t want the quick fix via a mid-tier middleweight to get him back on track. He wanted a top guy. He wanted to re-earn whatever he lost in swagger. The UFC is giving him that chance in Uniondale, N.Y., right there in the neighborhood he grew up in. Gastelum was the available guy.
The fight doesn’t make entire sense, but then again...Weidman’s isn’t your typical three-fight losing streak. Because of what he accomplished before the skid, he’s still an open case. That’s the essential intrigue to a fight between opposite momentums. Even though he was a champion, there remains a feeling that he didn’t quite reach his full potential. Or that it was cut short. Or that he’s battling through a stretch of hard luck, perhaps along the way falling prey to complacency. His is an unfinished biography, and it’s a lot to think about for anyone who has watched his rise and gentle fall.
It’s a hell of a lot more to think about if you’re the former champion himself. Pressure to win is one thing, but pressure to be out of one’s own head is another. Weidman will deal with both on national TV, in front of a partisan crowd who’ll be there to celebrate his return, against a killer in the ranks. That’s a lot to process in a “must-win” situation, but that’s where Weidman finds himself come Saturday night.