At its core, Saturday night’s UFC 230 fight was never about the opponent or the venue. It was about Chris Weidman.
So when his opponent changed on two weeks’ notice from a rematch against Luke Rockhold to a fight against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Weidman adjusted quickly. That it was in Madison Square Garden in New York City just meant less travel for him and more of his friends, family and fans in the stands.
“It’s a fight against myself no matter who I go in there against,” the Baldwin-raised Weidman said in the lead-up to the fight. “As long as I can be as close to the best me as I can be, we’re good to go.”
Weidman was very good for much of the fight, but that didn’t matter midway through the third round. Souza connected with an overhand right to the left side of Weidman’s head as he was throwing a straight right and beat the former UFC middleweight champion.
Weidman (14-4) looked to be out when he hit the canvas, but referee Dan Miragliotta did not stop the bout right away. Souza saw what happened but did not move in right away to finish the fight. Weidman rolled to his right and clutched onto Souza’s ankle, partly out of instinct and partly to try to recover quickly. Souza then threw a few more punches and Miragliotta then stepped in to stop the bout for the technical knockout at the 2:46 mark of the final round.
“I love Chris,” said Souza (26-6, 1 no contest). “He’s a great guy. He’s a hero. He’s a legend in this sport.”
Nice words, sure, but they did little to comfort the dejected Weidman as he sat on the canvas with his head resting on his hands. Weidman was leading, 20-18, on two of the judges’ scorecards after two rounds, with the third judge having it at 19-19.
Souza is a multiple-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion. Weidman is a black belt in BJJ under Matt Serra and a two-time All-American wrestler at both Hofstra and Nassau CC. So, as often goes in mixed martial arts when two world-class grapplers fight, it became a striking battle on the feet.
In the first round, Weidman was landing left jabs and straight rights almost every time. They kept the Brazilian at a distance for most of the round. Weidman, 34, landed one right hand that wobbled Souza temporarily.
“Chris Weidman came out and was absolutely just picking him apart, but Jacare would not stop moving forward,” UFC president Dana White said. “He just wouldn’t quit.”
Souza, 38, saw more success in the second round as he was able to connect with overhand rights and several combinations. Behind those strikes, Souza got in closer range to land more punches. Weidman was able to get a takedown late in the second round after the two fighters were in the clinch against the cage, but the round ended with both of them standing up.
“I thought Weidman had three rounds in the bag and was on his way to a win,” White said. “He was two minutes away from winning the fight. But that’s what happens when a guy wants to win that bad.”
Souza opened the third round with some good shots that Weidman was able to absorb and fire back as the crowd, decidedly pro Weidman in his hometown, cheered him on. But as Weidman threw his punch and Souza threw his, it was Souza’s which landed first, and last.
“We both came to win and that fight was a great show for the fans,” Souza said. “It’s MMA and you have to be ready for everything but you also have to show respect.”