Anderson Silva lands a kick to the jaw of Vitor Belfort on Feb. 5, 2011. (Getty)
There was the face kick which came out of nowhere and knocked out Vitor Belfort. The classic Bruce Lee “one-inch punch” which finished Forrest Griffin and sent him running from the arena. The pinpoint knee to the chest which vanquished Chael Sonnen in the blink of an eye.
When you fight UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the physical game plan is only half the battle. The other half is the battle with Silva’s Superman aura. The challenge of taking on the longest-reigning champion in UFC history – with his extensive highlight reel of finishes and improbable comeback victories – is just as important. Many of Silva’s opponents lost the mental battle before they even stepped into the Octagon.
Chris Weidman, though, seems uniquely suited to handle whatever mind games the champion can conjure. The undefeated middleweight from Long Island, N.Y., who challenges Silva for the title in the main event of UFC 162 on July 6 in Las Vegas, carries that distinct New York air of confidence into the fight.
“You have to treat him like just another opponent,” Weidman told Yahoo! Sports. “You respect what he’s done in this sport. Of course you do. But you can’t get caught up in it.
“Guess what? He’s a person just like I am, he’s got two arms, two legs, two eyes, like I do. I’m not fighting a superhero, I’m fighting another person, and it’s my job to defeat him. Simple as that.”
It’s fortunate he has that mindset, because Silva has already subjected Weidman to his diva side in the buildup to the fight.
While Weidman embarked on a week-long media tour to promote the start of ticket sales for their bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena – a journey which took him to Los Angeles for a series of television shoots, to Toronto for media appearances, then back West to Las Vegas before heading home to New York – Silva made headlines for flying home to Brazil last Monday rather than attend a day of L.A. media events.
“I mean, at the end of the day, it’s not that big a deal,” said Weidman. “It happens to everyone, you have your bad days. But still, I can’t imagine skipping out on something like that. Do you think LeBron James would do something like that to the fans?”
Perhaps Silva doesn’t consider Weidman worth his time, but the Long Islander caught the MMA world’s attention with his rapid rise through the middleweight ranks. A former NCAA All-American wrestler at Hofstra, Weidman trains with the Serra-Longo Fight Team, run by former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra and the boxing coach who helped him get there, Ray Longo.
The middleweight fought five times in 16 months, winning all five bouts, finishing three of them, and sending veteran Demian Maia down to welterweight in the process. The run peaked with a victory over Mark Munoz on July 11 in San Jose, when Weidman put on a frightening show. Weidman dominated the former NCAA wrestling champion in all aspects of the game before landing a devastating short, standing elbow that led to the finish.
“I was ready for Anderson Silva right then,” Weidman said. “I wanted the fight so bad. I would have taken the fight right then and there.”
But Weidman’s storybook ascension to a title shot took a series of unexpected twists and turns. Silva, who had previously indicated a desire to fight Weidman, suddenly changed his mind and ended up fighting light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar instead. Weidman, in order to keep busy, accepted a bout with Tim Boetsch, only to suffer a shoulder injury in training, which required surgery. Then Weidman’s home was damaged in Hurricane Sandy.
“It sucked, there’s no two ways about it,” said Weidman said. “It was like one thing after another. What can you do though? Where I come from, when you get knocked down, you don’t cry about it, you just pick yourself up and keep moving.”
In the end, the unplanned sideline stint served Weidman well. A series of fights among middleweight contenders unfolded in a manner which left none of the potential suitors for a title shot, from Michael Bisping to Hector Lombard to Yushin Okami, looking worthy of the spot. By the time Silva was ready for another fight, a rested Weidman stood above the rest.
“Sometimes things just work out,” Weidman said. “You learn a little lesson there about controlling the things you can and not worrying about the things you can’t. That might be a cliché but it’s true, that’s how it worked out for me.”
There’s been a sense in some corners that Weidman, while giving off the aura of a future champion, might be getting a title shot too soon. After all, he’s only fought nine times in his professional career. Georges St-Pierre had the same “future champion” vibe about him when he got his first shot against then-welterweight champion Matt Hughes in 2004, and the first-round loss set his career back about two years.
Is Weidman doing the same in facing a fighter widely considered the greatest mixed martial artist ever? He treats the question with the same take-it-or-leave-it bluntness as he does toward Silva’s unbeatable aura.
“I can’t change anyone’s mind,” Weidman said. “And that’s not my job, anyway. I feel like I have the right mix of skills, the desire, the determination, to get the job done. The UFC thinks enough of me to give me the title shot. To those who might think I don’t deserve this yet, all I can say is, tune in on July 6 and I’ll show you otherwise.”
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoylemma
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