LAS VEGAS — When things were at their bleakest, two UFC fighters drew inspiration from their sons on Saturday, helping them to important victories.
Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman entered his bout with Omari Akhmedov on Saturday at Apex unranked and winless since a July 22, 2017 victory over Kelvin Gastelum. And for much of the ensuing three years, he heard about it from his son.
So only moments after he grinded out a unanimous decision victory by winning the third round over Akhmedov with his wrestling, he showed up at the post-fight news conference and grinned broadly.
“Finally, I don’t have to hear my son telling me, ‘You haven’t won since 2017,’” Weidman said, chuckling. “2020, baby! That’s what’s up. Let’s go.”
Derrick Lewis followed Weidman into the cage and after a rough first round in which he was fending off submission attempts from Aleksei Oleinik, Lewis came out firing in the second. He caught Oleinik with a knee, a right hand and a series of powerful strikes on the ground, causing referee Herb Dean to stop their heavyweight bout 21 seconds into the second round.
It was a huge win for Lewis that, in other circumstances, could have been a loss. Oleinik had several chokes in during the first round that Lewis later conceded were tight.
Like Weidman, Lewis was motivated by his children.
“I was wishing there were fans in there because [when he had those chokes on], I was snorting and you could hear it on TV,” Lewis said, deadpan. “I couldn’t tap. I knew my kids were watching and they would have teased me forever.”
And so, two fighters who for different reasons were at crossroads in their careers got victories that were significant to them.
For Weidman, it was as much as anything to prove he belonged. He’d lost five of his past six and had been knocked out in all of them. With each successive loss, the bandwagon lost more and more passengers until he got to the point where he was unranked and there were few believers outside of his team.
This is a guy who began his professional career 13-0 and ended Anderson Silva’s lengthy reign as UFC middleweight champion. In one four-fight span, he defeated three men who had all held UFC belts — Silva twice, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort — in succession.
And just as quickly as he got to the top, it all fell apart for him. He was used to the doubts that plague even the greatest athletes.
“Even when I was coming up and I was the undefeated champion of the world, I always had those doubts,” Weidman said. “There’s always some doubt that you have to push through. When you have some losses and there’s some criticism on you and it does pile up and you have to deal with it a little bit more, that’s the position we put ourselves in, is to be vulnerable to being critiqued.
“ … At the end of the day, I truly love to do this and I love having that pressure on myself and the feeling of being scared.”
Lewis may have felt scared after a first round in which he spent considerable time on his back. Oleinik survived an early first-round onslaught and was working various submissions on Lewis.
Oleinik is one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the UFC in terms of submissions and he had Lewis right where he wanted him for much of the first round. But Oleinik never got a chance to ride that momentum.
Lewis made up his mind as he walked back to the corner that he was going to go for it when the second round began.
“I didn’t want to be in that position again,” Lewis said. “That’s why I came out and tried to finish him.”
Lewis roared out of his corner, fired a knee and some punches and dropped Oleinik. Lewis followed him to the ground and was winging big shots, warned by the referee at one point to not hit on the back of the head.
He was swinging at whatever he could hit and finally got the stoppage. It was a big step and showed the improvement he’d promised.
Despite the win, Lewis said he needs to step up his commitment. He wants to get down to as low as 245 pounds. He said much of the weight he dropped came from training more. He said his diet still wasn’t good and consisted of a lot of Popeye’s chicken.
“I owe it to the fans and everyone who supports me to take it more seriously,” Lewis said.
Curtis Blaydes, who is ranked third, one spot above Lewis, called him out after the fight. Lewis also mentioned Francis Ngannou and Alistair Overeem as other potential opponents.
Each will present their own set of challenges, but on this night, Lewis found the way to avoid what scared him most: Being heckled by his son.
In that regard, Weidman knows exactly how Lewis felt.
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