Headed into UFC on Fox 25 on July 22, 2017, Chris Weidman had his back to the wall. While the 33-year-old former Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder was in little danger of losing his roster spot—examples abound of just how much rope the UFC will give a popular ex-champ—he had dropped three straight fights after starting his career 13-0 and was definitely at risk of becoming just another fighter at 185 pounds.
Complicating matters was the fact that Weidman’s actual capacity to fight was in no way clear. The “All-American” had always been prone to nagging injuries—2011 was the only calendar year in which he had fought three times, and since dethroning Anderson Silva in July of 2013, his schedule had slowed to one fight per year—but the prevailing wisdom had long been that a fully healthy Weidman was probably the best middleweight on the planet. Given that his losing streak had featured three Top 5 fighters in Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero and Gegard Mousasi, and that he had been competitive at the very least against all three, it was difficult to tell whether Weidman was still a top contender who had simply been the victim of brutal matchmaking, or had fallen off a cliff physically and competitively.
The same uncertainty that made Weidman a nightmare for rankings panels in 2017 also made it difficult for his promotion to book him appropriately. Weidman was too good, too popular and had been champ too recently to be a gatekeeper, yet he clearly needed a break from the steady stream of title contenders that had been leaving him staring into the arena lights for the last two years. Breaking from its longtime guiding principle that winners fight winners and losers fight losers, the UFC booked Weidman against rising contender Kelvin Gastelum. In contrast to Weidman’s three-fight skid, former “The Ultimate Fighter” winner Gastelum had won three straight, even if his victory over Vitor Belfort had been changed to a no-contest after Gastelum tested positive for cannabis.
While the Weidman-Gastelum pairing might not have made much sense at first glance, there were plenty of nuances that worked in its favor. Gastelum had won three fights in a row, but only the last two had been at middleweight, as the UFC had reputedly forced him to move back up after a history of egregious failures to make weight at welterweight. The stocky Gastelum figured to give up significant size to Weidman. The card was also set to take place at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, just minutes from Weidman’s hometown. While nothing had been said officially, if the ex-champ elected to retire after the fight, win or lose, it would be in front of the most supportive audience imaginable.
In the end, the fight ended up looking as expected in some ways, even if the final result was very much “none of the above.” Weidman did indeed look almost comically oversized next to Gastelum throughout fight week and during weigh-ins, and while a height disparity had not stopped Gastelum from beating a Weidman-sized Uriah Hall to win his season of “TUF,” it was another matter entirely when he faced a fellow wrestler with that kind of size advantage. However, in an ironic reversal, where Weidman had won the first round in all three of his recent losses, Gastelum took it to him late in the first round of their fight, dropping him with a huge left hand and putting the hometown hero in desperation mode as the horn sounded.
Weidman recovered, winning the second round before grounding a flagging Gastelum in the third and putting him away with an arm-triangle choke in the third. The win snapped Weidman’s skid at the same time that it ended Gastelum’s unbeaten streak, but the momentum would not last. Weidman lost his next fight to Ronaldo Souza before moving up to light heavyweight and being punched out in short order by Dominick Reyes, and will go into his scheduled middleweight matchup with Omari Akhmedov next month having lost five of his last six, all by stoppage. Gastelum, on the other hand, bounced back, beating Michael Bisping and Souza to earn an interim title shot against Israel Adesanya, where he lost a decision in Sherdog’s 2019 “Fight of the Year.”