LAS VEGAS — It is Thursday night, and The Ultimate Fighter gym is packed.
Daniel Cormier and his team are swarthed in towels, sitting in the sauna near the entrance and pouring volumes of sweat onto the floor. Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was supposed to fight on Saturday in UFC 187, before his knee exploded yet again, is sitting on the outside of the Octagon, his face plastered with a smile and his native Dagestani papakha sitting beside him.
Standing on a scale near the middle of the gym is Chris Weidman, the world middleweight champion who will defend his championship against Vitor Belfort on Saturday night. His brow is furrowed, as brows usually are during a fight week when a scale is involved. Weidman was 198 pounds on Wednesday morning—right on track, then, for another successful weight-making venture on Friday.
This week is far easier for Weidman from a weight perspective, because for the first time, he has hired a nutritionist to handle his meals and water intake. That's a different way of saying Weidman is actually eating food this week, which means he's not miserable and ready to murder the world with his bare hands—something he absolutely could do if he elected to do so.
Weidman, in fact, has an entire team of supporters around him. Audie Attar, Weidman’s agent and the head of Paradigm Sports Management, has an army of humans ready to handle anything Weidman might need.
Ryan Buescher, Paradigm’s point man for Weidman this week, brings in a gaggle of Bad Boy shorts in various shapes and colors and elasticities for Weidman to try on. Weidman tries them all on, having photographs of each taken so he can determine which one looks best. Everyone seems to prefer the black board shorts, but Weidman isn’t so sure. Not yet, anyway. He’ll make this decision soon enough.
But for now, it is time to train, because into the gym walks coaches Ray Longo and Matt Serra. Weidman and Gian Villante—Weidman’s training partner and all-around partner in crime—break into a chorus of “Ehhhhh Serra is here, Matt Serra everybahhhhdy.”
Suddenly, here in this sweltering gym, New York has descended upon Las Vegas.
The Serra/Longo contingent is more a collection of friends than a fight team. Longo and Serra have been friends for 20 years, and their chemistry is immediately evident when you see them together. It is a two-man traveling circus of sorts, honed through thousands of hours spent together.
From the first night Weidman and Longo met, they clicked. Longo is a big believer that you must have a good relationship in order to be able to properly coach someone; in Weidman, he found a kindred spirit.
"In life, it’s just like if you meet a girl. It either clicks or it doesn’t click. And we just clicked. We are like-minded,” Longo says. "We have a similar sense of humor. Similar values. We have a good time."
In January 2012, Weidman took a fight against the Brazilian grappler Demian Maia on 10 days' notice. He was 34 pounds over the middleweight limit, and Longo preferred that he not take the fight. But Weidman, seeking to move up the ladder, took the fight anyway. He cut the 34 pounds to make weight, but it was not without extreme difficulty.
The final few pounds were torture; Longo stood by and watched as Weidman repeatedly fainted while exiting the sauna. He urged his student to take the financial penalty that comes with missing weight; he’d accepted the fight on short notice, and nobody would hold a miss against him.
"We were picking him up off the floor every few seconds,” Longo says. "It was a bad scene. You don’t want to see a friend suffer.”
Longo settles into a chair next to the mats in the TUF gym. Villante lies on his back, and Serra begins to demonstrate a rather complicated pass from full mount into an optimal ground-and-pound situation. Weidman watches attentively, listening as Serra explains each phase of the movement. After a few minutes, Weidman assumes full mount on Villante and then executes the move perfectly, just as Serra demonstrated.
It is a breathtaking bit of knowledge absorption combined with flawless execution. A smile flashes across Longo's face. His student is much more than just a quick learner.
"He’s a phenom," Longo says of Weidman. "That’s what he does. You show him once. He’s a genius on the floor. I enjoyed watching that. He does pick up things quick. He’s the kind of guy who, if you go over something three days before the fight, he can do it. He’s that type of talent."
"I put a lot of time into it, but I've always picked up things quickly," Weidman says.
Team Serra/Longo is focused on taking Belfort out of the fight early and perhaps even making him regret taking the fight. Weidman is all constant forward pressure, never giving his opponent the chance to breathe or execute a game plan. He is smothering in the way few fighters are.
Weidman and Villante begin grappling on the mat. Serra shouts out instructions in his distinctive voice, while Longo presides over the running timer on his phone. In watching Weidman, you get the sense that it will take someone very special to withstand his pressure. Two minutes under Weidman seems like an eternity.
"Time!" Longo shouts. Villante collapses in a heap, sweat pouring off his body. Watching from the sidelines, it is easy to imagine Belfort's will breaking under Weidman's pressure.
Then again, it's easy to imagine anyone crumbling there.
Five days ago, Weidman left his family in New York and headed to Vegas, which has become something of a second home for him, at least when it comes to his fighting career. His two children are fully aware of what their father does for a living, and they understand that their dad needs to go to work. But that doesn't make the leaving any easier.
"My kids are getting older. So any time you leave them, they're going to miss you," he says. "It was tough leaving them this time. But it's part of it."
Weidman's wife, Marivi, and the kids arrive in Vegas on Thursday. They meet at the MGM Grand shortly after the conclusion of media day. The MGM is the hub of UFC activity during this fight week, and the madness begins early.
On Tuesday, four days before the actual fight, roughly 15 fans congregate near the elevators, hoping to catch fighters for autographs and selfies and smiles. It gets worse as the week wears on. And since the athletes have no other way to leave their room and actually move anywhere, they are somewhat trapped.
So Weidman, his family and entire team are camped a few miles away at the Palms, and those few miles feel like a thousand. It is quiet, or at least as quiet as a Las Vegas casino can be, and there are zero fans stalking Weidman or waiting for him at the elevator.
It is peaceful, allowing him to relax and focus on the task at hand. It is a task long in the making, and it offers Weidman the chance to finally put to rest the opponent that has consumed him for nearly 18 months.
Much has been made of Belfort's history with testosterone-replacement therapy. His vicious knockouts of Luke Rockhold, Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping—combined with the superhero-like physique he sported—made him the poster child for a medical treatment many consider to be easily abused.
But after the Nevada State Athletic Commission banned TRT in 2014, things changed for Belfort. The visual evidence seems to be there. He is no longer the menacing, muscular fighter he was during his last appearance in the Octagon. Twelve months later, Belfort has shrunk considerably. The changes are dramatic.
Both fighters were repeatedly and randomly tested for performance-enhancing drugs during their fight camps. They passed every test. But on Thursday, ESPN's Brett Okamoto revealed that Belfort's testosterone level during a random test conducted on March 16 was 12 ng/mL. For comparison, Weidman's testosterone level on March 30 was 3.7 ng/mL:
To Weidman, this is a clear sign that Belfort, despite the ban on TRT, is still cheating. After both fighters made weight during Friday's weigh-ins, he pointedly said so.
"He's still cheating, and I'm going to make him pay," Weidman announced to the crowd.
After the conclusion of the weigh-in, Weidman expanded on those thoughts to Bleacher Report.
"This is a guy who needed testosterone-replacement therapy for the majority of his career. He said he couldn’t live his life without it," he says. "And now he’s at 1,200? During camp, my scores were in the 300s, and I am 10 years younger than him. But a 1,200 testosterone score for a guy that needed it medicinally? The guy is cheating."
To this end, Team Serra/Longo is preparing for the best version of Belfort. They are preparing themselves for the monster that dispatched Rockhold, Henderson and Bisping with violence. You can't go off looks, Longo says, because looks are deceiving. Still, he is confident in his fighter, as he always is.
"I think Chris is so big and strong and talented. He has a fight IQ that’s pretty much off the charts. I think he’ll be too much for him. But when you have a bunch of power and you’re explosive, anything can happen," Longo says. "So we want to take that away and make it a grueling fight. If it hits the floor, you’ll see him do a lot of different stuff than he’s shown in the past."
Even with just 12 professional fights, Weidman's career is already approaching the stuff of legends. The difficult weight cut and win over Maia proved that he is a gritty competitor. And then there were the two wins over Anderson Silva, considered by many to be the greatest fighter in the history of mixed martial arts.
The first win, a knockout in late 2013, sucked the wind out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Many called it a fluke. Weidman often wonders how it can be considered a fluke when he specifically prepared to take advantage of Silva's penchant for showboating and then went into the Octagon and executed on his training.
The second win, with Silva suffering a broken leg from a Weidman leg-kick check, wasn't the way he wanted the fight to end. But Weidman was winning the fight handily up to that point and believes Silva had nothing to offer. The fight was going to end eventually; it just happened to end in a weird and awful way.
But still, he has two wins over the great Silva on his record. No other UFC competitor can boast even one. He beat Lyoto Machida, and he is now prepared to do the same to Belfort. Sooner or later, people are going to start mentioning Weidman's name among the all-time greats, especially in the middleweight division.
Legacy is important to Weidman. More important is the ability to make money and secure his family's future. But the two go hand-in-hand, at least in Weidman's eyes.
"Becoming the greatest of all time means the other (financially securing his family's future) is taken care of," he says. "So I'll throw 'greatest of all time' in there first, because I know that takes care of my family."
His family is Marivi and the kids, but it is also Longo, Serra, Villante and the rest of his team. They are a unit, pushing forward together, facing down challenge after challenge. Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero and others all wait in the wings for their chance to test themselves against the man who rules the division.
But for now, there is only Belfort, squarely in Weidman's targets. And Weidman is angry—angry at Belfort's history with TRT, angry with his belief that Belfort is still somehow cheating the system and angry with the constant mockery Belfort has sent his way since the pair were first scheduled to fight, nearly a year ago.
And as the old comic-book saying goes, you wouldn't like him when he's angry. Weidman plans on teaching Belfort that lesson the hard way on Saturday night.
Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.