Can Chris Weidman Silence His Critics with a Win over Lyoto Machida?

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Can Chris Weidman Silence His Critics with a Win over Lyoto Machida?
David Becker/Associated Press

With his first anniversary as UFC middleweight champion approaching, it sounds as though Chris Weidman has made peace with never getting the credit he deserves.

It’s hard to believe anyone would doubt him leading up to his UFC 175 showdown with Lyoto Machida—a fight exactly 364 days removed from the first time Weidman toppled Anderson Silva and took a hammer to our delicate sensibilities—yet some fans remain unimpressed.

There was enough weirdness during his two 2013 victories over Silva that those people looking for a reason not to invest in Weidman haven’t. In certain circles, the “fluke” tag still lingers around him like the scent of bad cologne in a New Jersey nightclub.

Surely, though, if the 30-year-old titleholder stomps past Machida in impressive fashion on Saturday, his detractors will start cutting him some slack. Right?

Actually, Weidman expects not but contends it doesn’t bother him either way.

David Becker/Associated Press

“One thing I’ve kind of realized is no matter how many times I win, stay undefeated or who I beat, I’m always going to have critics and doubters out there,” he recently told CBS Radio’s The Morning Show. “So, my ultimate motivating factor can’t be to prove those guys wrong, because they’ll never (quit).”

This is a classically Weidman way of looking at things. While dispatching an increasingly difficult gauntlet of opponents during his undefeated three-year run in the Octagon, he’s made a practice of not sweating the small stuff.

Or, for that matter, seeming to think about too much at all besides the task at hand.

Now 7-0 in the UFC, with five stoppage wins and consecutive victories over the greatest fighter of all time, it’s impossible to find much to criticize. So why have some been so slow to embrace him?

Some of it must be personality. The guy’s not exactly a media dynamo. He’s not going to light your interview segment on fire or give you the sort of glib sound bites that make headlines sing. Regarding his character, he’s not going to give you much at all.

But inside the cage, he’s been a bit of a revelation. Though he still lacks some experience (at just 11-0 overall), his athleticism and well-rounded skills are undeniable. Weidman may be the ideal wrestler for the 21st century MMA world, possessing a potent submission arsenal and competent ground-and-pound to go along with his slick takedowns. As his 73 percent career finishing rate attests, he doesn’t want to just drag his foes into his domain but stop them once they get there.

His coaches at the Serra/Longo fight team told us he was going to be UFC champion before he even set foot in the organization. Still, a lot of people didn’t buy it last July, when he became the first man to capitalize on Silva’s taunting-as-psychological-warfare strategy, knocking the previously unassailable champion out in the second round.

David Becker/Associated Press

Excuses were made, op-eds written and a hasty rematch scheduled for five-and-a-half months later at UFC 168. Again Weidman encountered a lot of snickering and sideways glances, but this time he crafted an even more haunting victory. After dominating the first round, he checked a low kick early in the second that caused Silva to suffer a gruesome broken leg.

That rematch topped one million pay-per-view buys, but in its aftermath, the story was Silva’s injury, not Weidman’s success. Fans who’d been unwilling to give him his due after UFC 162 still appeared reluctant, though Silva’s long recovery and Weidman’s back-to-back victories quelled any serious calls for a third fight.

Even now, you don’t have to turn over too many rocks to find people who’ll tell you he got lucky in both bouts. Weidman may be the champion, but there remains a segment of the fight-savvy public that believes he still needs to prove himself.

To that end, Machida could fit the bill perfectly.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

The former light heavyweight champion was once regarded among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. His career at 205 pounds evaporated after a short run with the title back in 2009—and along with it, much of the cachet he enjoyed as arguably the Octagon’s most difficult riddle.

Since dropping to middleweight last year, however, the old magic has been back for Machida. He’s strolled through wins over Mark Munoz and Gegard Mousasi and provided a controversy-free replacement as No. 1 contender when Vitor Belfort once again got crosswise with the rules.

Exactly how good The Dragon can be at this weight is still something of a mystery headed into UFC 175, though Weidman will be a 2-1 favorite, according to BestFightOdds.com. One of the champ’s principal trainers recently told Ariel Helwani’s The MMA Hour he expects nothing but more classic Weidman.

"I think Weidman is going to do what he always does," striking coach Ray Longo said. "He's going to get in that ring, he's going to go forward, and he's going to impose his will on Machida. He's going to make Machida fight his game, and he's probably just going to end up crushing the guy."

David Becker/Associated Press

Perhaps this sounds like a strange thing to say about a guy who already has the belt, but the mere fact many people still doubt him means this will be a big win for Weidman.

If he can stop Machida from dancing circles around him, then the whispers about chance knockouts and freak injuries must necessarily fall away. There simply won’t be much left for his critics to pick on anymore, at least not as it relates to his bell-to-bell performances.

Weidman will never light up the media like peers Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey, and it’s a long shot that he’ll enjoy the longevity of a Silva or Georges St-Pierre.

Make no mistake, though: Luck has had nothing to do with his success.

Because he’s apparently been granted the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, Weidman says he doesn’t care that some fans may never recognize him as the No. 1 middleweight on the planet and that his wins over Silva might always be shortchanged as flukes.

If he adds another stoppage win over Machida, however, here’s hoping the rest of us have the wisdom to know the difference.

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