Chris Weidman was taken aback at the suggestion that, if he’d stuck with hockey, he’d have been a goon. As a child, the former UFC middleweight champion was a hockey player. He grew up on Long Island and dreamed of playing for his hometown New York Islanders.
He would attend games with his father and brother and as he watched the players skate up and down the ice, the young Weidman was certain he’d one day be down there himself.
“I was a huge Islanders fan in the 90s,” Weidman said, days before he’s to meet Kelvin Gastelum in a critical middleweight bout on Saturday at NYCB LIVE’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “I always wanted to be an NHL hockey player, but in junior high, my parents couldn’t afford ice hockey any longer, so I stopped following it and stopped playing it.”
But the dream didn’t fully die. When he completed an All-America wrestling career at Hofstra University in 2008, Weidman purchased all new hockey equipment. He knew that he wanted to do something athletic with his life and he decided to give hockey another shot.
“I was planning to try out for the Islanders after I didn’t make the Olympic [wrestling] team in 2008,” Weidman said. “I bought all the equipment and I was serious about it. I went down to the rink, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t the player I was. I got thrown around by little high school kids.”
It was, though, no joke. He was a star player, he says, as a young boy and felt with the proper training, he could have made it.
His time away from the game made it unrealistic, but he doesn’t lack for confidence in his ability.
“Dude, I was very, very, very good when I was young; really good,” he said. “I was unbelievable. All throughout high school, people were like, ‘Man, you’ve got to go back to playing hockey. You were ridiculous.’ They remembered me from when I was younger. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but I was into wrestling by that point and I just kept with that.”
That fact that he dropped the money to buy the hockey equipment, though, is a fascinating insight into the mind of an elite professional athlete.
And even though Weidman is on a three-fight losing skid and badly needs a win over Gastelum, his confidence isn’t shaken. Losses are losses, and they’ve impacted him in their own way, but he can explain away each.
He was winning fights against Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero before making a mistake that cost him, Weidman said. And his controversial defeat to Gegard Mousasi at UFC 210 in April was the result of mistakes by the referee and athletic commission, he believes.
His belief in himself, though, is no different than it was after he knocked out Anderson Silva to win the title and followed it with successful defenses against Silva, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort.
“Every one of those fights I lost, I was winning those fights and it isn’t like those guys showed they have more potential than me or that their ability is better and I wasn’t in their league,” he said. “There were times in those fights where it might have looked the other way, where I was leaps and bounds above them. All of them. They got their hands raised that night. They figured out a way to win.
“They got their hands raised and I didn’t, but that doesn’t dictate my potential or where I am in the division. I feel like I’m the best in the world. I just have to go out there and be relaxed and be confident and I don’t think any one of these guys could beat me.”
The harsh reality he must confront on Saturday is that he hasn’t won in more than two years and that he’ll be a lot closer to getting cut than he is to a title shot if he doesn’t get past Gastelum.
He was questioned a lot during his title run, but answered all the questions and made it into the history book by dethroning the legendary Silva.
And while Gastelum is one of the sport’s most dynamic young fighters, Weidman said it would be a mistake to consider him a relic of the past rather than a star of the future.
“I respect Kelvin and he’s beaten some good guys in the middleweight division, no question about it,” Weidman said. “I just know what I can do and what I am capable of. I lost those three fights and that changes the way other people look at me, but not the way I view myself. There are different reasons I lost each one of them and to be honest, I had the worst night of my life three nights in a row.
“But I feel people are going to see the old Chris Weidman on Saturday. I don’t even want to say the old Chris Weidman, because that kind of makes it seem like I’ve been gone. I haven’t. I’m still here, right at the top. That’s just how I feel. I’m prepared to go out there to prove I’m the best.”