The night before Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva for the UFC Middleweight Title, Ray Longo saw things unfolding before his eyes.
Photo: USA TODAY SPORTS
Heavyweight great Floyd Patterson wouldn’t have sex during his training camps before fights, because he believed it weakened the knees. This is a proud fight game deprivation that has been passed down through the centuries. It’s more scientific than a rabbit’s foot, but “Jersey” Joe Walcott carried around a miniature horseshoe just in case. Fighters always have been superstitious. Englishman Charlie Mitchell, it is said, avoided cross-eyed women before a bout. Phobias like that are a dime a dozen.
Yet, New York’s Jake LaMotta had no use for charms and no fear of crook-eyed women. Back in the day, he even laughed at Patterson’s forced celibacy on a televised roundtable with him. To a no-nonsense New Yorker, a fight hinges on getting in there and fighting. That’s it. And that’s the sort of cloth that Long Island’s Chris Weidman is cut from.
On the eve of his historic fight with the UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, Weidman was in bed. He had read some inspirational texts and was sleeping away the last Friday night before his life would change. For weeks leading up, he insisted the pressure that comes with fighting for the belt wouldn’t bog him down. He wouldn’t disappear in the moment, he said, wouldn’t let doubt creep in. He told FIGHT! two months prior in New York, “I have a refuse-to-lose attitude.” That sort of projection seemed admirable from a distance, but also increasingly unrealistic as the thing drew near. Even for a guy with a degree in psychology, as Weidman has, it’s hard to stay raveled when the boogieman of the division looms ahead—when posters of Silva and yourself are everywhere you look in Las Vegas. The immensity of that moment can do things to a man.
But by Friday night, he’d been hit with the worst of it already. He’d gotten through the weigh-ins and all the boom mics and recorders and the bombardment of familiar questions. He dealt with the doubts—all of them transferrable from the tone of the questions—and absorbed the “dead man walking” looks. He’d strolled by Silva and his monstrous entourage many times, coolly ignoring the archipelago of yellow and black shirts that moved through the throngs at the MGM to wild chants.
Even when he and Silva went lips-to-lips in the weigh-in stare down, he smiled and joked about the unexpected softness of the Champ’s sweet kiss. He had been a good sport.
Now, he was fast asleep in a town that doesn’t sleep, with only one thing left to do—get up tomorrow and take out the number one pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.
His trainer, Ray Longo, wasn’t sleeping, because it’s left to the closest people in a fighter’s camp to do the worrying. He came downstairs for a quick drink at the Rouge Bar in the MGM Grand, a little Grey Goose and grapefruit. He’d been with Weidman throughout the night…throughout the cut…throughout the week…throughout his entire run through the UFC…all the way back to when the young Hofstra wrestler was dragged into Longo’s by a friend that insisted Longo check him out.
“He’s homegrown,” Longo says. “He grew up with me.”
Now, here he was—here they were—on the cusp of greatness.
First, there was Matt Serra in Houston at UFC 69, knocking off Georges St-Pierre in what’s still considered the greatest upset in UFC history. Serra was a local boy from Longo’s, just like Weidman. Nobody thought Serra would beat St-Pierre, other than Longo and Serra. With Weidman, it was different. People were split. Some believed he had the tools to take out the UFC’s longest running champion, but others were convinced he’d get his ass handed to him. Silva was 16-0 in the UFC, after all, and “has a highlight reel as long as Long Island,” as Longo says. Weidman was green and hadn’t fought in more than a year. Even Longo had to consider both sides. “There’s a chance we go in there and he makes us look stupid,” he said. “We won’t know until we’re in there with him.”
“Do you like this feeling, the night before a title fight like this?” I ask him.
“I do love this feeling,” he says. “He’s ready. I really think he is. He’s so strong. I want to say, if he gets a hold of Anderson’s neck, it’s over, man. This kid is so strong.”
“What did you see on the tapes of the other guys fighting Anderson?”
“That they aren’t Chris,” he says. “Weidman’s not those guys—that’s the difference. He’s really not those guys.”
“What happens when Silva drops his hands and does that thing that Silva does, where he switches modes and goes berserker?”
“When he does that, he leaves his hips open and his body open, and I’ve told Chris to punch a hole in his chest,” Longo says. “That’s another way of saying, start at the body, finish at the head. I think Anderson doesn’t realize just how long this guy’s reach is. He did that to Forrest, and Forrest just couldn’t hit him.” Here he looks up with those glassy blue eyes. “This kid—this kid will put a tracking device on his head and he’ll catch him.”
Of course, days later, Longo admits he was a nervous wreck at the bar, and the rest of the night. And he’s nervous because he feels accountable for Weidman. Here’s a kid being scrutinized by every pundit and casual fan in the country. There’s a whole Fan Expo built around the event he is headlining.
But Longo knows what he knows, about Weidman’s strength, his stand-up ability, his wrestling, his grappling, his poise, and his desire. He knows he won’t break mentally. But knowing and hoping are interchangeable the night before the event. The possibilities are of all kinds, not just those you feel good contemplating. There’s a very real possibility that this moment is the closest Chris Weidman will ever get to the sun.
“I just really want to see this kid do good,” Longo says. “Not for me, but for him. If anything goes wrong, I’ll definitely take it personal. I know we put the work in and everything, but it’s MMA, and anything can happen. I really just want to see the best for him.”
The anticipation of the fight overrides everything. Longo talks about “the kiss,” and chuckles, and about how behind the curtain before coming out to weigh-in, Silva walked up behind Weidman right to the back of his head and stood there, as if to intimidate. “I thought, what is this, kindergarten?” he laughs. “Just playing head games.” With all the things going on, with Brazilian and American fans everywhere, and the UFC handing out towels of those countries to fans in attendance, Longo finishes his drink and says, “It really has a feel of Us against Them.”
On fight night, Longo will show up with his father’s ID bracelet from the Navy, just like he always does. “I’m a whack job,” he says. “I have some superstitions. Nothing that will make me stop what I’m going to do, but things that make me feel better.”
And somewhere, Silva had a couple of Big Macs (or maybe Whoppers now that he’s sponsored by Burger King). That has long been his ritual before a fight. Everybody has their thing.
“I guarantee you the second time around Weidman’s going to beat him worse than the first time.”
Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Twenty-four hours later, Weidman is the UFC Middleweight Champion. It’s one of the most memorable knockouts in UFC history, and for a variety of reasons.
Silva dropped his hands and tried the old Venus flytrap technique, where he invites his prey in, like he has so many times, mocking Weidman the whole way.
Just as Longo said, Weidman was ready for it. He took the invitation seriously and got in on Silva to land a fateful left hook. “The reason Weidman stood up is because he knew that I believed he could beat him standing,” Longo says two days later in Long Island. “I’ve watched the kid spar so many times against quality guys and we never had a problem. If Silva had starting mugging too much, the idea was the back out, to disengage, and to re-stalk him again.”
Didn’t need to. Silva clowned, and Weidman connected. In the second round of a fight that Weidman begged for and Silva only relented to take, he knocked out the greatest mixed martial arts we’ve known to date. For the second time in his life, Longo has helped a homegrown Long Island boy become a UFC Champion. And for the second time, he’ll now prepare that guy for a rematch with the man whose belt they took.
“Honestly, I feel like these are two totally separate entities when it comes to the rematch,” he says. “I guarantee you the second time around Weidman’s going to beat him worse than the first time. Matt really went into that second fight with two herniated discs. Matt’s a company man. He was going to take that fight if they wheeled him in on a wheelchair. He had canceled on Hughes, there was no way he was going to cancel on GSP.”
Longo is hesitant to say too much about the Serra/St-Pierre fights, because these days, they’re all friends. But facts are facts, and Longo has some history on the right side of the facts. Serra shocked the world, but didn’t win the rematch. Weidman smashed the game’s greatest, and now awaits Silva’s return.
“With the antics, as far as that goes, it’s funny,” Longo says. “People are fickle. When he did it with Forrest, it was okay. When he did it with Bonnar, it was okay. All of a sudden, it’s not okay. Honestly, that’s the way the guy fights! And he paid the ultimate price for it. Weidman’s not those guys—that’s the difference. He’s really not those guys. Silva’s not going to get away with that crap, and that’s what happened. And, another thing, you give him confidence like that, I’m going to say there’s no stopping Weidman in a rematch. That’s all from knowing him versus a fan speculating from the outside. That’s just how he is. Once he gets it into his head that he can beat you—I don’t care if it’s golf, tennis, MMA, basketball, Tiddly Winks, croquet—I’m telling you, this guy’s going to be a problem.”
It was one hell of an exchange. Silva handed Weidman the belt, and in return, Weidman handed Silva the problem.