New York, New York. So nice, they named it twice. But the last time Chris Weidman made the walk to the Octagon at Madison Square Garden, it was a forgettable experience for the former middleweight champion, as he was on the receiving end of a vicious flying knee from Yoel Romero that ended his night 24 seconds into the third round.
Yet as he approaches his second visit as a UFC fighter to the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” the Long Islander is still as excited as he’s ever been to compete on such hallowed ground for combat sports.
“There’s no question that fighting in MSG is different from any other venue you can fight in in the world,” said Weidman. “For me being a New York guy, being able to fight in Madison Square Garden was something I never could imagined as a kid growing up.”
Today, with the UFC’s third show in the building coming up on Saturday, with Weidman facing Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in the co-main event, it almost feels like the Garden has always been a part of the promotion’s fabric. But it wasn’t always that way, and no one knows that better than Weidman, who was a key player in the charge to finally legalize mixed martial arts in New York in 2016.
“I was definitely a big part of getting MMA legalized in New York,” he said. “I did a lot of lobbying, I was going to all these Senate halls throughout the whole state and speaking to different senators and assemblymen and lobbying for MMA to be legalized.”
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In early 2016, the ban on the sport was lifted and at UFC 205 in November 2016, Weidman was having a good outing against Romero before getting finished in the final round. Five months later, Weidman got another home game when he faced Gegard Mousasi in Buffalo, but a controversial ending handed him his third loss in a row.
It was a tough time for the man who ended the long reign on Anderson Silva and ruled the middleweight division for over two years, and he knew he was in a must win situation when he was matched up with Kelvin Gastelum in Long Island in July of last year.
“Going into that fight, I’m coming off three losses and it doesn’t look good when you’re in that situation,” Weidman admits. “You have a lot of pressure on you, and especially to have it in your hometown in the main event, the pressure was on. But I knew what I was capable of and I just wanted to go out there, relax and move forward, put pressure on and just fight. And that’s what I did.”
Weidman submitted Gastelum in the third round, snapping his losing streak and putting him back in the 185-pound title race. He responded in his backyard, and so did his fans.
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“To fight on Long Island, in Nassau Coliseum, where I grew up going to Islanders games as a kid and to be there as the main event against a tough guy like Kelvin Gastelum and then come out on top with so much support there was a dream come true,” he said. “I felt like I won the world championship again. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Injuries have kept Weidman sidelined since the Gastelum bout, but heading into Saturday’s matchup with Souza – who replaced the injured Luke Rockhold – “The All-American” is fired up and ready to make good on his second Garden appearance.
“Everything’s flowing,” he said. “My body feels good, I’m injury free, I really can’t complain.”
So will the Strong Island faithful be out in full force in the Big Apple again?
“I’m guessing that the crowd’s gonna go even harder this time,” Weidman said. “I’m sure the crowd’s gonna have my back, and I’m gonna make them proud. It’s gonna be fun.”
How fun? Weidman is promising something special.
“Four fights in a row in New York and this is going to be the best ever,” he said.
And if the 34-year-old gets his wish, he’s aiming for big things, not just in 2019, but in the years to come.
“My goal right now is to win the middleweight championship back, defend that a few times and then head up to 205 and win some belts up there as well.”