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In the runup to UFC Fight Night 174 on Aug. 8, Chris Weidman kept his expectations reasonable, if not a little vague. “I’m going to go out there and put a dominating fight on and make a statement and show that the ‘All-American’ is back,” he said in the pre-fight promo video. Whatever it meant for the former champion to be “back,” whether it was to find a vintage finish or to get back into the title picture, it at least required a win over Omari Akhmedov. The uncertainty of that result was an indication of the distance between where Weidman is now and where he used to be.
It’s strange to think that it had been three years since Weidman’s last win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a submission of soon-to-be title challenger Kelvin Gastelum in July 2017, which was itself more than two years removed from the previous win before it. It wasn’t that long ago when he was the undefeated champ with back-to-back stoppages against the sport’s most incredible champion. Now we’re impressed that he toughed out a decision victory against a former welterweight in Akhmedov, a solid fighter who would have been on Weidman’s highlight reel circa 2012.
After a respectable three title defenses, Weidman began sputtering. Losing the belt to Luke Rockhold wasn’t so bad. Rockhold had a legitimate claim as the best middleweight in the world when he won and twice defended the Strikeforce middleweight title. He had, at the very least, faced better competition than Weidman did in the UFC at that time. Plus, Weidman could defensibly insist that his loss to Rockhold stemmed from one single mistake, not that he was the lesser fighter. That’s a frustrating but also fixable problem.
Yet his first fight after losing the title was against fourth-ranked Yoel Romero, who decapitated Weidman with a vicious flying knee. After consecutive TKO losses, who did he fight next? Fifth-ranked Gegard Mousasi, who had won four fights in a row, three of them via knockout. A nice win against eighth-ranked Gastelum was quickly dashed after getting knocked out by No. 5 contender Ronaldo Souza. An inexplicable light heavyweight debut against Top 5 Dominick Reyes ended in the now familiar sight of Weidman waking up on the canvas.
After going 1-5 across five years, it’s easy to see why Weidman wants to go back to the way things were. After each devastating knockout, he marched right back into the cage against another Top 5 fighter, only to be devastatingly knocked out once more. His only win in that time was against an opponent outside of the Top 5. Had he fought someone like Akhmedov earlier—say, after the Romero loss—who knows how he could have rebounded. Perhaps he could have put together another win or two and been right back in the title picture against someone like Michael Bisping. It’s not unthinkable that more prudent matchmaking could have resulted in another championship chapter for the “All-American.”
There is still an aversion in MMA to the idea of a rebound fight. Part of it is the usual macho nonsense: Real fighters always choose the toughest opponents no matter what, even if it hurts their career and earning potential in the long run. Part of it is baked into the UFC’s ethos that has always made it alluring: Fighters don’t avoid challenges and pad their records like they do in boxing. Part of it is also structural and incentivized: The bigger the fight, the bigger the payday. These are all understandable when taken in context, but at a point, you have to start thinking big picture. Against Akhmedov, Weidman knew he had to definitively win the third round to win the fight, so he played it safe and won cleanly through takedowns and positional control; he didn’t go out there and start winging hooks and overhands in the middle of the cage. One can only wonder where he’d be now if he approached his career with the same sort of cautious consideration.
I understand the expression Weidman was using when he said he wants to show that he’s back. It is probably nothing more than that—an everyday expression—but the problem is it confuses circumstance with time. “Back” could mean a rediscovery of a replicable state of mind, but that outsources technical and tactical mistakes to variables within his control: effort, dedication, focus. Such delusions are helpful and almost certainly necessary, but so is honest assessment. Weidman is 36. He is no longer the athlete he once was, and he never will be. He has not beaten a Top 5 fighter in over five years and likely never will again. The division has moved on without him, and he has no respite in other ones. He probably has a few more years of beating up on the Akhmedovs of the world, but that’s about it. Weidman may not be done, but he’s much closer to it than he is its opposite.
“The All-American” is not back. Like all of us, he can’t go back. He has no choice but to go forward, no matter how long or dimly lit that stretch may be or how poorly it compares to the brief brilliant radiance of his past.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
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