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A Left Hook from Leftfield

Dec. 23, 2013
Dec. 23, 2013

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Dec. 23, 2013

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A Left Hook from Leftfield

IN 2009 AN ASPIRING GYM TEACHER DISCOVERED MMA. FOUR YEARS LATER, WHEN CHRIS WEIDMAN ENTERED THE OCTAGON TO FACE ANDERSON SILVA, NO ONE GAVE HIM A CHANCE

HE LOOKED like any young father walking through McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on a summer day. With his infant son, C.J., in one arm, carry-on bags in the other, Chris Weidman made his way, unbothered, through the zigzagging security line toward the X-ray machines and body scanners. Not even the slight limp—souvenir of an Anderson Silva kick three nights earlier—alerted other travelers to his identity.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2013 issue

"Shoes off. Jackets off. Belts off," barked the attending TSA officer.

Belts off? Weidman knew his cover was blown. As he lifted the bottom of his T-shirt, the neon lights of the Vegas airport reflected off the gold plating of his UFC middleweight championship belt. Another keepsake from his date with Silva, it had proved too bulky to fit in any of Weidman's bags. The new champion unbuckled it from around his waist, grabbed a plastic bin and sent it through the scanner.

"The security guards were like, What the heck?" says Weidman.

What the heck? That's the G-rated version of the phrase Weidman has heard so often, not just from TSA agents but also from an MMA audience astonished that Weidman has the belt at all. The left hook—neither graceful nor seemingly authoritative—that he landed on Silva's jaw for a second-round knockout on July 6 did more than crown a new UFC middleweight champ: It punctured the aura of invincibility that Silva had cultivated over his seven-year reign. "He has such a mystique around him that people think he could beat up seven MMA fighters at one time," Weidman says. "They think he's untouchable."

No such aura surrounds the new titleholder. The 29-year-old Weidman, who studied to be a high school gym teacher, drives a minivan around the Long Island town of Dix Hills, N.Y. (where he and his wife, Mairvi, recently moved from his hometown of Baldwin, 20 miles away). He reads pink princess books to his three-year-old daughter, Cassidy. Even his mother, Mary, concedes, "He doesn't have a fighter's personality."

Though the 6'2", 186-pound Weidman was undefeated entering the Silva bout (9--0, with three KOs and three submissions), a wide swath of the MMA fan base viewed his victory as at best a fluke, at worst a fix. His reign, those same skeptics seem to feel, is an aberration that will be rectified in a rematch with Silva on Dec. 28 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Even as champ Weidman is the underdog, opening at +100 on the Vegas betting line.

ALL THE doubts about Weidman really say less about his abilities than they do about Silva's status. From the time he joined the UFC in 2006 until he stepped in against Weidman, the Brazilian-born Silva had beaten 16 straight opponents, 11 by knockout, often in spectacular fashion.

Nor did Silva hide his disdain for opponents he considered unworthy (i.e., all of them). He frequently stood in the cage with his hands planted on his hips, laughing and goading the man across from him. He spared Weidman none of his usual theatrics. "I expected him to clown me," Weidman says, "but not as much as he did."

Weidman was winning Round 1 handily, executing a double leg takedown 30 seconds in and following it with a flurry of punches. Yet Silva rose to laugh at Weidman, shaking his head at the challenger's errant punches, waving him forward like an impatient traffic cop. To punctuate his patronization, Silva kissed Weidman on the cheek at round's end.

In other sports that would have been the point at which the fans rallied around the underdog. But this is MMA, where fans crave dominance, especially if it's seasoned with a bit of arrogance. So when the second round started and Silva reacted to a Weidman left hook by swaying in mock pain, it wasn't seen as disrespectful, but as just another example of Silva's gamesmanship. Weidman, however, had a different view: "That's when I was like, Screw you. I'm going to throw punches, and I'm going to land on you."

The punch that finished Silva 1:18 into the second round was hardly spectacular—just a long left hand to the point of the jaw. But that's the kind of punch that knocks a man out. And that's exactly what offended UFC fans the most: Silva had just been exposed as mortal—by a one-time aspiring gym teacher.

Fans incredulous at the result posted slow-motion, highly pixelated video of the fight to bolster their charges that the fix had been in. Silva only stoked suspicions when, after the first knockout of his UFC career, he told commentator Joe Rogan he didn't want a rematch. "No, Chris is the champion now," he said. "I don't fight more for the belt."

UFC PRESIDENT Dana White immediately dismissed the conspiracy theorists as a bunch of "f------ idiots." For good reason. A fixed fight would defy any economic rationale, especially since the UFC's majority owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, would jeopardize the Nevada gaming license of their Station Casino franchise and a $90 million broadcast deal with Fox. A fix also would have made no sense for Silva, whose fight with Weidman was just the first of a 10-bout deal—one expected to include lucrative superfights against the likes of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and welterweight titleholder Georges St. Pierre. Finally, the notion of an arranged outcome ignores an important fact: Weidman is the real thing. Sure of that himself, Weidman waited until after the Silva bout to sign a new contract. The rematch will be the first of an eight-fight deal that will bring him $200,000 per show (with another $200,000 per win) plus a cut of the pay-per-view proceeds.

Four years ago Weidman was living in his parents' basement with Marivi, making $15,000 a year as an assistant wrestling coach at his alma mater, Hofstra, and studying for his master's degree in physical education. A classmate who knew of Weidman's wrestling success—two junior college All-America designations at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, N.Y, with two more in the 197-pound class at Division I Hofstra—made an offhand suggestion: Give MMA a try.

After Weidman's first day at former UFC welterweight Matt Serra's gym on Long Island, Serra figured that Weidman was either a) a genetic freak capable of dominating the UFC or b) a liar who was sandbagging about his lack of jujitsu experience. "The second he got on the mat, he was giving guys that had been there way longer than him fits," says Serra. "I don't think I ever saw anyone take to jujitsu the way he took to it."

Weidman proved to be as good on his feet as he was on his back. Ray Longo, the striking coach who teams with Serra, threw Weidman in with an undefeated pro heavyweight for Weidman's first sparring session. "I beat the crap out of him," Weidman says. "He quit in the second round."

For all his physical gifts, though, it may be Weidman's mental makeup that best explains his rapid ascension to titleholder. And perhaps nothing better illustrates that than the night of Oct. 29, 2012, when the budding fighter took a crushing punch from Mother Nature.

Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island that night with 75-mph winds that sent 13 feet of water into the town of Baldwin, where Weidman and Marivi were living at the time. Suddenly the house they'd bought using the purse from his second UFC bout as a down payment, the house they loved for its proximity to the shore, was in danger of being washed away.

"The worst hurricane we'd ever had was [Irene] the year before, and it didn't even get to our garage," says Weidman. "We expected maybe a little worse, maybe not as bad."

But then the noises came from the garage, the sound of the water thrashing boxes full of the family's belongings. "The next thing I notice is it's in the first floor and taking over the house," Weidman recalls.

What was Weidman's reaction as he stood knee-deep in water trying to salvage as much as he could? "I'm laughing, almost like I can't believe this is freaking happening," he says.

Weidman has handled the torrent of criticism and doubts about his championship victory in the same way, with a touch of humor, seeking higher ground. Standing in streams of sewage and driving home to see empty lots where your neighbors' houses once stood has a way of keeping Internet trolls in perspective. The rematch with Silva, Weidman figures, will silence the critics.

"There are so many doubters," he says. "That's why this rematch is going to be so big. The fact that I knocked him out, it had to be that he was taking it easy on me, that it was fixed, whatever people want to put in their minds.... I'm excited to go out there and prove that what happened is going to happen again. I'm the better fighter."

The man who helped build that fighter puts it even more emphatically. "We've had the changing of the guards," says Serra. "Chris's story is just being written. He could go down as one of the greatest of all time."

Serra will clearly get no argument on Long Island. In July, when Weidman and his family turned down Colony Drive in Baldwin, which still bore the scars of Sandy's battering, home from Vegas at last at 2 a.m., a throng of neighbors was gathered. They waved signs, shot off fireworks and held up their kids to see the new champion. Weidman took out his belt and posed for pictures for the next hour and a half. Finally, as the last fans headed home, a new day was just about to dawn. Weidman posed for a final photo, then grabbed the belt and hobbled inside. The trophy, he had learned, "was a little heavier than it looked."

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Fans incredulous at the result posted slow-motion, highly pixelated video of the fight to bolster their charges of a fix.
PHOTOPhotograph by JOSH HEDGES/ZUFFA LLC/GETTY IMAGESWHAT THE HECK? An All-America wrestler at Hofstra, the 29-year-old Weidman had only nine bouts under his belt before he met the UFC's menacing middleweight champ.PHOTOCLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FAMILY)FALLING PREY Weidman responded to Silva's taunting with naked aggression, then returned with his family (far right, with wife Marivi, Cassidy and C.J.) to a hero's welcome in their Sandy-ravaged town.PHOTOPhotograph by JOSH HEDGES/ZUFFA LLC/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]