The time when Chris Weidman was regarded as the future of the middleweight division seems very far away right now.
As Weidman prepares to meet the surging Gegard Mousasi Saturday in UFC 210's co-main event, the magic of just a few years ago is long gone. These days, the MMA world is starting to ask some pretty disquieting questions about Weidman, as the former 185-pound champion finds himself suddenly reeling and on the heels of back-to-back losses.
This is a fight he desperately needs to win, not just to avoid slipping into the dreaded territory of three straight defeats, but to preserve any semblance of hope that the 32-year-old New York native might still be able to resurrect his glory days.
It's not too much of a stretch to say things are close to do-or-die for him here in a what might turn out to be a very competitive pairing. Severe MMA's Sean Sheehan tweeted:
Mousasi is a fighter that spectators have been waiting years to see cross over into the elite of the 185-pound division. He's riding a four-fight win streak, including three consecutive stoppages over Thiago Santos, Vitor Belfort and Uriah Hall.
The 31-year-old native of Iran has garnered a cult following in MMA circles with his dry wit and low-key, unchanging demeanor. If he's able to beat Weidman on Saturday—where he's going off as a slight favorite, according to most of the lines listed by OddsShark—it would make him a legitimate title threat.
Mousasi began to forge his reputation as a talented, ice-cold competitor while spending the first 10 years of his career fighting in organizations like Pride, Dream and Strikeforce.
He got off to an up-and-down start after coming to the UFC in 2013, going just 4-3 in first seven fights. Since then, however, it has been all W's. Along the way, Mousasi appears to have sharpened the verbal part of his game as well.
He comes into this bout with an apparent chip on his shoulder, telling the Fight Society Podcast (via MMA Fighting's Jed Meshew) that he needs to beat Weidman to continue working his way toward a title shot, yes, but also to punch his ticket to some bigger paydays:
I just see that Vitor Belfort is making tons more money than me. I defeated Dan Henderson, he's making tons more money than me. I defeated Mark Hunt, he's making $800,000 a fight. I can beat [champion] Michael Bisping and even before he was champion he was making a lot more than me. Why don't I deserve to make some money? ... How is it possible Mark Hunt is making $800,000 with a record of 10-10? He has a record of 10 wins, 10 losses. Look at my record. How the f--k is that possible?
Weidman, on the other hand, continues to struggle to regain the championship form that once made him seem like he'd be a pillar of this division for years to come.
Back in 2013, when the then-undefeated fighter bested Anderson Silva in back-to-back fights at UFCs 162 and 168, he appeared primed for a legendary run. Viewed, with the benefit of hindsight, however, some of the shine has started to come off his sprint to a 13-0 overall record (9-0 in the UFC) by the spring of 2015.
Since losing to Weidman and then suffering a career-threatening leg injury in their second bout, the once-great Silva has gone just 1-4-1. That raises legitimate questions about whether Weidman's pair of dominant performances over Silva—which ended in, admittedly, somewhat fluky stoppages—were really as iconic as they seemed at the time.
It could be, conventional wisdom now proffers, that Weidman merely caught Silva at an advantageous stage in his career. Perhaps Silva's skills were already in deep decline by then and Weidman just happened to be the guy to come along and point it out to the world.
That's unfair, of course. You can't very well take Weidman's wins over the greatest of all time away from him. Viewing Silva's golden years in a bit more context, though, is enough to make you wonder if we had overestimated Weidman based on that pair of victories.
It also casts his successful title defenses, against also declining versions of Lyoto Machida and Belfort, in somewhat less impressive light.
All told, it's more difficult to know what to make of Weidman now than at perhaps any time in his career.
His pair of losses were disastrous, but also not the sort that necessarily signaled the end of him. For starters, both came at the hands of elite middleweights—Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero—in fights where Weidman was affording himself well before suffering stoppage losses.
The Romero defeat was especially brutal, as the former Olympic wrestler caught Weidman with a flying knee early in the third round that left him bloodied and separated from his senses. It was violent enough to be a change-your-career kind of knockout, so it remains to be seen how Weidman will return.
In the wake of those poor outcomes, even longtime coach Ray Longo admits his most accomplished pupil may have "plateaued" a bit in recent years.
"If you think about it, there was only one way to go," Longo told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, via MMA Fighting's Chuck Mindenhall. "You can't keep going up and up and up. So we plateaued a little bit before. I think that's going to be the mantra. That's behind us, and we really had to go back to what got us there and really just move forward."
Adding to the unknowns for Weidman was a serious neck injury that forced him to have surgery in June 2016, five months before the Romero bout. Assuming he's fully healed, then the Mousasi fight shapes up as about as important a litmus test for him as you could imagine.
Mousasi is well-regarded enough that a win for Weidman—especially an impressive stoppage or clean-slate decision—would re-establish him among the top players at 185 pounds.
It would also be easier to look upon those losses to Rockhold and Romero as isolated incidents. If not flukes, exactly, then certainly not career-defining, either.
But a loss would cast a shadow long enough that it might begin to shroud the rest of Weidman's career.
This is a guy whose coaches bragged he would be world champion before he even arrived in the UFC.
He's also a guy who looked crazy dominant through more than a dozen fights.
Without being a physical dynamo the likes of Romero or a traditional martial arts world champion like contender Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Weidman managed to craft himself into one of the sport's most complete athletes during his rise.
Now, to see him fall off the pace so badly at such a young age would be shocking. Is it even possible for Weidman to be over the hill at 32?
Best he beats Mousasi on Saturday, lest the notoriously persnickety MMA world continues asking such questions.