When Chris Weidman takes the walk into the Octagon for UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden, it will be more than just a fight.
After being out of the ring for nearly a year, in part due to a serious neck injury, Weidman will make his return against Yoel Romero in front of a hometown crowd. For the first time since he turned pro, Weidman, a Long Island native, will be able to fight in New York City after the state government legalized mixed martial arts in March 2016, reversing a ban that had been in place for nearly two decades.
Making the return even sweeter for Weidman? He was part of the contingent of UFC stars and MMA fighters—including Men's Fitness cover star Dana White, former champions Chuck Liddell and Ronda Rousey, who is making a comeback at UFC 207 in what could be one of her final fights before retiring—who helped lobby political officials to get the legislation passed.
But his roots at the Garden go deeper than politics. As a kid, he'd go with his uncle to watch pro sports there—a Rangers game, say, even though his family were Islanders fans. "As I got older, I lived right next next to the Long Island Railroad, so in junior high and high school I'd just jump on the train with friends and head to the city," he says. "We'd run away from the conductors, hide from them in the bathroom. It was just what you did."
So yeah: This is no ordinary fight.
“It means a lot. It's a huge honor,” Weidman tells Men’s Fitness. “It's a shame I'm pretty much the only New Yorker on the card, but that’s the way it worked out. It's been a long time coming. I've been fighting for almost eight years and when I first started I had to fight all my fights in New Jersey. I had to explain to people why I couldn't fight in New York. That was always annoying, to have to explain to yourself from the guilty side of an argument, but now that’s over.”
Bringing MMA back to New York was a long road. So was Weidman’s personal comeback to the sport.
“The All American” Weidman, a Reebok ambassador, was on top of the world after defeating UFC legend Anderson Silva with a brutal knockout to take the middleweight title at UFC 162, but after defending the title three times, he lost it to Luke Rockhold in December 2015.
Weidman was ready to get back in the ring in May for a rematch with Rockhold after losing the title, but a neck injury—a cervical disk herniation, to be exact—forced him to pull out of the bout. After doctors told Weidman that he would potentially need fusion surgery, he opted for a non-invasive procedure and was back to training after just six weeks.
“Winning the middleweight title was an amazing feeling,” Weidman says. “It was tough to pull out of that fight, but being able to return for the New York event is great. I have so many memories of the city—my uncle lived in the city for a long time and he would take us to Rangers games and other events at Madison Square Garden.”
Weidman’s fight with Romero, who won an Olympic silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the Sydney Summer Games, will be no easy feat. But the former All-American wrestler from Hofstra University—another part of Long Island's identity—has put in the preparation and training to ensure he’s ready for whatever Romero brings.
“I did a lot of prep for this fight—sparring, wrestling, stand up, jiu jitsu," he says. "It wasn't just MMA—pullups, core work, hitting the punching bag, swimming, biking, and running. Shoulder and chest conditioning are good for me too. I get a little more specific as it gets close—a lot of wrestling stuff where your partner hits you with techniques your opponent would throw at you. You want to try to stay as healthy as possible towards the end, and I’m ready.”
His prep isn't all physical, either. "I try to have the same mindset in my practices as I would for my fights," he says. "I don't want anything to be unfamiliar.... In Madison Square Garden, where the place is going crazy, minimize it to the basic fundamentals. It's just me and the other guy inside the cage."
As for the best workout advice he's ever gotten? "Don’t cheat yourself," he says, a flinty edge in his voice. "If you get into the habit of cutting corners, they start to add up."
Weidman knows that this event could be one of the biggest in UFC history, and he’s happy that he’ll be a part of it—especially so close to home.
“Madison Square Garden, a place where I grew up, was a half-hour train ride for me,” Weidman says. “It's a dream come true.”