Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight.
Both Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold are well-equipped to do the job they are being called upon to do. That job is to operate under the radar.
Weidman’s fourth defense of the UFC middleweight championship will go down on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, PPV) at UFC 194 … in the co-main event. It will be the champ’s second straight title fight to be given second billing.
For a low-key, lunch-pail performer like Weidman, the setup seems perfect. This is a man who, after an impressive 2012 victory had inserted him into the conversation as a serious challenger to the great Anderson Silva, ended up being bogged down by the family-man reality of having to save his New York home from the gusty savagery of Hurricane Sandy. And even in the time since the Long Islander took out Silva—not once but twice—and ascended to the top of the sport, he has remained an everyman.
Rockhold, on the other hand, is less everyman than Superman, not the comic book kind but the Hollywood leading man pedigree. In a sports world where it’s usually females who regrettably are recognized more for their appearance than their skill, he gets a bit of that treatment. And he plays to it, right down to a swinging bachelor turn on Millionaire Matchmaker.
Yet as he prepares for the biggest fight of his life—one that’s nonetheless being drowned out by the hype surrounding Conor McGregor’s main event quest to take over the sport by taking out the unconquerable featherweight champ, José Aldo—Rockhold is lurking in familiar shadows. He trains with light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former heavyweight king Cain Velasquez, and they occupy much of the spotlight at their gym. And even Rockhold’s biggest asset, his well-rounded skillset, tends to get him overlooked when observers are pointing out the best of the best in standup or ground combat.
But with all due respect to all the Irish and Brazilian flags that will be waving at the arena this weekend, Weidman vs. Rockhold is the shimmering gem of UFC 194. How rare is it that two fighters at the top of the game clash in the prime of their careers?
Weidman (13-0) is coming off his most domineering win in the 2½ years since he captured the belt, a destruction of the no-longer-chemically-enhanced Vitor Belfort back in May. The 31-year-old is No. 4 in the SI.com pound-for-pound MMA fighter rankings.
Rockhold was no less thorough in his decimation of Lyoto Machida last April. And like the champ, he’s 31 and on a roll. The former Strikeforce belt holder has won all of his five UFC bouts other than his 2013 debut, in which he was KO’d by a testosterone-fueled Belfort. All four wins were finishes, the last three by submission. Rockhold (14-2) ranks No. 2 in the SI.com middleweight tally.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of Saturday night’s five-fight main card, three prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1, starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the event’s first two bouts will be available on the UFC Fight Pass online service at 7.
When Rockhold won a close fight with Ronaldo (Jacare) Souza in the fall of 2011 to take home the Strikeforce middleweight belt, there was little potential for upward mobility within the sport’s hierarchy. Over in the UFC, Anderson Silva was five years into his reign and looking untouchable. Weidman was just two fights into his UFC career, and the most generous view of him was as a promising prospect.
By the time that promise was fulfilled a year and a half later, when Weidman knocked out Silva to grab the belt, Rockhold was also in the UFC—Strikeforce had been shut down, its fighters moved to the sport’s top-tier promotion—but he was on a bit of a downswing. His UFC debut in the spring of 2013 had ended quickly, as he was the latest victim of Vitor Belfort and his testosterone replacement therapy fountain of youth.
Since then, Rockhold has built himself back up to become a fearsome challenger, while Weidman has fortified his place at the top. This clash was inevitable. And necessary.
Last Five Fights
|5/23/15 Vitor Belfort W TKO 1||4/18/15 Lyoto Machida W Sub. 2|
|7/5/14 Lyoto Machida W UD 5||11/8/14 Michael Bisping W Sub. 2|
|12/28/13 Anderson Silva W TKO 2||4/26/14 Tim Boetsch W Sub. 1|
|7/6/13 Anderson Silva W TKO 2||1/15/14 Costas Philippou W TKO 1|
|7/11/12 Mark Muñoz W KO 2||5/18/13 Vitor Belfort L KO 1|
Tale of the tape
|June 17, 1984||BIRTH DATE||Oct. 17, 1984|
|Baldwin, N.Y.||BIRTHPLACE||Santa Cruz, Calif.|
|Baldwin, N.Y.||RESIDENCE||San Jose, Calif.|
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Other Numbers to Count On
4:08: Average fight time for Rockhold, in minutes and seconds, which is eighth in the UFC, according to FightMetric statistics. Nine of his 14 wins in the UFC and Strikeforce have come in the first round.
0.35: Takedowns landed by Rockhold, on average, per 15 minutes in the octagon. He hits takedowns at 35 percent accuracy. Weidman’s numbers: 3.75 takedowns per 15 minutes, at 56 percent accuracy. And the champ is 100 percent in takedown defense.
3.6: Average submission attempts for Rockhold per 15 minutes in the UFC, most in the promotion. His last three bouts have ended in subs.
Chris Weidman becomes champion by defeating a legend.
Luke Rockhold dominates a former UFC champion.
“Weidman better think twice if he thinks his wrestling is going to dictate how this fight takes place, because I deal with that [expletive] every day.”
Rockhold, speaking to reporters on a recent UFC media conference call, was referring to his regular American Kickboxing Academy workouts with Daniel Cormier, who in addition to being the UFC light heavyweight champion is a two-time Olympic freestyle wrestler. Rockhold also trains with former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, both of whom know their way around a grappling mat.
But while gym work counts for something—iron sharpens iron, and all that—once the octagon door closes and he’s in there with Weidman, the challenger will have a lot to think about and adjust to. How much will Rockhold’s kicking arsenal come into play against a grappling beast capable of using every ill-timed leg swing as an invitation to drive the fight to the canvas? Will a more careful approach than usual even things out in the standup, where Rockhold would seem to have more weapons than Weidman? The champ does everything well but can get drawn into a slugfest, which would bring Rockhold’s quickness and diversity of strikes into the equation.
Both are stout on the ground, though what will be asked of each of them down there likely will be different. Given Weidman’s wrestling edge, it would seem that Rockhold is more likely to be the one on bottom. He’s dangerous even there, but the champ is a heavy and well-balanced blanket. When he unleashes a ground-and-pound attack, though, he’ll leave small openings of which the challenger had better take advantage.
Weidman is a narrow favorite, with a money line ranging from -133 (bet $133 to win $100) to -165 (bet $165 to win $100) at various sportsbooks. The line on Rockhold ranges from +105 (bet $100 to win $105) to +130 (bet $100 to win $130).
Either man is capable of finishing the other. Both have the durability to go five rounds—though neither has done it more than once in his career. If this bout steals the spotlight from the main event, and does so via a flashy finish, that would seem most likely to come from Rockhold. But Weidman could very well take the fight to the mat, neutralize every attempt by Rockhold to reverse position or even escape, then pound out an ugly stoppage or wear down the challenger on the way to a decision. The latter is the scenario I’ll go with. Weidman by decision.
“I’m not going to sit there and cower down and let him control the ring. I’m going to stop him in the middle of the cage.”
-- Rockhold, speaking with reporters during a UFC media conference call
“I can’t wait. [Laughs.]”
-- Weidman’s response
The Rest of the Card
José Aldo vs. Conor McGregor, featherweight championship (main event); Ronaldo Souza vs. Yoel Romero, middleweight; Demian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson, welterweight; Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens, featherweight.
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Urijah Faber vs. Frankie Saenz, bantamweight; Tecia Torres vs. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger, strawweight; Warlley Alves vs. Colby Covington, welterweight; Leonardo Santos vs. Kevin Lee, lightweight.
Online prelims (7 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Joe Proctor vs. Magomed Mustafaev, lightweight; John Makdessi vs. Yancy Medeiros, lightweight; Court McGee vs. Márcio Alexandre Jr.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. There will be an hour-long postfight show on Fox Sports 1, starting at 1:30 a.m. ET.