NEW YORK - Chris Weidman may have a fight coming up against Luke Rockhold on June 4, but he wasn’t going to miss this Thursday trip to Manhattan.
It wasn’t a first for the former UFC middleweight champion, who was accustomed to sneaking on the train from his home in Long Island to the Big Apple when he was a kid and getting a look at a place that every athlete and performer wants to one day grace the marquee of.
“I grew up right on the train tracks in Long Island, so I'd always just jump on the train, and I’d get to the city and the first thing you see when you walk upstairs at Penn Station is Madison Square Garden,” Weidman said. “It's almost like a second home.”
It’s also a place you will likely see him in before the end of the year, as Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the MMA bill into law Thursday, legalizing the sport in New York. For Weidman, who made countless trips upstate to speak to legislators about his sport, it’s a day that marks a new beginning for him, one where he can finally compete in his home state.
“It's a weird thing when you have to explain yourself, and you feel guilty because it's illegal here,” he said. “So now, to finally be here, it's a legitimate sport, there's no more arguing, no more having to convince people.”
The good vibes lit up The Garden before, during and after the bill signing ceremony, as Weidman was joined by fellow New York fighters Gian Villante, Aljamain Sterling, Dennis Bermudez, Chris Wade and Ryan LaFlare, as well as former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The camaraderie was evident from the start, especially among the New Yorkers, who don’t see themselves as competitors, but as one team.
“We all have a vision, and it's one of those things where we all wanted the same thing,” Sterling said. “So this is a very historic moment for everybody, and I think us coming together as a team to help get this passed was a huge thing for us and everybody. It's a sentimental kind of thing.”
That didn’t stop the good-natured jabs between good buddies Weidman and Villante, but it was appropriate that the mood was an upbeat one, as every one of those local fighters wants to be on that first UFC card at Madison Square Garden on November 12.
“I think Knicks, I think Rangers, I think everything New York,” Sterling said when asked what comes into his head when the topic of MSG is brought up. “Everything happens in the Big Apple.”
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MMA legend Renzo Gracie, who was at the signing ceremony Thursday, has similar feelings about New York City, where he built his academy into one of the most respected destinations in the MMA and jiu-jitsu worlds.
“The first time I came to New York, I fell in love,” Gracie said. “I never thought I could live in any other place but Brazil. But after I came here, I found a piece of Brazil here, I found a piece of every part of the globe in this amazing city, and I embrace it as my town.”
So have the fighters. But they’re not the only ones who respect Madison Square Garden as a place worthy of its iconic status. In fact, there’s probably no one better qualified to judge it as a fight venue than the UFC’s Vice President on Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, whose pre-UFC work with the Nevada State Athletic Commission will see him inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this June.
“I was at Lennox (Lewis) and Evander (Holyfield),” Ratner said of the 1999 heavyweight title unification bout. “And I was just thinking about that fight and there's nothing like it. The Garden's a very special place.”
You don’t have to convince Weidman, who was taken to the arena as a child to see the circus and go to a New York Rangers game (even though he was an Islanders fan.) But his greatest memories are the ones that took place outside the hallowed venue.
“It’s not being inside of it, but being on the outside and always just seeing it as this iconic place,” he said.
But now it’s time for him and his peers to make history inside MSG. It’s particularly good timing for the unbeaten Sterling, who just signed a new deal with the UFC, has a big fight against Bryan Caraway on May 29, and who now has the opportunity to fight for a title in his home state should he earn a shot at the 135-pound crown.
“It feels like the stars have aligned for everything right now, so I'm super excited for this,” he said. “I can't wait for the opportunity to go out there and inspire the next great fighter from New York. It's all about the opportunity. I think that's what it comes down to, just having the opportunity to perform in front of my hometown, and making a living at what I love to do and something that I'm passionate about is ultimately what it's all about.”
But what of Weidman, who looks to take his championship back from Rockhold in the main event of UFC 199 in Inglewood, California. Will we be seeing him in November?
“Yes, you will,” he smiles. “I'll be here defending my belt.”