It has not taken long for Chris Weidman to make his mark in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s middleweight division. Just four fights into his UFC career, the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler already holds notable victories over 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Demian Maia, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 alum Tom Lawlor and American Top Team’s Alessio Sakara.
Hanging in Weidman’s office are autographed posters with fighter signatures from the four UFC events at which he has competed. He picked up the idea from “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 finalist Brendan Schaub.
“Every fight was another challenge and another step up for me,” Weidman told Sherdog.com.
Based with the Serra-Longo Fight Team, Weidman will face the most significant test of his young career when he steps in the cage with Mark Munoz, a decorated wrestler in his own right, in the UFC on Fuel TV 4 main event on Wednesday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. Weidman, 28, followed a fairly traditional route to the cage.
“My whole life, I was competing in wrestling against the top cream-of-the-crop guys and then started doing jiu-jitsu,” he said. “I picked that up pretty fast and I saw all these other wrestlers doing really good, and it kind of looked like something I might want to do.”
Weidman, who did not attend the 2008 United States Olympic Team Trials because of a broken rib, considered trying out for the 2012 Summer Games and the U.S. World team, but he was looking for something beyond wrestling.
“I still had that competitive fire in me that was far from going out, and then I had the option of doing MMA, which, it seemed like people were actually making a living doing it,” he said. “In wrestling, it’s very hard to make a good living and be able to support your family, and I was living in my parents’ basement with my wife and so I needed to make some money. I always felt like a fighter at heart growing up, so I felt like MMA would be a really good fit for me.”
First, however, Weidman decided to give Brazilian jiu-jitsu a try, and after three months at former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra’s academy in New York, he entered first tournament: the East Coast Grappler’s Quest, where he submitted all 13 of his opponents.
“It was the first time I actually won money,” Weidman recalled. “I won my weight class and absolute division and I won $1000 and a championship belt, and that just made me hungry. ‘What, I can actually make money doing this? That’d be awesome. I’d do this every month. That’ll pay my bills.’ And that’s when I started training standup and everything and then I got my first fight.”
Weidman also turned heads at the 2009 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, where he held his own against seven-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Andre Galvao. Although Weidman lost on points, avoiding submission by one of the sport’s legends with less than a year of formal training under his belt, all while competing with a broken hand, was a feat unto itself.
Shortly after he won Grappler’s Quest, Weidman left his coaching post at Hofstra University to begin training and teaching wrestling at striking guru Ray Longo’s gym. The transition was not easy.
“Probably the most challenging thing was in the beginning, when you’re just getting going and you’re not making any money and everybody’s expecting you to be in the UFC already and doing good -- and I was living in my parents’ basement with my wife,” Weidman said. “People started second guessing me, like, ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just get a real job?’ And I felt a little selfish, and, finally, when you get to the UFC, it starts paying off, and suddenly you can justify doing it and the sacrifices, not just for yourself but for your family.”
Weidman also had to transition from a quiet, family-oriented wrestling community to the raucous MMA crowd, with alcohol prevalent in the stands and a rowdy atmosphere.
“During my fights, I had to get used to that,” he said. “That was probably the biggest change from wrestling to MMA is having these guys screaming and cursing at you as you’re walking out, saying ‘You’re gonna [expletive] die’ and stuff like that. In wrestling, people are a lot more respectful. Nobody’s screaming or cursing at you and saying you’re gonna die, you know? So that’s a big difference.”
Although Weidman easily tuned out the noise by focusing on the task at hand, it took a bit of getting used to.
“It doesn’t matter what you think when you go out there and hear all those guys,” he said. “It’s just a matter of where your head’s at as soon as that gate closes and it’s time to roll. It doesn’t really affect you really; it didn’t really affect me. It’s just funny to hear different things.”
Next on Weidman’s plate: a high-stakes showdown against Munoz. Six years Weidman’s senior, “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” won a national championship at Oklahoma State University and is viewed as the superior wrestler. However, Weidman defeated a number of prominent opponents during his wrestling career at Hofstra, including “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner Ryan Bader and world-ranked light heavyweight Phil Davis.
“Munoz will be his biggest test with the wrestling,” Longo said, “but if you look at [Weidman’s] wrestling career, he beat some guys that are considered unbelievable.”
Strikeforce veteran Gian Villante, a primary training partner, believes Weidman’s wrestling skill translate as well, if not better, than what Munoz brings to the table.
“Munoz is a national champion at the highest level. You can’t say that for Chris, but if you watch his fights, Chris has never been taken down in a fight, never even been close to taken down in a fight, and Munoz gets taken down by guys that don’t have half the wrestling that Chris does,” Villante said. “So I think when it comes to that, Mark’s gonna have to learn to fight off his back, and I don’t think that’s something he’s comfortable doing. It could lead to a lot of trouble for him.
“I’ve seen Demian Maia take him down, Chris Leben take him down, and he won those fights,” he added, “but those were guys that shouldn’t have been able to take him down and they did.”
Longo thinks youth might also play a part in the bout.
“You’ve got to remember, he’s a young kid. I think that’s a big factor,” he said. “If Mark Munoz was 28, 29 [years old], I think it’d be a different story, too. I think Chris is really going into the prime of his career.”
Weidman certainly sounds like a man who does not take his opponent lightly.
“He’s the best wrestler I’ve ever faced,” he said. “He’s explosive on his feet; he’s very enthusiastic, which is an intangible to the sport that a lot of people don’t realize. He’s ranked third in the world and I’m trying to move up that ladder, and I really want to make a statement and dominate this fight.”
Although Weidman has scored a first-round finish in every fight for which he has enjoyed a full training camp, he expects a long battle against Munoz. He takes exception with those who have grown critical of wrestling’s place in MMA.
“Wrestling is the hardest thing for anyone to do,” Weidman said. “A lot of guys aren’t even doing it because it sucks to do it. People just want to bash it instead of doing it. A lot of people aren’t willing to put the time into wrestling, so it’s easy to say it sucks, it’s boring, this and that, but that’s why you don’t see too many wrestling schools.
“You see a lot of jiu-jitsu schools because, in jiu-jitsu, you start from the ground, so there’s not a lot of injuries,” he added. “You start standing everyone on their feet, [and] you’re not going to be making as much money because nobody’s coming back. It sucks to get thrown around, you know? So I think it’s also one of those things where people don’t like what they’re not good at and you have to work hard and go through a lot of crap to become a good wrestler, and so I can see a lot of people hating on it.”
Weidman does not favor a “lay and pray” approach, but he believes fighters should work harder on takedown defense and the ability to return to their feet when they are taken down.
“Don’t complain if you’re on the ground and getting beaten up. Don’t get taken down, and if you’re down there, get up on your feet,” he said.
From his point of view, the man on the bottom bears some responsibility.
“That guy needs to learn how to get back up,” Weidman said. “He really does.”
Villante, a former Ring of Combat champion, points out that Weidman’s wrestling style has proven far from boring.
“He goes from move to move, and if he’s not getting a submission, he’s gonna go for some ground-and-pound. He wants to tire you out is the main thing,” Villante said. “Going five rounds with him is gonna be the worst thing for Mark Munoz if it goes that long, because he knows how to wear you out, he knows how to look for submissions the whole time.
“If he had fought Demian Maia on a little more notice -- it was 10 days’ notice -- I’m telling you I think he would’ve submitted a guy who was the best jiu-jitsu guy in the world,” he added. “His jiu-jitsu is right there. He pushes you into going into his style, and he’s just relentless with his submission attempts.”
Longo believes access to a full training camp will benefit Weidman, and it will show up in his performance against Munoz.
“He’s got a full training camp this time,” he said, “and I think you’ll see a difference.”
Weidman welcomed the return to norm.
“It almost feels like too long because I’m not even really used to it,” he said. “It’s nice.”
Longo expects Weidman to rise to the occasion in his first appearance in a UFC main event that could carry middleweight title shot implications.
“The guy’s a phenom,” he said. “He’s a big, strong, athletic, talented, hungry kid who has a brain, who can think. I think when you put all those attributes together, he’s a major, major problem for anyone in the middleweight division, I don’t care who he is. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what this kid can do.”