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By Jim Norton and Matt Serra | November 1, 2016 | People Feature
Brothers-in-law and MMA superstars Chris Weidman and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson chat about making history at Madison Square Garden’s first-ever UFC battle on November 12.
On chris: Double-breasted suit, Kingsman ($2,495). mrporter.com. Rock athletic-fit shirt, Thomas Pink ($195). 520 Madison Ave., 212-838-1928. On Stephen: Suit ($3,995) and dress shirt ($375), Ermenegildo Zegna. 663 Fifth Ave., 212-421-4488. 39mm 18k Everose gold Cellini Time on a leather strap, Rolex ($15,200). Wempe Jewelers, 700 Fifth Ave., 212-397-9000
Matt Serra: Do you think that New Yorkers have the wrong impression of what mixed martial arts is—that people think it’s this violent blood sport when in fact it’s not?
Chris Weidman: Yeah, I think there was definitely a misconception in New York, just because it was illegal here. You always had to position yourself from the guilty side of an argument. Anytime you have to do that, you feel like it’s not being respected, and it wasn’t.
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson: I grew up in MMA. I don’t think it’s violent at all. You’re starting to see more and more kids getting involved with it. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s the fastest-growing sport in the world.
Jim Norton: Chris, can you talk a little bit about the process of getting MMA legalized in New York—from Governor Pataki banning it in 1997 to Governor Cuomo legalizing it this year? We were the last state in the union for this to be legal.
CW: It was a crazy situation. Usually New York is on the forefront of things, but with this we were the last. Basically, you had to lobby all the senators and the governor and try to get this thing legalized over the past 10 years, and we finally got it done.
JN: UFC President Dana White talked for a long time about getting MMA to New York. Madison Square Garden was kind of the dream.
CW: To be able to fight in New York in front of all the fans and family and friends that weren’t able to travel to Las Vegas, it’s a dream come true. They can just take a train ride right into Penn Station, walk upstairs to Madison Square Garden. It’s the way it should be. They deserve it.
MS: How did you get your start in MMA?
CW: My background is wrestling. I was lucky enough that when I got into MMA, I went to the Serra BJJ Academy. I felt like it was the only place I could go in New York, and that’s when my career started.
ST: I’ve been fighting since I was 15. I went to my first UFC show when I was 12 in Charlotte, North Carolina—UFC 2. I told myself this is what I was going to do one day.
JN: Did you fight a lot before you fought professionally?
ST: That’s all it was. I competed just about every weekend in point-sparring tournaments, and karate was my focus. I didn’t play any other sports—all karate.
MS: What made you want to switch—to say, “I want to do MMA. I want to fight in the cage”?
ST: Former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre brought me in for [Brazilian MMA fighter] Thiago Alves’s camps. I was strictly doing kickboxing at the time, but I was going up there for his camps, so I found myself learning jujitsu, learning wrestling, to be a better sparring partner for Georges. Through him, I was training for MMA. In 2010, I had my first MMA fight.
Fight night! UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden on November 12 includes a title fight between Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (left) and welterweight champ Tyron Woodley, and a middleweight bout between Chris Weidman (right) and Yoel Romero.
JN: What was your record as a kickboxer?
ST: 57 and 0.
JN: 57 and 0! That’s incredible that you’d walk away from that.
ST: UFC is the fastest-growing sport in the world. Kickboxing was going nowhere. For me, as a martial artist, I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. It was hard, because just before I made that change, I tore every ligament in my left leg. I was out for three years. The doctor said I’d probably never fight again. I had a torn ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], every CL, and they took 40 percent of my meniscus out. I had a good crew behind me, good solid team, and they kept me focused, man.
JN: How about you, Chris? Was there any injury you thought might actually stop you?
CW: When I was 2 and 0, I fractured my hand pretty bad, and they had to do a surgery where they put my hip bone into my hand and they fused it. It literally was not getting better. For about a year, I didn’t fight at all. I was living in my parents’ basement, I had no money—it was a very stressful time. I had a lot of pressure on me to move on and get a normal job, but I stuck through. I said, you know what? I’m going to just fight injured. I took a fight with Uriah Hall, and I ended up finishing him with a left hook. I still couldn’t really hit with my right hand, and then after that fight, somehow it just healed.
MS: As a former fighter, I know the thrill of victory in the Octagon. It’s the highest high. Is it a big difference from winning in the wrestling, karate, or kickboxing world?
ST: Just the feeling of winning is a good feeling, but doing it on the highest platform in combat sports is something different, man.
MS: Are you scared when you walk out to fight?
ST: Oh, yeah. But that’s a good thing. That’s what keeps you on edge. Of course, you hear it all the time: If you step out there and you don’t feel those nerves, maybe you should hang it up, because then you won’t be aware. You won’t take the right movements or the right reactions that you should be taking. That’s a scary situation.
JN: Have you been booed, Chris? You beat a very loved champion in Anderson Silva.
CW: Oh man, I got booed. Every single one of my title fights pretty much, because I was going against these legendary Brazilians in the beginning. It started with Anderson Silva. [The first fight] I got booed, and then the second fight I got booed again, because I beat him with that hook. People thought I got lucky. Again, I got booed after I had his leg broke. [Lyoto] Machida and Vitor [Belfort], same thing. I’m excited to have this fight in New York where maybe I won’t get booed!
JN: What is your relationship like with the fans? It seems like you’re much more accessible to the fans than in any other sport.
CW: All of us have come from a background where we would go win a big tournament, whether it be karate or wrestling or jujitsu, and come back home and be treated the same. No one realized what you just did. You walked around thinking you’re the man, but no one else thought you were. When you get into a sport like MMA and you’re in the UFC, you win a fight and you go back home, everybody is so proud of you and gives you so much respect. When you get that type of respect when you’re not used to it, you want to show respect back. You want to let the fans know how appreciative you are of them.
One-two punch! As a native New Yorker, Chris Weidman was a major advocate urging the state assembly to pass the MMA legalization bill, making UFC events possible at Madison Square Garden.
JN: How did the two of you guys meet?
CW: I brought [Wonderboy] in to train for my first Anderson Silva fight. He has a very unconventional style with his hands down, does a lot of karate stuff, and kicks out of nowhere. Anderson Silva was known to put his hands down and move differently and come with different things when you’re not expecting it. I’m like, “Holy smokes, this kid is good.” At that time his name wasn’t that big—he might have had two or three fights.
ST: Yeah, I had, like, two fights.
CW: The way he helped me prepare for these guys, these legends that everybody was scared of… When I got into the cage finally with Anderson Silva, Machida, Vitor, they were literally so slow compared to Wonderboy. He just made everything so easy for me once I was in there.
JN: What about the family relationship you guys have? Chris, your sister is married to Stephen’s brother. You don’t see that often in UFC.
CW: I’m very overprotective of my sister. I’m literally way overboard. For years I was probably detrimental to her getting a boyfriend. Then when Tony came out [to a camp] and I saw that there were some sparks flying, I actually opened my heart up, and I’m like, I want my sister to be happy. She’s 26 years old at this point, and I knew Tony was a good dude, comes from a good family. I’m like, you know what, let’s see what happens. I’ll keep my hands off this one.
ST: They just hit it off. Next thing you know, a year later, she’s moving down to South Carolina and they got married this past April, which was an awesome wedding.
JN: What would you say is your most memorable fight?
ST: I think my most memorable would be my one loss in the UFC. I lost to a guy named Matt Brown, and man, we beat the crap out of each other. During that fight, it showed me what I needed to work on, what I needed to improve, but not only that, but being out there and just getting punched in the face and kneed in the body and elbowed in the face. I had cuts, I was bleeding—I just kept going when most people would have stopped. I told myself, this guy is not going to knock me out; he’s not going to submit me. If this guy’s going to win, I’m going to give him hell. If not for that fight, I don’t think I would be where I am today.
MS: How do you feel different now?
ST: Oh man, just with what I learned during that fight, the weight-cutting process, walking around with a lighter weight, my takedown defense, coming up here working with you, Matt Serra, and Chris Weidman—working on my ground game has helped me tremendously. It gives me all the confidence in the world to go out there and face these tough opponents. I’m getting ready to fight Tyron Woodley November 12—welterweight champion right now. Man, just putting myself through the grind, that’s why I love training with champions. Guys like Matt Serra and Chris, they have no excuses. They could have an injury, but they’re always in the gym. There’s always something that you can do and push yourself.
JN: Formwise, you lower your hands a little bit. Is that scary against a guy like Tyron Woodley, who hits like a truck?
ST: I’m used to it. I’m used to stepping out there. I’ve been doing it since I was 15. Hands down, I don’t know why.
CW: That’s crazy, the murderers’ row you just went through, every one of those guys hits like a truck— Johny Hendricks, Jake Ellenberger, and Rory MacDonald. Dangerous dudes.
ST: Muhammad Ali was one of the best at it—always had his hands down, which helps you distribute your weight a little bit easier to move your head. I use that for myself. I stick my head out wanting you to try and hit it. That way I can counter you.
JN: You’re relying on speed.
ST: Oh yeah, it’s speed and accuracy, speed and accuracy.
JN: How about you, Chris—what’s your most memorable?
CW: I have to say my fight when I won the title. Anderson Silva is a guy who was known as the greatest of all time. No one gave me a shot at beating him. People laughed at me, and then to go out there and do it—there’s no better feeling than that.
“TO BE ABLE TO FIGHT IN NEW YORK IN FRONT OF ALL THE FANS AND FAMILY THAT WEREN’T ABLE TO TRAVEL TO LAS VEGAS, IT’S A DREAM COME TRUE.” —chris weidman
JN: I was there in the crowd that night. I’ve never been more shocked in sports as watching him get knocked out. I wasn’t shocked that you won, but to watch him go down like that…
CW: It was insane. I shocked myself. I planned on beating him, but I figured it was going to be more a takedown-submission-takedown grind. To go out there and knock him out, a guy who used to just put his hands down and let people punch him in the face and he doesn’t go anywhere… To get that knockout was ridiculous.
JN: What did it feel like to connect and watch him go down?
CW: He was taunting me. I got emotional, which is usually not good, but it worked out for me because I got pissed. I’m not going to stop punching until I crack this dude. That’s what I did.
JN: For UFC 205, you’re fighting an extremely strong guy, Yoel Romero. What do you think about this fight? I know you don’t want to give away your game plan, but it seems like his cardio isn’t quite where yours is.
CW: My usual game plan is to pressure. I’m usually a little longer, so keep my range, walk him down, and make him work. From the wrestling to the striking, wrestling, back to the striking, get to the ground, nonstop movement. As long as we’re moving and I’m putting pressure on him, it’s a good thing for me.
JN: Do you think if you beat Yoel Romero, that puts you in line to go back to the belt? And let’s talk very quickly about Michael Bisping, the current champion. You and he have kind of gone back and forth.
CW: Yeah, I think if I win this fight the way I think I should win it, I think it’s a no-brainer that I’d be able to fight for the title. As far as Bisping, I really don’t have any ill will towards the guy, but this is a guy who’s crapped on my career since I got into the sport. I got into the UFC and a couple fights in, I’m fighting for the title against Anderson Silva. I was undefeated, and Bisping has been in the division for a long time and never had fought for the title. Here comes this young kid that surpasses him. I felt like there was a lot of bitterness and jealousy on his part. He would just rip apart every win I had. He couldn’t wait when I finally lost—the guy went even harder. He’s a talker, and he doesn’t bother me too much.
MS: How do you feel you match up with him?
CW: I think, to be honest with you, he’d probably be the easiest fight I’ve had in a long time.
MS: Easiest fight? The champ?
CW: There’s no such thing as an easy fight, like I said, but he would be the one easy fight.
MS: Chris Weidman, you’re telling me the champ, Michael Bisping, will be the easiest fight of your career?
CW: He would be the easiest fight of my career. Including Reubem Lopes, the guy I fought for my first fight ever. He was 0 and 0, undefeated fighter.
MS: Snap, snap.
CW: I think he might be even easier than that.
Leg up on the competition: Before the UFC, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson was a kickboxer with a 57-0 record. “For me, as a martial artist, I wanted to be the best fighter in the world,” he says of his decision to join the UFC.
JN: Do you think the fighters have gotten better and better? It seems like a lot of belts have changed hands, and I attribute that to the fact that people are starting at 15 now. There are so many great fighters, it’s hard to go on an eight-fight win streak in the UFC.
ST: Yeah, it’s difficult. If you’re fighting in the UFC, I don’t care if you’re in the very beginning or you’re champion, every one of those guys is dangerous.
JN: UFC has done so well. What do you think this sport did right that boxing has done wrong?
CW: They’re marketing every fighter from the ground up. They’re paying the fighters from the first fight on the card to all the way to the main event. The UFC has TV deals where they have to have a certain amount of fights per year. There’s so many more fighters that they have to push and get people excited about. I think that’s a difference. Boxing just sticks to their pay-per-view, they have their one, two, three, four, five guys that are popular, and other than that, I don’t know any other boxers. That’s the way they went with it.
JN: There’s literally so many fights that I care about watching. The UFC seems to give you the fight that you want to see as opposed to making you wait eight years like they did for Pacquiao/Mayweather.... How do you feel towards the person you just fought after the fight is over?
ST: It’s funny how much more respect you have after you finish beating each other up. After you go out there and you lay it on the line, I’m all smiles, and I’m always showing respect to my opponents, even if they don’t want it.
CW: The same thing with me. I’ve had some heated stare downs and stuff at weigh-ins, and some bad blood, but at the end of the day, when that fight’s over, there’s a sense of relief and we kind of bond. We just went through something. You didn’t know what was going to happen, both of us were obviously nervous. The result is done… and you just respect each other.
Comedian Jim Norton and UFC legend Matt Serra are the hosts of UFC Unfiltered, the official podcast of the UFC. The uncensored show features UFC stars and celebrities, with new episodes available on iTunes every Tuesday and Thursday.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES MACARI. Styling by Julian Antetomaso. Grooming by Riad Azar using Dior Homme for Atelier Management. Location: UFC Gym NYC, 277 Canal St., 212-858-9880