So you knocked out the unconquerable Anderson Silva for the middleweight title a year ago almost to the day, then in the rematch again battered the greatest mixed martial artist ever before a bizarre finish that maintained your hold on that shiny new UFC belt. What do you do for an encore, Chris Weidman?
Well, in your next title defense, you take on a former champion from a heavier weight class, a terror who once was considered not just unbeatable but untouchable and lately, ever since dropping down to your domain, has been wrecking everyone set in front of him. Undaunted, you take the fight to Lyoto Machida right from the get-go, getting the better of him for the better part of five rounds. You do so not merely in your comfort zone but in what was supposed to be his.
And when your hand is raised at the end of the UFC 175 main event on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, you can smile the self-satisfied smile of one who’s just put to rest two challenges in one night: the apparent one from Machida, of course, but also the contemptuous murmurs of doubters who, prior to this night, just couldn’t accept you as champion while Anderson Silva is still walking the earth.
Weidman (12-0) has the stuff of a champion, all right. The 30-year-old from Long Island owns the brass-and-leather strap to prove it, and in the waning minutes of Saturday’s title fight he added to his trophy case a little swagger.
For that last part, Weidman has Machida (21-5) to thank.
The champ had had his way with the former light heavyweight belt holder over the fight’s first two rounds, stalking him, backing him up, landing some solid shots and, most important, evading pretty much everything the lethal karate man tried to throw at him. “What does he got?” Weidman’s irrepressibly no-nonsense—and in so being, highly entertaining—trainer, Ray Longo, had barked at him between those rounds. “He got anything for you?”
The answer to that veered more and more definitively toward the negative in the third round. Weidman did all of what he’d done in the first two sessions, only more so. He added three takedowns into the mix, the last one a hard slam that drew an “oooooh!” from the crowd. The champ bloodied Machida’s battered face, which became a photo collage of a one-sided beatdown. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, before referee Herb Dean would be pulling the champ off the 36-year-old Brazilian.
But title fights go five rounds, and they call the final two “the championship rounds” for a reason. Machida dug deep to find the fight within him, and in the fourth round he turned things his way. Seeing his punches finally connecting, some of them snapping back Weidman’s head, seemed to energize an athlete who minutes earlier had looked like a beaten man. Now it was Weidman who was hesitant in his attacks. The challenger had his mojo working. The crowd was roaring. We finally were witnessing a fight.
This is where Weidman won over the world of those who pay attention. It’s fine to be a front-runner, as Chris was for the entirety of both Silva fights and the first three rounds of this one. But when the clouds roll in and your world grows dark, do you cower under cover or go singing in the reign?
Round 5 was Weidman’s opportunity to reach out from the hovering shadows and grab the spotlight for himself. Of course, it also presented him with a dilemma. He was far enough ahead of Machida on the scorecards that the challenger needed a finish, and while the champ did not know that for sure, MMA judges being MMA judges, he and Longo did grasp that a five-minute bicycle ride would all but ensure their safe possession of the gold. Apparently, the Weidmans don’t frequent the bike paths of Long Island, though, because this guy had no interest in pedaling away from anyone.
Weidman took back the fight from the emboldened Machida, neutralizing the Brazilian’s desperate attacks with deft sidestepping, with stop-you-in-your-tracks counterstrikes, with a timely takedown into a little more ground-and-pound thumping. In the final minute, when Machida regained his feet and went after the champ along the fence, Weidman covered up as Machida wailed away. The crowd roared in relish and anticipation. Then, as the last few seconds were ticking off the clock, Weidman pushed his challenger away, stood there tall and unscathed, and waved him back in. His swagger punctuated the fight as much as the final horn.
The judges were unanimous in calling it Weidman’s night, as the scorecards read 49-45, 49-46, and 48-47. And when those scores were read, the crowd roared approval with no audible dissent. Of course, part of that appreciation was to be shared by Machida, the co-author of an exhilarating fight that rescued an event bogged down by some so-so tussles, one bout canceled at the last minute (Stefan Struve, returning from heart problems, experienced what the UFC described as “a non-life-threatening, near-fainting spell” backstage and his heavyweight fight with Matt Mitrione was called off), and a Ronda Rousey co-main event that lasted all of 16 seconds. The marquee fight needed to live up to its billing. And it did.
Still, when Weidman was asked during the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show whether he thought his performance had won over the fanbase, he wasn’t so sure. Nor was he concerned. “You know, it’s not up to me,” he said. “If people want to think that I don’t deserve the championship at this point, that’s up to them. I’m not going to try to change anybody’s opinions. My thing is to go out there and fight.”
That he did, and in so doing he made any remaining doubters seem pretty damn foolish.