Chris Weidman is as good a prospect as we have ever seen in MMA and has shown numerous traits which are not commonplace in fighters with three or four times as many fights on their record.
The problem with Weidman's upcoming title fight with Anderson Silva is that while Weidman is an interesting matchup for the great middleweight champion on paper, this bout at this particular time requires us to suspend our knowledge of his record of just nine fights.
Make no mistake, Weidman's potential is very real, but with so few fights, his development has been rushed in order to give Silva a new opponent.
My intention is not to perform a technical analysis but rather to talk about the factors which cannot be explained in terms of science. Weidman is technically great, but the experience of a fighter, his emotional maturity, ability to remain stoic or even excel under fire, and discipline against high-level opponents of all skill sets dictate how well he can use his technique.
The Cain Velasquez Comparison
There are plenty of examples of fighters in boxing, kickboxing and MMA picking up titles with just as few fights and undefeated records, but lack of experience is an enormous disadvantage to fighters at the highest level.
Cain Velasquez, for instance, had less than 10 bouts on his record when he defeated Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title. It seems a good comparison too because Velasquez was a wrestler who learned to strike as well as the majority of heavyweights just as Weidman is a wrestler/grappler with a better than average striking game.
There are, however, significant differences between Velasquez's feat and what Chris Weidman is being tasked with. First, Velasquez was a heavyweight and clearly a world-class talent from early on—there isn't a lot of that out there over 230 pounds. Even the UFC heavyweight roster is padded with professional fighters who would look pedestrian at any other weight class.
The middleweight division is nowhere near as short on talent as heavyweight, but at this point, the UFC is desperate for a new opponent for Silva. Many of the young prospects have failed to get past fighters who already had their shot at Silva and were relegated to journeyman status.
All the exciting prospects—Alan Belcher, Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, Hector Lombard and Rousimar Palhares—have either beaten one another or fallen to men who have already been destroyed by Silva. Weidman's lay-off due to injury seems to have raised his ranking in the same way as Floyd Mayweather's inactivity did.
Equally, Velasquez's lack of experience did catch up with him when he met Junior dos Santos for the first time. Dos Santos may have had only a few more fights than Velasquez, but they were against stiffer, better-rounded competition. Velasquez, considering himself to be a well-rounded fighter—a trait he seems to share with Weidman—was far too keen to strike with dos Santos and abandoned his takedown attempts after just one failed single leg.
In the rematch, Velasquez felt no obligation to start on the feet then work for the takedown after striking with dos Santos for a while. He had no scruples about looking silly as he dived on a few missed single legs. Soon, dos Santos tired and was easy to both grab a hold of and hit as he tried to defend his hips and legs.
This isn't a deep technical analysis, and the strategy which Velasquez employed against dos Santos is not the ideal one for Silva, so I shall leave it there, but the Velasquez who was flustered into trying to go even with "Cigano" on the feet and attempted to jab across himself to catch dos Santos—giving Cigano his cross counter—and the Velasquez who came out and mauled Antonio Silva and dos Santos in his next two fights were different people.
Anderson Silva: A Case Study in Fight Experience
Fighting well-rounded opponents, getting beaten up and being made to look silly will benefit a fighter by removing the fear of experiencing these things and the panic that they produce. There is a world of difference between sparring with elite training partners and fighting experienced, elite fighters in front of enormous crowds on event night.
Weidman, just like Velasquez, has impressed me and others with his striking on the way to his title shot, but this could ultimately come back to hurt him just as Velasquez's did. Weidman and Velasquez are intelligent and competent—when you consider them as wrestlers—but for them to stand with men like dos Santos and Silva without constantly threatening the takedown is just silly.
A final point to note on why Velasquez's inexperience didn't prevent him from winning a title is that he was fighting Lesnar. Lesnar was scary and great at what he did, but he was even less experienced under fire than Velasquez and had been deliberately steered clear of dangerous strikers for much of his career—barely scraping by the largely unproven Shane Carwin.
Silva, on the other hand, has been pressed against the fence, thrown to the floor, hit with hard punches and submitted. Silva is the best fighter around right now, but he wasn't always so.
His resurgence after a hit-and-miss early career and serious consideration of retirement is one of the reasons that he is such an amazing character. It is also one of the reasons why he can fight with confidence even when facing adversity and why he so rarely shows complacency. He has defended a UFC title more times than anyone, and he isn't unaccustomed to crowds or any particular skill set in his opponents.
More importantly, Silva is not scared to make mistakes or fight boring. Against Demian Maia and Patrick Cote, Silva was more than happy to hang back rather than rush them as they attempted to draw him in.
Think of how many fighters would have run in and been caught by Cote (a few) or dragged to the ground and submitted by Maia (almost anyone). Here are the major differences that experience makes: the ability to stick to a game plan, even if it isn't entertaining, and the ability to recognize one's weaknesses.
Silva could have run in and might have knocked out either man, but he recognizes that neither brawling nor chasing is his strong suit. Silva's A game is countering, and everything he does is built around making his opponent lunge at him. At his best, "The Spider" is about making an opponent run onto his punch, not chasing an opponent as he did in his early career—often running into takedowns.
The Real Questions
Weidman at his best is about grappling. What makes him a great prospect for the future is that he can do everything else with enough confidence to force the fight to where he wants it or pick up easy points on the feet while he tries.
His work to stand up Mark Munoz with high kicks before shooting in low was sublime. As was his knockout of Uriah Hall, as he herded his opponent into a hard left hook as Hall kept his hands low for fear of being taken down again.
What will Weidman do against Silva's antics? Does he have the maturity to ignore the dancing and to move Silva toward the fence with pressure?
Will he realize that feints and level changes are the nemesis of the counter striker who fights on a hair trigger? Or will he lose confidence and swing wildly?
Most importantly, does he care about looking stupid when he inevitably fails with a takedown attempt, or will he go right back to grinding on Silva—going for legs and coming in behind punches when Silva starts to sprawl?
Silva is beatable, and Weidman has every skill—on paper—necessary to defeat the champ. But if Silva turns up in fighting shape as he always does, Weidman is not going to have success on every shot or strike. Silva is probably going to hit him hard and stuff some takedown attempts.
How Weidman reacts to this when so many of his nine opponents have laid down under his tenacious assault will be crucial to his chances of wrestling the title away from the Brazilian. Maia and Munoz are a far cry from Silva in the areas in which the champion will test Weidman.
I will watch this fight with interest, as I believe that Weidman can be a force in his division, but I cannot help but feel that his development is being sacrificed in favour of finding an exciting opponent for Silva.
Weidman should at least have to beat Yushin Okami or Vitor Belfort before meeting Silva—they are at least a step up in relevance from Maia and Munoz. Ideally this fight would happen in a year, after Weidman has beaten some solid contenders, but it seems that, at middleweight, every fight involving a prospect ends in the death of an exciting potential title match.
Later this week, I will explain why I am looking forward to Weidman's development after this bout, win or lose. I will take a look at the striking, grappling and hybrid game of Weidman, and I will also, of course, examine some of Silva's finest techniques and quirks.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.