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Chris Weidman’s victory at UFC on Fox 25 on Saturday was the sort of memory that will last long after he is no longer competing athletically. Before a raucous crowd of friends and family inside a building at which Weidman used to cheer his favorites as a child, he secured a crucial win over a worthy opponent. When Weidman locked in an arm-triangle choke and Kelvin Gastelum was forced to tap out, the reaction live was as loud and joyous as any you’re ever going to see at an Ultimate Fighting Championship event. An hour after the event, fans were still outside in the rain waiting for Weidman to leave the arena so they could greet and congratulate him.
After submitting Gastelum, Weidman was asked about the fight. His response was striking. While clearly ecstatic about the win, the focus of Weidman’s thoughts seemed to be his doubters. He referenced them repeatedly in the Octagon and at the post-fight press conference, clearly motivated by the sense that he was being counted out after three consecutive defeats against elite competition.
This would make sense with certain fighters. MMA is a sport with some outspoken characters, and fans react harshly to plenty of them. The likes of Tyron Woodley, Michael Bisping and Ronda Rousey surely get plenty of blowback, right or wrong. Conor McGregor has a massive throng of supporters but gets plenty of hate, as well. It comes with the territory. However, this was Weidman. He has been a popular if not adored figure for pretty much the entirety of his career. Moreover, he was surrounded by thousands of cheering fans as he expressed the passion he has for proving the doubters and haters wrong.
Weidman is the “All American” who comes to the cage with an American flag wrapped around his neck and the sentimental chords of “Won’t Back Down” playing in the background. He hasn’t even fought outside North America. About the most hostile crowd he has had to deal with was fighting Mark Munoz in San Jose, California. Who is sending Weidman of all people hate messages on Twitter?
To be sure, some fighters are just more sensitive to criticism than others. The sense of fighting against the world can also be a motivating factor, which Weidman acknowledges has worked for him for quite some time. Moreover, there is a difference between invective and simple doubt. Most fans doubting that Fedor Emelianenko can continue to fight at a high level wish him the best, but that has to remain a frustrating feeling for a proud competitor. Still, in spite of these caveats, Weidman’s thought process following his win over Gastelum is a telling reflection of the psychological pressures that face today’s elite fighters.
Fighting at the top level is a difficult enough mental proposition on its own. You’re preparing for hand-to-hand combat with another human being looking to separate you from consciousness. It’s an individual sport, so success or failure lands squarely on your shoulders as opposed to being spread out across a team. Winning or losing also has a much greater effect on your bottom line, as win bonuses are much higher relative to base salary than basically any other major sport.
Those pressures are compounded in a world where it has become increasingly easy for fans to connect with athletes and celebrities. It’s much harder for today’s top MMA fighters to disconnect and focus on their task at hand than it was for fighters even 10 years ago, let alone boxers of 40 years ago. That feedback is constantly coming in, and when things go wrong, a lot of it is going to be harsh. It’s not surprising fighters like Weidman would attempt to turn that negative energy into positive motivation.
While that pressure can be useful to fighters, it’s more likely to be counterproductive. When Georges St. Pierre announced his retirement in 2013, the biggest reason he cited for his decision was the pressure that came with preparing for fights. St. Pierre loved to train and continued to do so even after his retirement. A beloved figure, St. Pierre had as supportive of a fan base as anyone in the sport. Yet, the pressure and expectations that came with championship performance were too much, even for one of the most successful fighters in the sport’s history. They were a greater foe than the opponents he had to stare down in the Octagon.
In the coming years, fighters will likely become even more connected to fans and thus even more aware of their detractors. If someone like Weidman can’t escape the feeling of suffocating hostility at times, few fighters likely can. The options are thus simple: Either do your best to block it out or harness it for your own good. There may have been a strong apparent disconnect between the reception to Weidman in Long Island and his sense of a surrounding army of negativity. However, perhaps without that perception he wouldn’t have been able to deliver that type of performance to reward the supporters that stuck with him.