The career path of Chris Weidman looks like a rip-roaring stock that craters after an unexpected market crash. It's straight up, then straight down, and that's puzzling. This is a talented wrestler, striker and jiu-jitsu ace who dethroned the legendary Anderson Silva in 2013 and then defeated Lyoto Machida in July 2014 and Vitor Belfort in May 2015 in cementing his UFC championship reign.
The middleweight division seemed to be his world when he ran into Luke Rockhold in December 2015, only to fall via TKO, but it seemed like something he could rebound from. Instead, he was stopped again by Yoel Romero last November and then one more time by Gegard Mousasi in April.
In two years' time, he went from exalted champion to catastrophic case study. At Saturday's UFC on Fox 25, he'll attempt to get back into the win column against the surging Kelvin Gastelum, who has yet to lose at middleweight, though he had his March win over Vitor Belfort overturned to a no-contest following a positive drug test for marijuana metabolites.
That adjudication aside, you can't erase the momentum he has built over the past few fights, a factor that makes his booking with Weidman a bit surprising.
Traditionally, the UFC has attempted to pair off fighters with similar recent streaks. That's not the case here, so we must ask, what gives?
Joining me to discuss is MMA Lead Writer Mike Chiappetta.
Chiappetta: Weidman is part of a fascinating phenomenon of fighters who seem to have it all one day and lose it all the next.
To be clear, three straight losses doesn't mean it's over for him. At 33 years old, he's hardly ancient, and in all three of those losses, he won at least one round before falling, so it's not like he's being dominated from bell to bell.
Instead, it seems like either the accumulation of blows is getting to him, or he's not able to take single shots as well as he used to.
Aside from the losses, the most alarming thing in looking at Weidman's most recent fights is his reduced output. In the early part of his career, Weidman—buoyed by his strong ground-and-pound—was out-landing everyone. Even when he fought the tricky Machida, he landed 90 strikes to Machida's 63, per FightMetric.
But since winning Round 1 of his fight with Rockhold, that's never been the case. After Rockhold bludgeoned him, the final strike count was a whopping 161-62, per FightMetric. The website also had the slow-paced Romero out-landing Weidman 27-16, and the habitually slow-starting Mousasi out-landing him 55-18.
Those types of deficits are rarely going to be overcome against the kind of top-flight opposition that Weidman faces. So here's some bad news for Weidman: Gastelum is an extremely active fighter, averaging 4.07 landed strikes per minute, according to FightMetric. That means Weidman is going to have to find a way to slow down Gastelum while finding his own offense.
In other words, if you smell trouble here, you're probably right. Even though he's fighting at home in Long Island, Weidman is an underdog on most sports books.
So what gives here, Jeremy? Does Weidman have the juice to come back, or is the UFC giving Gastelum the opportunity to leapfrog toward the front of the division on Weidman's name?
Botter: It's a little weird that we're even having this conversation, Mike. Right? I mean, if you'd asked me this sort of question two years ago, I would've laughed in your face. Or at least laughed at you behind your back.
But that's where we are now, discussing the rapid decline of a guy who once looked like the best fighter on the planet, or at least something approximating it. We've seen this type of decline in the past, most notably with Ronda Rousey, and it's sort of jarring to witness. One day you're on top of the world. The next day, you're being used as a gatekeeper for the top of the division.
You aren't supposed to be a gatekeeper at Weidman's age. Even if you lose to a top divisional player, you're expected to rebound and find your way back into the mix. But look at Johny Hendricks; depending on how you look at things, that dude either beat Georges St-Pierre or came closer than anyone had in years to doing so, and now he's a guy who can't make weight or catch a win over any sort of opponent.
I'm not saying that's the future for Chris Weidman. But I am saying it looks like the UFC believes that's his future, because why else would they pair him up against Kelvin Gastelum in the first place?
Chiappetta: I guess that depends on how you view the matchup. I understand how you'd reach that conclusion that UFC was using him to pump up Gastelum. As I noted previously, the UFC likes to pair off guys on similar streaks, and these two have been speeding in opposite directions.
However, let's look at it from another point of view. Currently, Weidman is ranked fifth in the UFC rankings, while Gastelum is ranked eighth. From that perspective, the matchup looks more logical.
Also, if you think about who's between Gastelum and Weidman, there's only two guys: Anderson Silva and Derek Brunson.
The UFC was set to square off Gastelum with Silva until they received the results of Gastelum's positive drug test.
Meanwhile, Brunson had already been scheduled for a match with Dan Kelly, which he went on to win by TKO last month. He wasn't available.
So there were not a whole lot of options for Gastelum that would have made sense for him aside from Weidman.
I'm not on board with the idea that Weidman is being set up to fail. For one thing, he is fighting at home, and I think the UFC would be just as happy if he wins a fight at home and re-establishes himself as a force in the division as they would be if Gastelum emerges with the victory and stamps himself as a legit contender. Either result works.
And Gastelum? He's still very young, only 25, so he can rebound from a loss here, while every consecutive loss sets Weidman further back from what he once was. In an era where the UFC has only a handful of active fighters with name value to casual fans, they can do worse than continue to promote "the guy who ended the G.O.A.T."
But I do think you have an interesting larger point about this phenomenon of fighters going from indomitable to hapless, seemingly in a blink.
I'm not sure if we can point to any one thing that explains it across the landscape of the sport. For Rousey, it was her inability to evolve her striking that did her in. For Weidman it's defensive lapses that are costing him. For him, it's mostly correctable.
Even in defeat, he won rounds against Romero and Mousasi, and he fought a competitive first round with Rockhold, so he's not washed-up—he's making mistakes.
So I guess the question to you, Jeremy, is what do you make of this phenomenon? Is it a case of great fighters getting too complacent in their abilities or something else?
And specifically when it comes to Weidman, is he able to fix the problem, or does he become another speed bump on Gastelum's upward path?
Botter: I don't think it has much to do with great fighters becoming complacent, Mike. After all, truly great fighters—the ones who ascend to championship level—don't get there by clowning around and occasionally deciding they've done enough work. They are obsessive, often to their own detriment.
I think we're seeing the effects of a sport on the rise. For the past decade, we've seen athletic-style specialists like Weidman add tools to their base (wrestling, in Weidman's case) and force their way to the top. As the sport grows in reach, it's becoming apparent that just isn't enough. The super prospects of 2017 are well-rounded in every aspect of mixed martial arts because they've trained in mixed martial arts. Not just wrestling. Not just striking. Not just jiu-jitsu.
But more importantly, it's clear that once you reach the top, there are no easy fights. Even if you lose your championship, the UFC isn't likely to help build you back up by matching you with an opponent you can beat. You're either fighting top-ranked challengers, or you're fighting the people the UFC believes can be the next wave of contenders.
Former matchmaker Joe Silva once told me that his job wasn't making fights. His job was to find someone to beat each UFC champion. If you become one of the lucky few to reach the pinnacle of the sport and hold a UFC belt, then congratulations. You've made it. But as Weidman and others have discovered, winning a UFC belt is a blessing and a curse.
Weidman is still young. He's taken damage and has been involved in brutal wars, but he's still a guy who can find himself back in contention. But to do so, he'll have to stay razor-sharp, because even if he beats Gastelum, there will always be another opponent waiting in the wings.
That's the price you pay for, at one time or another, being the best at what you do.