Why former UFC champion Chris Weidman isn't ready to call it a career just yet

You want to hear a good Chris Weidman story, you have to go to Ray Longo. Weidman himself won’t tell these tales. Maybe he can’t, lest he look like some guy bragging about the glory days, back when his face was unscarred and all his joints were fresh out of the box and his leg hadn’t yet been snapped in half on live TV while the entire sport watched in horror at the cruel irony of it all.

This was before all that. This was when he was new, a product of the Hofstra University wrestling program who’d been unleashed on the mixed martial arts scene of the greater New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas, which he then proceeded to rampage through like a wolverine in a petting zoo.

“That guy, you’d take him to a gym and he’d just clear out a room,” Longo, the longtime MMA coach, told Yahoo Sports. “He’d just started. He was maybe a blue belt, maybe not even that. He would just tap everybody. They had to give him a brown belt just to keep these other guys from killing themselves.”

One time Longo was helping former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra train for a UFC fight. They made the trip from Long Island to Renzo Gracie’s gym in midtown Manhattan to get some work in with a crew of serious black belts. Weidman was still new to jiu-jitsu, hadn’t yet had his first pro fight, and he got matched up with one of the top guys in the gym.

“This guy asked me, ‘Anything you want me to work on with him?’” Longo said. “I was like, ‘Hey dude, just protect your neck.’ Weidman choked him out in about 30 seconds. The poor guy. I mean, this was back when there weren’t that many jiu-jitsu black belts around. People thought a black belt was like a superpower, you know what I mean? And Weidman went through him, no problem.”

By the time Weidman made his pro debut in early 2009, Longo had no doubt he’d be a champion some day. Weidman’s first fight came at a Ring of Combat event in Atlantic City, New Jersey. MMA was still illegal in New York state back then. If you wanted to try your hand at professional cagefighting, you pretty much had to start in New Jersey. Weidman fought four times for Ring of Combat, all wins, all in Atlantic City.

When the call from the UFC came less than two years into his pro career, Weidman wasn’t particularly surprised.

“I remember they had this top prospect website at the time,” Weidman said. “Me and Uriah Hall were the top two guys on it. They had us fight and it was pretty much like, whoever wins this is going to the UFC.”

Weidman won via first-round TKO. Six months later, he’d make his UFC debut. A few years after that he’d knock out the great Anderson Silva, becoming UFC middleweight champ while also slamming the door shut on an entire era of MMA. In the rematch, well, we all know what happened there. Silva suffered a gruesome leg break that sent him off to surgery on a stretcher. Weidman went home with his undefeated record and his UFC championship belt, content in the knowledge that the future was only getting brighter.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 19: (L-R) Brad Tavares kicks Chris Weidman in a middleweight fight during the UFC 292 event at TD Garden on August 19, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
(L-R) Brad Tavares kicks Chris Weidman during their middleweight fight during UFC 292 at TD Garden on Aug. 19, 2023, in Boston. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

But this sport is governed by a life cycle that is as brutal as it is brief. Some stick around longer than others, but every extra year comes at a price. Weidman knows. He’s 39 years old now and he’s had 30 surgeries. He’s been on both sides of extreme physical trauma in the cage. Eight years after he watched Silva’s leg snap in half against the shield of his shin, Weidman had the exact same thing happen to him in a rematch with Hall, the same guy he’d beaten to punch his ticket to the UFC on the Atlantic City boardwalk all those years before.

“The worst leg injury, in my opinion, you can have,” Weidman said. “A compound fracture. Bone sticking out and everything. It was just a nightmare to recover from.”

Saturday night, for the first time since those early days of his career, Weidman returns to Atlantic City for a fight. It’s been nearly 14 years since he fought there on the Jersey Shore. The man who steps in the cage against Bruno Silva at Saturday’s UFC on ESPN event would probably be nearly unrecognizable to the eager young man who left for greener pastures in 2010.

When he first accepted this fight, Weidman said, he thought it might be his last. Matter of fact, he thought that after his last one, too, when he returned from the broken leg and lost a decision to Brad Tavares last summer.

“I was almost OK getting ready to retire after my last one,” Weidman said. “But then they offered me Atlantic City and I thought, well that would be a cool place to put down the gloves.”

The plan was, get in the gym and see how he felt. He had two major concerns, and they were inextricably linked. One was pain, and the other was motivation.

“And really, my motivation has never been a problem,” Weidman said. “But what kills my motivation is the pain. If I'm in pain the whole time I’m training, it's just miserable. That's the only motivation killer I have. It's not like I'm not really loving this anymore. I love going to the gym. I love training. But when I have pain, it's a problem.”

It wasn’t so long ago that he was working mitts with Longo – a rare occurrence these days, with Weidman training mostly in North Carolina and Longo a Long Island lifer – and he couldn’t move to one side because his knee pain was so severe.

“[Longo] was looking at me like, you’re f***ing joking, you can’t circle?” Weidman said. “That’s when he was like, ‘What are you doing? You're out of your mind.’”

Longo drew Weidman’s ire by suggesting during a podcast appearance that he retire. But the way Longo saw it, eventually enough was enough.

“My thing is, I want the best for all these guys,” Longo said. “To see him in that much pain, see all the injuries, it’s gut-wrenching.”

But after experimenting with all-natural supplements, Weidman said, he finally found some that worked for him. He didn’t have to live his life on a diet of Advil and gritted teeth anymore. And when he got back in the gym to test his pain and motivation for this fight in Atlantic City, he felt good enough that he decided to table any immediate retirement plans.

“I was very open to the idea of it being over,” Weidman said. “Listen, I’ve been a world champion. I defended the belt three times. I’ve done some amazing things, had some great fights, so what else do I have to prove? But it’s not so much about proving it to other people or becoming a champion again. It’s more about being the best version of myself and showing what I know I can do inside that cage. I haven’t been able to do that in a while, and that’s what motivates me now.”

A lot of fighters will tell you that they know they can’t do this forever. For the young ones, that concept is still mostly theoretical and therefore nothing that has to be considered too deeply. But after everything he’s been through, Weidman has had ample opportunity to stand on the precipice and peer over at the other side. It doesn’t scare him anymore. He knows it’s the likely next step, and probably sooner rather than later.

“I just don’t want to leave anything behind,” Weidman said. “I don’t want to leave prematurely if I can still do it and I’m still enjoying it. I know it will be over very soon, and that’s fine. When it is, I’ll be happy to move on.”

But maybe not just yet. Not while the body that’s endured so much can still answer the call. And not before he’s had at least one more chance to stand in a cage on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and feel the roar of the crowd wash over him like a tidal wave.