Gone for Chris Weidman when the injured Luke Rockhold pulled out of their fight at UFC 230 on two weeks’ notice was a small source of his motivation.
Weidman, the former UFC middleweight champion from Baldwin, had been preparing to face Rockhold in a rematch against the man who took his title. For Weidman, gone is that chance to “right a big wrong in my life.”
Instead, he’ll face Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza next Saturday in the co-main event at Madison Square Garden. It took Weidman just a handful of minutes to move on from Rockhold to Souza, another top-ranked opponent over whom a win could put Weidman in line for an opportunity to reclaim his middleweight championship.
“At the end of the day, I really do think I’m the best in the world so whoever they put in front of me, just recalculate a little bit of what this guy does a little differently, his strengths and weaknesses,” Weidman said. “It’s a fight against myself no matter who I go in there against. As long as I can be as close to the best me as I can be, we’re good to go.”
Also removed from the forefront for Weidman, 34, is the narrative he has grown tired of discussing. It has been almost three years since that December night in Las Vegas ended with him going to the hospital, his title in Rockhold’s possession and his undefeated record snatched away like a stack of chips when the blackjack dealer pulls a 21.
“It’s annoying having a rematch [for a fight] that you lost, having to explain why you lost,” Weidman said, recounting the same string of answers he has provided in the past 35 months. “I don’t like making excuses. So it's actually nice not to have to do that. I don't have to tell you why I lost, and why it wasn't the best me in there that night, and this and that. It's not really me. I don't like to talk like that.”
Saturday against Souza represents a fresh start for Weidman (14-3), who last fought in July 2017 when he submitted Kelvin Gastelum at Nassau Coliseum to end a three-fight losing streak. Gastelum now is scheduled to face middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in early 2019. The third-ranked Weidman believes a win over Souza would make him the next title contender.
Weidman always has said his focus is to reclaim the world title he lost. In the 25 years of the UFC, only eight fighters have won back the title in the division they lost it.
“I still have the opportunity to accomplish all the goals I wanted to,” Weidman said.
Souza (25-6, 1 no contest) lost his last bout in May to Gastelum, but the No. 5 ranked middleweight had won three of four before that. Souza, 38, is a former world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has 14 wins by submission in his career.
This is the first time since his MMA debut in 2009 that Weidman has had an opponent changed on him in such a short amount of time. He’s usually the guy stepping in for someone else, as he did in his UFC debut on three weeks’ notice in 2011 and against Demian Maia on 11 days’ notice in 2012.
Souza and Rockhold have some similarities. Both have strong ground games. Both can strike on their feet as well (Souza has seven knockouts, Rockhold has six). Perhaps the most technical difference is that Souza is an orthodox fighter.
“He’s been on my radar for a while,” Weidman said of Souza. “Not like I’m gunning for him or anything like that, but I knew at one point we should fight. It would have been a missed opportunity for us not to fight.”