Thirty-three-year-old Chris Weidman has experienced every type of win during his eight-year professional mixed martial arts career. He has had fourteen of them in total and there have been knockout wins, submission wins and decision wins. He has won a title and successfully defended a title. Yet, despite this rich history of winning, no victory will have been quite as sweet, nor as important, as the one he achieved tonight (July 22) in Long Island, when forcing Kelvin Gastelum to tap to a head and arm choke in round three of a non-title fight. This one, more than a title-winning knockout of Anderson Silva in 2013, would have meant the world to Chris Weidman because it did something greater than just secure a gold belt or deliver him riches. Quite simply, it kept his career alive.
If in any doubt, you could see exactly what the win meant to Weidman the moment the fight ended and he momentarily fled the Octagon to invite his family to join the celebration. No ordinary victory, this one halted a run of three straight defeats, proved the Long Island native still has plenty to offer and also catapulted him back into the middleweight title picture.
How quickly things change.
Written off beforehand as a busted flush, Weidman had to put defeats to Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero and Gegard Mousasi behind him and try to forget them. But it was hard. He was reminded of the slump whenever interviewed and the fight with Gastelum, once it was announced, was forever referred to as one of the make or break variety.
Not that you’d have known this given the way he started their scheduled five-round main event. Quick out the blocks, showing no signs of being hesitant or gun-shy, Weidman was happy to let Gastelum take the centre of the Octagon and then cleverly use his opponent’s forward momentum against him to get through with some well-picked right hand counter punches. Buoyed by a seven-inch reach advantage, he looked calm on the back foot. There was a clear strategy, even early in the fight: let Gastelum commit, keep him honest with single shots, and then grab a takedown when the time is right.
The first takedown occurred a couple of minutes into the first round, shortly after the crowd’s chants of “Let’s go, Weidman!” settled down, but Gastelum is nothing if not scrappy and it was no surprise that he somehow found a way to scramble free and get back to his feet. It was no surprise, either, to see Weidman try again. This time around, once Gastelum was grounded, Weidman manoeuvred himself into side control and started to work on a kimura. It looked close at one point, too. Gastelum, though, again managed to wriggle free and return to his feet.
It was here, on their feet, where the threat of Gastelum was a real one for Weidman. Though short and squat and, for a middleweight, perhaps undersized, Gastelum possesses the punch power and composure to make a seven-inch reach differential seem a moot point. He has an ability to slide in and out of range and launch arcing punches from afar, and Weidman realised this in the closing stages of round one, when he avoided a right hook thrown by Gastelum, but left his chin in line for a follow-up left cross, which landed flush and sent him to the canvas.
Gastelum, sensing he could add a fourth defeat to Weidman’s record, raced over to finish. He crowded him, rushed him, cracked him with some more short punches in close, but was ultimately prevented from sealing the deal due to the sound of the klaxon bringing the round to a close. Weidman, clearly hurt, breathed a sigh of relief. So did the whole of Long Island.
You’d expect a flashpoint like that to unsettle a man in desperate need of a win, a man who had grown accustomed to seeing the hand of his opponent raised, yet Chris Weidman, to his credit, didn’t allow this to happen. Instead, he came out strong for round two, landing a series of crisp right hands on Gastelum, and then proceeded to take him down at will, time and time again. He got his back at one stage, and looked to secure a choke, and also produced some solid elbows when caught in Gastelum’s closed guard towards the end of the round.
Knockdown aside, it appeared Weidman was not only in the ascendancy at this point but likely two rounds to the good. Gastelum’s coach, Rafael Cordeiro, agreed, telling his charge he was in a hole heading into round three and needed to start turning things around. Cue an increased tempo and some wild swings as Gastelum came out firing to start round three and Weidman, confident in his own hands, met him every step of the way. Indeed, it was Weidman, not Gastelum, who ended up doing the better handiwork in the third. He nailed Gastelum with countless right hands, despite Gastelum’s efforts to move his head, and then used these moments to set up takedowns. It was a sensible approach, one that took Gastelum out of his comfort zone and increased the chances of Weidman coming away victorious.
This became clear in round three when Weidman chipped away at Gastelum’s resistance on the ground, tried to climb his way into the mount position, but then thought better of it and spotted an opening for a head and arm choke. Once in position, he squeezed with all his might, the importance of victory etched on the former champion’s face.
Seconds later, Gastelum’s tap arrived and the Long Island crowd roared both in delight and relief. Chris Weidman had done it. He was back to winning ways.
“A lot of credit to Kelvin,” said Weidman, 14-3, after the fight. “You can’t stand in front of him. You’ve got to cut angles. He got me to stand in front of him for a second and he made it work. That’s the first time I think I’ve ever actually been dropped. That was interesting. I didn’t go out or anything like that but it was a flash knockdown. I guess that’s what it feels like. I came right back to it.
“The point of this camp was stay relaxed, be confident, trust my skills and the finish will come. That’s what happened.
“Keep doubting me, people. I know Long Island didn’t doubt me. I know you’ve got my back. But all these others people around the world, keep doubting me. I dare you.”
One thing’s for sure: there can be no doubting the importance of this win to a man who had seemingly forgotten what winning feels like.
Full UFC on Fox 25 results:
Chris Weidman defeated Kelvin Gastelum via submission in round three (3:45)
Darren Elkins defeated Dennis Bermudez via split decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)
Patrick Cummins defeated Gian Villante via split decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)
Jimmie Rivera defeated Thomas Almeida via unanimous decision (29-28, 30-26, 30-27)
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos defeated Lyman Good via unanimous decision (30-27, 28-29, 30-27)
Eryk Anders defeated Rafael Natal via first-round KO (2:54)
Alex Oliveira defeated Ryan LaFlare via second-round KO (1:50)
Chase Sherman defeated Damian Grabowski via unanimous decision (30-27 x2, 30-26)
Jeremy Kennedy defeated Kyle Bochniak via unanimous decision (30-27 x2, 29-28)
Marlon Vera defeated Brian Kelleher via submission (armbar) (R1, 2:18)
Junior Albini defeated Timothy Johnson via first-round TKO (2:51)
Shane Burgos defeated Godofredo Pepey via unanimous decision (30-26 x2, 29-28)
Chris Wade defeated Frankie Perez via unanimous decision (29-28 x2, 30-27)