The blueprint is still good for Chris Weidman.
Despite a three-fight skid that had the former middleweight champion looking down-and-out, Weidman proved his foundational skill set remains one of the best in MMA in a third-round submission victory over Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday.
The pair’s back-and-forth main event at UFC on Fox 25 was a treat for fans at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum during the Octagon’s first-ever trip to Long Island. It also provided Weidman, a New York native, the chance to get back in the win column on home soil.
“I know Long Island ain’t doubting me,” Weidman crowed to the live crowd after the win. “I know you’ve got my back. But to all these other dudes around the world: Keep doubting me. I dare you.”
On a night that treated the rest of the UFC’s New York contingent rather roughly, it appeared to lift the spirits of fans in the Empire State:
Feel-good moments have been few and far between for Weidman since losing his title to Luke Rockhold at UFC 194 in December 2015. The man who seemed poised for greatness after back-to-back wins over Anderson Silva in 2013 slipped into an uncharacteristic competitive funk, conceding ugly stoppage losses to Yoel Romero and Gegard Mousasi in his previous two contests.
Weidman also missed significant time due to neck surgery.
All that adversity conspired to make this bout a must win for him against the surging Gastelum. The younger fighter should’ve rightly come in on his own three-fight win streak, but had his win over Vitor Belfort in March made a no-contest after the 25-year-old Gastelum tested positive for marijuana.
Perhaps Weidman, 33, learned something during that recent losing streak, however. When he limits his mistakes and plays to his strengths, he remains among the best 185-pound fighters in the UFC.
Not to chalk too much up to pure bad luck, but it’s possible the stretch of defeats was never quite as bad as it looked on paper.
The title loss to Rockhold came after Weidman tried an uncharacteristically risky wheel kick that allowed Rockhold to put him on his back in the fourth round.
Eleven months later, he was acquitting himself well against Romero until the former Olympic wrestler blasted him with a highlight-reel flying knee to begin the third.
The loss to Mousasi happened after a protracted referee stoppage, where instant replay had to be used to determine if a series of knees Mousasi landed were illegal.
Nonetheless, it was likely no accident that Weidman kept close to his bread and butter in a fight he desperately needed to win this weekend.
He succeeded in turning the Gastelum bout into a takedown clinic, grounding his smaller opponent with his trademark single leg, an ankle pick, a sweep and a double leg over the first three rounds.
Weidman finished with seven takedowns, according to the official FightMetric statistics. He also officially out-landed Gastelum 36-26 in significant strikes and 75-28 in total strikes, though it often seemed Gastelum landed with more force.
Weidman threatened with a kimura attempt in the first before finally coaxing out a tap with an arm triangle in the third.
It was the fourth submission win of Weidman’s 17-fight career and his first since he got Tom Lawlor with a d’arce choke at UFC 139 in November 2011. It advanced his overall record to 14-3.
The victory will no doubt bump Weidman up from the No. 5 spot in the UFC’s official rankings. It won’t make him the immediate consensus No. 1 contender, but with the futures of champion Michael Bisping and interim champ Robert Whittaker still undecided, he’s suddenly back in a good spot.
Given a choice between the two, Weidman made his preferred opponent clear.
“To that British bum who is crying in his freaking house right now: I’m back, baby,” Weidman said, needling Bisping after the win. “I’m back. Stop hiding from the real men. Let’s go.”
The win came with its dicey moments, though.
After controlling the fight’s opening stages, Weidman got caught by a winging overhand left from Gastelum that dropped him to the canvas just before the end of the first round. He recovered and survived until the horn, but it recalled the pattern of Weidman’s recent losses—where he seems to be going along fine until suddenly he isn’t.
Critics—who have dogged Weidman since his wins over Silva at UFCs 162 and 168—will no doubt point to that exchange as evidence that Weidman remains vulnerable and that this resurgence may be short-lived.
They’ll also likely note that many believe Gastelum is a natural welterweight, despite the fact he’d won his last four appearances at 185 pounds.
The California native said he felt no pressure headed into this meeting and certainly fought like it throughout their nearly 14 minutes together.
While Gastelum couldn’t stop Weidman from taking him down, he never panicked and succeeded in quickly getting back to his feet more often than not.
If anything, Gastelum appeared to be playing a waiting game. He seemed to content to make Weidman work for takedowns and top control, perhaps biding his time until the later rounds, when he hoped his larger opponent might begin to fade.
Unfortunately, Gastelum didn’t make it to the championship rounds. The two began the third by firing off aggressive flurries of punches, and Weidman appeared to sting Gastelum before taking him to the mat against the fence.
After the fight hit the ground, Weidman worked to side mount and locked up the arm-triangle choke that forced the submission with a minute, 15 seconds left on the clock.
The loss may derail most of Gastelum’s momentum, but it could also give some added credibility to his desire to return to 170 pounds. After missing weight three times as a welterweight, he found success at 185 pounds but always expressed a desire to return to the lighter division.
For Weidman, fortunes have clearly not been brighter for a number of years.
The future of the middleweight title remains murky after a proposed bout between Bisping and Georges St-Pierre appeared to get pulled off the table in May. If the UFC rebooks that fight or if Bisping can’t quickly take on Whittaker in a unification bout, it’s not out of the question Weidman could fight for the interim title.
If that bout came to pass, it would be another meeting with a slick, powerful striker for Weidman—and another fight where imposing his grappling-based game plan and limiting his mistakes on the feet would be the wisest path to victory.
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