Chris Weidman is the latest Long Islander looking to bring a UFC belt back to the neighborhood, and guess what? He’s all in.
Chris Weidman hasn’t been in Ray Longo’s gym for more than a minute before somebody tries to give him money. “Oh shit, you going to Vegas?” the Long Island accent says, all but smacking his forehead. “I’ve got to get you some money before you go.”
“Yeah, I’ll be going to Vegas,” Weidman answers. Here he is, just one of the “ordinary Joes” from the neighborhood. The other ordinary Joes eat it up. They love it that one of them isn’t so ordinary. Then it dawns on Weidman what’s being discussed. “Hold up, wait, wait—I can’t just walk up and bet on myself. Give it to Ray! Give it to Ray.”
It takes all kinds to make up a gym, and the fight game is rich with characters. Boxing’s greatest chroniclers realized long ago that the real subject was rarely the center of the room, but more often the periphery. It’s in the sparring partners, who happily go about being anonymously trounced. It’s the fringe players—the hanger-ons, the two-bit bookies, the local mooks who gather like remora around the shark. It’s the old-timers who look like they’ve been cut from gunnysacks, who rasp and make poignant, no-bullshit comments toward their prizefighters, the prizefighters who, by the way, define their everything.
Ray Longo’s MMA Academy in Garden City is like that. People come and go, an assorted cast of Willistons and Syossets and Levittowns, spending their daylight hours working the heavy bags. The sweat matches the accents, and there’s a warmth of affection running through the toil. “Atta boy, Dennis!—atta boy, Tommy!” Some are men, some are women. Some are barely old enough to have a driver’s permit. The conversations, in general, are a cross between cartoon wisecracks and parables. The constant rhythm of a speed bag is the soundtrack.
In that way, Longo’s is a time machine to the golden gyms of yore. Ray himself, who adorns his own office walls with pics posing next to the full galaxy of MMA stars, is an old-school character. He’s the Don and the Paesano. His co-star, Matt Serra, is a legendary character—the one who put Long Island on the map in MMA when he knocked out Georges St-Pierre. Ray’s prodigy, Hofstra’s own Weidman, is next. He’s about to take on the greatest practitioner of MMA the world has known to this point. That’s Anderson Silva, the bogeyman of the business—the consensus number one on the pound-for-pound lists from here to Albuquerque.
And none of this makes sense—this thing that Longo is about to do. He’s about to have his second kid “from right here in the neighborhood” try and knock off a perennial pound-for-pound king in the cage. “So what?” the mindset at Longo’s seems to say. So what if Silva hasn’t lost since 2006, or St-Pierre’s lost only once since 2004. That “once” is why we’re talking. Matt Serra didn’t care a lick about no icons. “Matt said he knew there was an insecure guy in there somewhere, and that he was going to find it,” Longo says. Serra found it in that first encounter with St-Pierre.
Half a decade later, it’s Weidman—who has a psychology degree from Hofstra, to go along with his All-American wrestling pedigree—drawing a bead on Silva. And should Weidman become the new UFC Middleweight Champion, Longo has a chance to go down in history for turning ordinary stories into amazing ones.
“More amazing is that both Matt and Chris had their first pro MMA fights with me,” Longo says. “It’s not like I’m inviting Jon Jones to the camp. I’ve raised them from the beginning. I’m going to say, if Weidman pulls this thing off, that’ll be hard to duplicate. Think about it, I’m not going to ask Georges St-Pierre to come over, hold mitts for him, and look like a genius.”
Ray’s voice is laboring out of him like the last gasp from a smashed accordion. He’s battling the crud, but the crud doesn’t stop anyone in these parts. He’s here, in his cinderblock domain, drinking coffee directly under a blown-up picture of Weidman in his Hofstra singlet, throwing Penn State’s Phil Davis in competition. The 55-year-old Longo’s icy blue eyes have seen some things in his day.
“For me, to have two guys from the ground up—two neighborhood guys—that beat two of the guys considered two of the best pound-for-pound best ever? Phenomenal. I’m going to say, if that happens, nobody’s matching that. That would be a tough one to get. I’ve been really fortunate to work with these guys. I don’t want to sound like Dale Carnegie, but when I first met Chris, there was an instant rapport. Same with Matt, who I used to mentor and who now mentors me. The guy’s my best friend to this day.”
There are deep impressions in the heavy bags, which hang in a long row across the gym like a gallows. Some of them belong to Serra. Others, Weidman.
Weidman has heard the criticism, too, but he’ll tell you he belongs in this title fight—even if Silva’s 16-fight win streak in the UFC predates his MMA debut by three years. Why? The 9-0 record doesn’t nearly begin to describe the entirety of his career. For starters, there were the circumstances.
“Listen, I could have probably 30 fights right now fighting all the bums,” he says. “But I only take the best guys to fight, even before the UFC—I fought all guys with winning records. If you look at most guy’s records, their first 10 or 15 fights are against guys with losing records. That means nothing to me. I fought guys who actually have a chance of doing well in this sport. My experience—I’ve wrestled at a world-class level. My jiu-jitsu, I’ve competed at a world-class level. I’m bringing in a lot more experience than 9-0 says. I’m bringing in short-notice fights where I could have easily had excuses.”
Short-notice fights were about all Weidman knew early under the Zuffa banner. He took on Alessio Sakara in his UFC debut in early 2011 with a little more than two weeks to prepare. “When I got called up for that, I wasn’t even in shape and had a broken rib,” he says. “There’s a million reasons why I should have lost that fight. Alessio was on a three-fight winning streak…he was a veteran…a devastating striker…a black belt on the ground. This is going to be a tough match for me, people said, I’ll probably lose, but then hopefully I’ll get another shot. I refused to believe that.”
He won via decision. Then, Court McGee suffered a knee injury and Weidman filled in again—this time with much more than a fortnight to prepare—at UFC 131 in Vancouver. He choked out Jesse Bongfeldt in the first round and got a bonus for Submission of the Night. Then there was the Demian Maia fight, where he was asked to prove his hunger both literally and figuratively before taking center stage on live broadcast television. “He had to lose 33 pounds in 10 days,” Longo says. “He went into the sauna at one point for 10 minutes and came out and realized he didn’t shed an ounce. He was crying. It was bad.”
But Weidman, ever defiant, somehow made weight. That old wrestler’s resolve. He swore he’d never do it again, but he made it. Then he beat Maia on the scorecards, prompting the Brazilian to re-imagine himself as welterweight, where he’s now a top contender.
“It’s almost like he’s the kiss of death for these fighters,” Longo says of Weidman’s casualty list as filtered through the minds of critics. “Demian Maia? He’s really only a 170-pounder. Mark Munoz? He’s a fat, old guy. Munoz was up for the title, and now he’s a fat, old guy. Maia triangled Chael Sonnen in about 20 seconds. They’re not mentioning that. Chris has merited his title shot on his performances, which is the way it should be.”
And guess what? Should Weidman beat Silva, both Longo and Weidman are anticipating a similar chorus afterwards. Silva is past his prime. He’s old. He’s on the downturn. That’s fine. Weidman has a sense of humor, just the same as Longo and Serra, a couple of regular “ball-busters.” These guys have more fun with the fight game and its shifting perceptions than about anybody in the racket. They laugh and joke and act so exasperated all the time that UFC president Dana White keeps promising Longo & Co. a sitcom. “I’m at the point now where it’s like, get the fricking sitcom, I don’t want to do this no more,” Longo laughs. “I’m worn out.”
Leading up to July 6, though, it will be different. The hype game works out front. Weidman will inevitably hear about Silva’s aura, his mystique, his invincibility, his legacy—the streak. He’ll be cautioned about the otherworldly striking. He’ll be reminded of what happened to Forrest Griffin, whose astral body fled that night in Philly long before the physical body did. In short, there are those who will see Weidman as nothing more than Silva’s next sacrifice.
And this, too, is familiar. Back in 2010, days before he stepped in to face the ominous striker Uriah Hall—a fellow New Yorker from Spanish Town who was last season’s runner up on The Ultimate Fighter—he caught wind of similar things.
“I would get Facebook messages,” he says. “I got one particularly from this girl who went to my high school that goes to Tiger Schulmann. She writes—‘CHRIS, PLEASE BE CAREFUL. HE’S EXTEMELY DANGEROUS.’ Literally like I’m going to get killed. And I’m just like—are you fucking kidding me? I’ll punch you in the mouth, and I’ll punch him in the mouth, and I’ll punch everybody in the mouth.” He laughs. “Again, I don’t fall into the hype like that. For me, I was like, thank you, I appreciate your worrying about me. The thing is, everybody from his camp thought he was unbeatable, and he was undefeated. Everybody from my camp thought I was unbeatable.”
Here he looks at his hand, recognizing the similarities between the times.
“You know, I had my hand surgery before that fight, and they put my hip bone in there,” he says, tapping a knob below the wrist. “I was out a while. I wasn’t able to really hit hard, because my hand was hurting, but I still took it. And I ended up knocking him out. If you compare Uriah and Anderson, they are both crazy looking strikers, and nobody expected me to knock out Uriah Hall. But it happened.”
There’s no promise of a repeat in the way he states the fact. He’s just passing along a little piece of trivia. Just small talk is all.
“I’m the bitch of the family,” Weidman says. His older brother, Charlie, was on his way to the NFL before a knee injury ended his career. “Athletically, I was always in the shadows, and he was always a better athlete than me growing up. He was 250 pounds, ran a 4.5 40, bench-pressed 38 times in the Combine.”
His younger sister, Colleen, at one time a collegiate volleyball player, is a sort of philanthropist who sets the bar very high for all Weidmans. “She goes on mission trips. She went to India to fight human sex trafficking. She puts herself in dangerous areas just to help other people, and she’s got a heart of gold.” Funny that she’s the one with the red hair, because here’s the middle child, Chris Weidman, headlining one of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view cards of 2013, fighting a legend for the belt, representing the very heart of “Strong Island,” as the underachiever.
Some bitch. Weidman has a Master’s degree in physical education from Hofstra in nearby Hempstead, with an undergrad in psychology. He was a stud wrestler, too. He’s good at multitasking—which is perhaps aided by his attention deficit disorder. “Yes, I have ADD—and you have ADD,” he says, pointing to Ray, “and you” (pointing to a dude just finished training who smells like vapor lozenges) “and so do you” (pointing to me). “Everybody has ADD.”
Nor is he a picture of organization. Most of his camps have been either cramming sessions or of the “roll with the punches” variety. However, for this camp he has John Danaher involved, the Ivy Leaguer who came up under the tutelage of Serra. “He’s a student of the game,” Longo huffs. “And he’s a character. I’m never sure when he’s fucking with me.” Danaher was in Longo’s the night prior with a syllabus for Weidman leading up to Silva. An actual schedule. This is something new. “I have my Master’s degree and all that, so it kind of takes me back to getting reorganized,” Weidman says.
What you notice about Weidman is that he’s superbly confident in himself. He doesn’t put on airs. What you notice more is his casual grasp of the psychological warfare that goes on between fights. The first way you can tell this is in how he talks about Silva. It’s as if the tables are turned. It’s as though the 38-year-old Silva were the one being asked to make a statement, and he himself were the pinnacle.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for him,” Weidman says more than once. “Anderson’s getting older and has to prove himself against a young fighter who’s a bad match-up for him? That’s tough.”
When Chael Sonnen fought Silva, he disparaged the Champion so much in the weeks leading up that it only served to help hoist the pedestal. For the more anonymous Weidman, it’s different. He isn’t exactly disrespectful or in awe, and, more importantly, nor is he interested in pretending to be. Silva is just another opponent—he is a persona generic. It’s not that Weidman’s a nightmare match-up for Silva, it’s that he’s a nightmare for anybody (but, he’ll tell you, particularly for Silva).
“I think he’s faced good wrestlers before, I think he’s faced good jiu-jitsu guys before, I don’t think he’s faced a guy who has both of them together,” he says. “I’m young, I’m extremely hungry and confident. I’ve got longer reach than him—I don’t think he’s ever faced a guy with as long of reach as me. I’m a pressure fighter who never tires. He’s going to break before me. If we get into a war, I can promise you, he’ll break first. I’ve been to the grind too many times so I know where I stand with that because of the wrestling. I haven’t been able to show that yet. I haven’t had a full camp where the fight goes past the second round. I haven’t been able to show me mentally and physically breaking somebody to the point where they’re gassing and I’m still moving and aggressive, looking for submissions and knockouts.”
Anybody with a sense of Silva’s vulnerabilities sees Weidman’s wrestling as the key. The blueprint was Dan Henderson’s for a round (UFC 82), and Sonnen’s for four rounds (UFC 117). Weidman’s best chance is to string together the full five rounds. You know what’s funny, though? How we fall over ourselves to talk about Weidman’s wrestling pedigree, when he himself sees it as a loose end. “Unsatisfied,” is how he describes his collegiate wrestling career, which spans his time at Nassau Community College to Hofstra.
“I don’t think I ever reached one of my goals in wrestling. And everybody thinks it’s so good.” He shakes his head. “No, I always kind of fell short of what I wanted to do. This is my shot to finally accomplish my goal, and I think the biggest thing I changed from those wrestling days to now is my mindset. After getting my degree in psychology, I just said—you know what? I am done losing. I am absolutely done losing. The only reason I was losing any wrestling matches, for the most part, is I was beating myself. It’s so easy to beat yourself—guys do it all the time, just kind of mentally crumble. I’ve made it my goal to learn how to have a winner’s mindset. I just understand where my mind needs to be. Certain doubts that creep into your mind…it’s natural, and I know how to deal with them.”
“Patrick Cote tried to fight Silva,” Longo says. “He did. Patrick is a fighter—he’s a fighter. Now he’s on the down side a little bit, but back then he was in Silva’s face. He wasn’t going anywhere. That’s a good sign.”
Somebody comes up and sticks money into Ray’s palm like he’s passing off a prison yard shiv. “Thanks,” Ray says. “You going already?” More mischievous razzing. More back and forth chuckles. Then Ray’s back to the cues to be found in Cote’s 2008 bout against Silva—things that can be picked out in helping ready Weidman for the encounter. “My job is to take a fight like that and use it. I really think I’ve got Silva figured. As a trainer, what can I make Chris believe? That’s what I mean. If I don’t have that connection, the guy’s going to be like, What do I have you for? Once that’s gone, I’m done.”
Ray has a connection to Weidman, just as he did with Serra, just as Serra does with Weidman. It’s the family. It’s Long Island, where Weidman says, “there are all these knuckleheads running around.” These are neighborhood boys. Ray is more than a coach to Weidman. He’s a sort of guardian, too.
“When he first came here, his wife threatened me,” Ray says of Weidman’s wife, Marivi, who had reservations about Chris fighting. “I was like, wow, I’ve never had that type of pressure on me. I went to his grandmother’s funeral when I first met him. And Marivi came up to me and said, ‘I’ll kill you if something happens!’ He hadn’t even had a fight yet. I was shitting in my pants. But my first observation with Chris was his wrestling—I’m going to say I’d never seen anything like it. It was different. I’d had some high school champions, but this was a different level. It’d be like if you have guys playing baseball in the neighborhood, they’re good ballplayers. Then you see a guy in the minor leagues, totally different animal. He was taking it slow at first. He was trying out for the Olympics at the time. That went south. And I told him, I really think you have a shot, but you’ve got to commit to it.”
He did, and now he does. As they say on Long Island, it’s “not for nothing.” Sometimes, it’s for everything.