Fellow Baldwin High School graduate Mike DerGarabedian, 50, of Old...

Fellow Baldwin High School graduate Mike DerGarabedian, 50, of Old Brookville, playfully locks up UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman during an event to benefit Baldwin Middle School's sports programs. (Sept. 11, 2013) Credit: Tara Conry

Since winning the UFC middleweight championship from Anderson Silva in July, Baldwin native Chris Weidman has been traveling around the country for appearances.

But a cause close to his heart brought the 2002 Baldwin High School graduate to Rockville Centre on Wednesday night.

Inside the bar at Chadwick’s restaurant, Weidman, 29, spent three hours signing autographs, posing for photos and mingling with fans, fellow wrestlers and other Baldwin High School graduates. Each person paid $100 to spend the night with Weidman and do their part in saving the sports program at Baldwin Middle School.

When Weidman heard that all athletics at the school had been cut, including the wrestling, football and lacrosse programs that he participated in as a student of what was then known as Baldwin Junior High School, he wanted to help.

In junior high, Weidman said he discovered his passion for wrestling, and added, “I gained probably my biggest role model -- Mike Robinson, my junior high wrestling coach -- he inspired me.”

Weidman was soon on the phone with fellow alum Mike DerGarabedian, 50, of Old Brookville, who also wrestled for Baldwin High School. As a member of the 22-person Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling, DerGarabedian had spent the past seven months working with former wrestlers from around the country, including legends such as Dan Gable, to convince the International Olympic Committee to bring back Olympic wrestling. (The IOC announced Sunday that the sport would return with the 2020 games.)

“To me, getting the middle school program back was as important as getting wrestling back into the Olympics,” said DerGarabedian, a 1980 Baldwin High School graduate, lawyer and co-owner of Chadwick’s.

Watch Baldwin native Chris Weidman as he prepares to fight UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva at UFC 162 in Las Vegas. Videojournalists: Mario Gonzalez and Mark La Monica (July 6, 2013)

Weidman and DerGarabedian decided to each cut a check to cover the costs for the wrestling program this year, but school officials told them that they couldn’t just save one sport. So in addition to each donating $5,000, they organized the event at DerGarabedian’s restaurant to raise the additional funds.

To bring back boys and girls basketball, wrestling and girls volleyball for the winter, they need to raise about $34,000 by the deadline, Oct. 1, according to Baldwin Athletics Director Ed Ramirez.

Ramirez said the middle school athletics program is essential to developing student-athletes’ skills.

“We don’t get the high school athletes and the stars and college scholarships without it,” he said. “It’s really the roots to our programs.”

Ramirez also said the programs help students stay out of trouble.

“That’s a very crucial age in the development of young men and women,” he said. “We want to make sure we give them opportunities where they can funnel their time and energy into areas that are positive.”

Weidman admitted that as a middle school student, he was not passionate about his studies, but said having to make certain grades to play sports kept him focused. He received his undergraduate and masters’ degree from Hofstra University while also earning All-American status as a wrestler.

Baldwin Middle School Principal Tim Maher said he was touched that Weidman and DerGarabedian were donating their time and resources to help his students.

“It says so much about the people of Baldwin. They give so much and remember where they came from,” Maher said. “It’s absolutely making a difference for our kids.”

Although school has only been in session for a week, Maher said he’s noticed it’s been too quiet once the dismissal bell rings in the afternoon. He’s hoping that will change.

Weidman added, “We just want these kids to have the same opportunities we had, because it did a lot for us.”

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