There are some fighters one sees and thinks, “Man, I do not want to meet that guy in a dark alley.” Then there are those unexpectedly devoid of menace, with wide open faces and quiet miens. Chris Weidman, the once and likely future UFC middleweight and the headliner for this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night at the Nassau Coliseum, is the second kind. Still, the man pummels people into various degrees of pulp for a living. Notably, he visited defeat upon the clowning jaw and then lead leg of Anderson Silva; battled Lyoto Machida for a W and put legend Vitor Belfort out to pasture in the first round. He’s done all of that with an affectless workmanship so profound that one half-imagines as he punches out of the Octagon with a timecard, hops in a Honda, and goes straight home to the wife and kids.
“I fight with aggression but without emotion,” he explains shortly after we meet at Cafe Altro Paradiso, a sun-flooded restaurant in Soho. “Anger only weakens you.”
Chris is amicable and guileless. He listens attentively and with enthusiasm as our server details, in that lovely tone that is half-question and half-boast the bacalao frito. It consists of cod, dredged in buttermilk and flour, fried and served on brioche. “Does it come on bread?” asks Weidman. “Brioche,” repeats the server and Weidman nods. At any rate, the champ stays on land. “I’ll have the fennel salad, the chicken milanese and an iced tea,” he says, “I don’t have the balls to take the plunge into the ocean.” He is, one imagines, speaking only of culinary boldness. Otherwise, Weidman knows from balls.
The fighter is a tall man, 6’2″, with short brown hair and big brown eyes. He has that well-dressed Windsor-knotted slim-fitting dress shirt look so many UFC fighters have embraced. His facial features and body type bear a strong resemblance to the famous Grecian bronze, The Victorious Youth, though his brow is heavier, jaw more square and he has legs. But his accent and approachable demeanor are all Billy Joel, which is to say, he is a family guy from Lawn Guy Land. Weidham, who is from a town called Baldwin, is preparing to fight on his own turf.
“I have a lot of pride being from Long Island,” he said, “I’m born and raised, never left. This is like a dream come true.”
Weidman grew up in on the midnight-blue-hued side of blue collar. His father rebuilt car starters and alternators in his auto shop in Long Island City until he lost the business in a dispute with his business partner. Now he’s a salesman. “When I was growing up,” says Weidman, “he was working all day. He would be out of the house at 5 a.m. and get back around 7 or 8.” But Weidman père introduced his sons to all sorts of sports from hockey to baseball to wrestling and, on the weekends, instead of sleeping which must have seemed, he coached all of his sons’ sports teams.
“As a father now,” says Weidman, who has three children, a seven-year-old daughter Cassidy and two sons, CJ, 4 and Colton, 1, “I understand how hard that must have been for him. He had no time on his own to relax.”
It’s easy to look at a fighter like Weidman — especially as he is depicted in stark chiaroscuro and oversized on UFC posters at the moment of his glory — and think that he’s made it. But the truth is that, for many fighters, financial and professional success is perilous, friable and tenuous. And getting to that point requires lugging some baggage. It wasn’t that long ago that Weidman was a 2-0 fighter, brawling for peanuts in chicken-shit promotions and living in his parents’ basement. He’s 32 now; he was 26 then, newly married and expecting his first child. His wife, a CPA named Marivi, had gotten a job at the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCooper and was supporting the young family. Weidman remembers with a grimace fielding embarrassing questions from accountants during holiday parties. “You’re a fighter?” Yes. “You fight in the UFC?” No. “How much do you make?” Not much at all.
The truth was, Weidman made around $2,000 per fight, fought but rarely and that, due to the devastating power of his right hand, opponents became even harder and harder to find. During the day, he was a wrestling coach at Hofstra University making $12,000 a year, offered private lessons at night, all while trying to stay in fighting shape. But with a daughter on the way, mountains of student debt and little security, Weidman contemplated returning to the civilian world.
“Yeah,” Weidman says, “I thought about giving up. It was stressful in the relationship,” he says.
Then he won another fight and then another and finally, the UFC called. Now Weidman is the one balancing the demands of his livelihood with the needs of his family. “After a hard day training,” he says, “the best thing to do is to take a nap. But then I’m missing the time with my kids.” So Weidman cuddles Colton and teaches CJ how to grapple. “My daughter isn’t interested,” he said, “she’s focused on reading.” All his children, he says, are “nut jobs” in the best possible way. CJ, to whom he feels especially close, is extremely sensitive. “He really wants to please people,” says Weidman, “If I actually tell him ‘no’ on something he’ll literally almost start crying and I’ll start crying.”
CJ has inherited not only his father’s skill — he recently won a wrestling tournament for six-year-olds — but his quiet workman-like demeanor. “He’s the only kid who hasn’t had to sit at the quiet table,” says Weidman, with the enthusiasm of an extremely proud parent. He teaches CJ how to perform an arm-bar and how to choke, he teaches him the involiablity of the tap out but mostly he just lets CJ straddle him. “I teach him to be heavy,” says Weidman, “to keep his balance while on top of me.”
Saturday represents a chance at a much needed redemption for Weidman. He’s lost his three last fights. The first loss, in December 2015, he threw a poorly timed spinning back kick against Luke Rockhold. “I knew it wasn’t smart at the time.” Eleven months later, he ate a flying knee delivered by Yoel Romero. And in April 2017 — perhaps the most gutting loss — he lost on a procedural violation after an ill-informed referee mis-called an illegal knee. So Saturday is more than a homecoming. It’s an inflection point and a learning opportunity for Weidman’s son.
“When a guy turns, you don’t just over flip over your back,” Chris says, for not the first time. “You reposition yourself to stay on top.”