The fall from grace for Chris Weidman has been incredibly swift.
Over the span of just 19 months, Weidman (13-3) has gone from an unbeaten, pound-for-pound ranked UFC middleweight champion to a 33-year-old fighter looking to avoid a fourth straight defeat.
No, Weidman doesn’t enter Saturday’s return to the Octagon on the verge of losing his job. While many others before him have seen losing streaks as long lead directly to their outright release, Weidman’s celebrity and world-class ability should keep him employed regardless of what happens.
But this is a must-win fight just the same. Make no mistake about that.
A native of Baldwin, New York, Weidman will fight just a 12-minute car ride from his current home when he faces fellow middleweight Kelvin Gastelum at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Uniondale, New York.
“I’m not getting beat up on Long Island in front of my home crowd,” Weidman said. “I’m just not going to do it.”
Of Weidman’s three straight defeats, the first two can best be described ill-timed mistakes against elite opponents. A failed wheel kick against Luke Rockhold in December 2015 was the turning point in Weidman losing his title by TKO. Nearly one year later in his return, Weidman was caught andat the hands of Yoel Romero.
The most recent defeat for Weidman was more of a fluke. His second-roundcould’ve just as well been a disqualification win or no contest after Mousasi landed illegal knees to finish him off.
The danger for Weidman in a fourth defeat means there would no longer be room to justify it. A fourth time would make it a pattern, signifying not just Weidman’s fall from grace, but from the elite.
“You really see who the real champions are with how they come back from setbacks and tough times,” Weidman said. “That excites me. I’m not going to be the guy who gives up and curls up in a ball. I’m a guy who accomplished it and in the beginning I feel off. I have a lot more to go. I have a lot more energy to put into this sport. I have a lot more talent potential that hasn’t been shown to the world yet.”
Gastelum (13-2) enters the bout seeking his own form of redemption. After a convincing knockout victory in Brazil over Vitor Belfort in March, the fight was changed to a no contest after Gastelum tested positive for marijuana.
Although the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 has looked good since officially moving up to middleweight, ending a failed run of attempting to cut down to 170 pounds, Gastelum has still yet to prove himself against one of the elites at 185 pounds.
A victory over Weidman would offer him that.
“To be honest, the opponent doesn’t really matter,” Gastelum said. “What matters is I’m going to destroy. I want a title shot and I want to fight for the championship. This fight just gets me closer in the rankings. I’m confident in my ability that I can beat anyone in the world.
“Whether the fight is on the ground or the fight is standing, I’m confident in my abilities to finish the fight just like I did in Brazil.”
Here’s how the rest of the main card shakes out with odds courtesy of Bovada.
UFC on Fox Long Island main card
|Kelvin Gastelum -175||Chris Weidman +145||Middleweight|
|Dennis Bermudez -210||Darren Elkins +170||Featherweight|
|Gian Villante -160||Pat Cummins +130||Light heavyweight|
|Jimmie Rivera -200||Thomas Almeida +160||Bantamweight|
Expect Weidman to be buoyed by fighting so close to home. He’ll need every bit of support and advantage he can get considering Gastelum is no softball or easy mark to snap a losing streak against.
The key for Weidman will be eliminating mistakes and playing to his strengths. In this case, he’s clearly the bigger man, entering with a five-inch height and six-inch reach advantage against Gastelum, and should look to use that advantage by controlling distance with his jab and taking the fight to the ground whenever things get hairy.
Attempting to play it safe in MMA is far from a smart strategy and can open the door for opponents to outwork you. But Weidman needs to focus on securing the victory in any form he can, even if that means employing a “lay and pray” strategy to limit Gastelum’s avenues to victory.
Gastelum is a dangerous striker who has good speed for a middleweight. He’ll be at a disadvantage on the ground and neither are huge threats to land a submission. The best shot at victory for Gastelum will come from the standup where checking Weidman’s chin early and testing his confidence should be his first priority upon the start of the match.
Ultimately, Weidman is too talented and has too much to lose to come out flat. Look for a return to fundamentals — i.e. wrestling and ground-and-pound — for Weidman in a fight that showcases his cardio and goes the full five-round distance.
Pick: Weidman by unanimous decision.
This article was first published on cbssports.com