For the elite middleweights looking to follow the mediocre ones to 205, Luke Rockhold’s last bout may have come as an unwelcome warning; where Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos moved to light-heavyweight off lackluster runs at 185 and are enjoying success at the elite level of light-heavyweight, Rockhold’s loss to the great Yoel Romero was followed by a significantly more damning loss to mid-ranked 205er Jan Blachowicz.
Could be that the lower-ranked middleweights are simply better fits for light-heavyweight despite being much worse fighters than Rockhold; Smith and Santos made their hay at the fringes of 185 on toughness and grit, and light-heavyweight is a lot more forgiving of that sort of fighter, where it’s less forgiving of a fighter like Rockhold (fragile, and just as reliant on skills as on attributes). It was also very possible that Rockhold/Blachowicz was just a function of mileage; the violence of Rockhold’s middleweight run turned against him near the end, and that just has to catch up at some point.
Whatever the case, Chris Weidman was a lot closer to Rockhold than he was to Santos or Smith as a middleweight, and that’s a double-edged sword; there’s more reason to trust him as a technician up at 205 than the men who preceded him to the top, but there are also very real reasons to doubt him. It doesn’t help that Weidman is debuting against a very skilled prospect for the division, an undefeated destroyer in Dominick Reyes; while the talk on Reyes cooled a bit with his last showing, a win over a well-regarded fighter in Weidman may be what he needs to fight for the title sooner rather than later.
For Weidman, Reyes is a jump straight into the deep end of 205, one that presents great risk but also great reward; if Weidman can win in Boston, he may take the Jones booking for himself, a challenge that grows more lucrative even as it seems to grow more beatable.
Chris Weidman’s run at middleweight was genuinely a very impressive one, even though the names on his record have depreciated; Weidman cleared 185 of the previous generation, building a star-studded resume as he went, unfortunately right as those stars began to falter. Weidman’s reign turned out to be mostly a transitional period, linking Anderson Silva’s dominance to the brutality of the Strikeforce imports; Weidman kicked Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort from title-contention for good, but his own time on top came to an end afterwards at the hands of Luke Rockhold. Subsequent losses to Yoel Romero, Gegard Mousasi, and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza sealed Weidman as fringe-elite, even though those bouts were fairly competitive.
Weidman’s move to light-heavyweight wasn’t an unexpected one, looking at his recent record against top middleweights, but it remains somewhat questionable; Weidman has taken a lot of punishment in his last five bouts, so a move to a division with heavier hitters isn’t immediately advisable. That said, it is a worse division than 185, so the move may be Weidman’s best shot at holding a belt again. To make that likely at all, it’s fair to say that Reyes is a must-win for the New Yorker.
At his base, Weidman is a strong wrestler/top-controller, and that’s a skillset that has remained at the forefront of his game when he can make it work; Weidman’s win over Kelvin Gastelum hinged on his takedowns and riding game, as he exhausted Gastelum and eventually submitted him with an arm-triangle after controlling his wrists every time he tried to get up. Vitor Belfort came to the same end; after some success on the feet, Belfort got walked right into a double-leg, and was summarily overwhelmed from the mount.
That said, most middleweights aren’t nearly as easy to take down nor hold down as Gastelum or Belfort, and so Weidman’s boxing has come to define his fights (and his struggles) more than his wrestling; Weidman is a solid fundamental boxer and his most high-profile win came due to his hands, but his scrappier showings have invariably been forced when he isn’t the better wrestler.
At his best as a striker, Weidman is moving forward; in his prime, Weidman was in the running as one of the best pressurers in MMA. That skillset was shown mostly against Lyoto Machida, a fairly elusive outfighter who lives on convincing his opponent to overcommit in chasing him; Weidman did a fantastic job feinting the Brazilian backwards and safely covering distance while staying in position not to get run clean into strikes, and his footwork was tight enough not to let him off the fence easily.
Weidman is a strong rear-leg kicker, which he uses to back his opponent up (often with the front kick down the center), and while his boxing is fairly limited in a vacuum (the left hook to keep his opponent off him and a clean straight right), he’s shown some craft in doing things like lever-punching off his rear hand to push Machida back into the fence. The Silva knockout showed Weidman’s boxing in a great light; against an all-time great defensive operator and legendary counterpuncher, Weidman feinted liberally and used throwaway strikes to push Silva out of position before flattening him with a left hook.
Where Weidman tends to run into trouble is defensively, in the sense that he doesn’t really have any; Weidman is decent at giving ground, but that’s generally the worst way to defend strikes for a pressurer looking to box his opponent in, and it leaves him in great danger when he can’t wrestle his opponent. In each of his last five bouts, Weidman’s defense came back to bite him; when his opponent isn’t afraid of being wrestled and moves forward, Weidman struggles to gain the front foot back without putting himself in harm’s way. This can be diving for predictable takedowns, as it was against Yoel Romero, or just banging it out as he did against “Jacare” Souza; he didn’t wrestle the great jiu-jitsu player and eventually Souza committed to just moving forward and punching Weidman’s body, and the previously slick Weidman didn’t have an answer. Even the Gastelum bout showed traces of this trouble; Gastelum mostly got boxed up when he feared the shot, but when he showed urgency and pushed Weidman back, he didn’t have a ton of trouble landing.
To his credit, Weidman seems to be trying to improve defensively; he did some work drawing out Souza’s counters early with the jab, for instance, and he looked improved as an offensive boxer as well. That said, his durability is such a concern at this point in his career that the question remains of how much marginal defensive improvement can help. The Reyes bout is an undeniably dangerous endeavor to answer that question.
Dominick Reyes seemed to be doing everything right as far as a title-track prospect goes, especially at a field as barren as light-heavyweight; in a division where crazy athleticism can be enough on its own to wreak havoc (Johnny Walker being the best example), Reyes showed actual striking skills on top of a fearsome athletic base. He even passed the light-heavyweight “are you a real prospect” test with flying colors, beating Ovince Saint-Preux up badly in the first round and dropping him badly in the third. When the anticipation seemed to fizzle was after his last fight, in which he took Volkan Oezdemir (then off a loss to Anthony Smith) to a tightly contested decision. Had he finished the Swiss, Reyes would be in a title eliminator (and even that’s a conservative estimate); the Weidman booking is seemingly a way for him to get some momentum back behind him as a compelling bout for Jon Jones, and if he wins impressively, he’ll be near the top of the heap as Jones’ next challenge.
Fundamentally, Reyes’ game is just the classic southpaw one of playing the rear hand and rear kick off one another; Most of Reyes’ offense on the outside is kicking through the open side, and if his opponent bites too hard on the kicks, he can feint and fire the straight down the middle as their guard widens. In fact, that’s what happened when he debuted in the UFC against Joachim Christensen; Reyes came out kicking the body and legs to set up a hurting straight, and knocked him out seconds later with the same thing. A real process is generally enough to set a light-heavyweight apart from the pack, but Reyes has also shown some surprising skills as a boxer apart from just the straight left (although he’s jabbed and thrown right hooks, he’s mostly one-handed as a boxer); against Jared Cannonier and Saint-Preux, even in fairly dominant performances, Reyes found the openings to showcase some new things.
Against Cannonier, it was at least a hint of good counterpunching; Cannonier was looking to crowd Reyes as he kicked, which wasn’t a bad play, but Reyes found some success timing Cannonier as he crashed forward with short left straights. Eventually, Reyes drew Cannonier’s counter right with a throwaway lead hook before ducking underneath and putting him on wobbly legs with an uppercut. Against OSP, he showed his ability to manipulate a guard with his punches apart from just the double-attack; Reyes was able to use overhands and uppercuts to punish an opponent who he pushed against the fence, in addition to a cracking leg-kicking game and the athleticism and balance to hold Saint-Preux off when he entered on takedowns.
Reyes’ counterpunching was on display against OSP as well; while OSP didn’t make it hard with fairly thoughtless shifting combinations, Reyes was able to weave out and come back with the straight left at multiple points (one to hurt him badly at the end of the third), and even ran Saint-Preux onto a clean elbow near the end of the fight. While the conventional answer to a kicker like Reyes is pressure, he doesn’t make it easy unless someone can pressure more safely than light-heavyweights tend to.
That said, in Reyes’ last fight, an unexpected fighter came close; Volkan Oezdemir was able to push Reyes back and fluster him a bit, as a decent puncher who could at least handle himself in the pocket. Oezdemir feinted forward and had some success keeping Reyes from countering too successfully when he entered, but still took damage when he played the outside; in particular, Reyes worked his body over with both kicks and punches, which likely contributed to round 3 being more decisive for Reyes than 1 or 2 was for either man.
For a fighter used to first-round finishes, Reyes has shown a decent grasp of attrition work, and that won him the Oezdemir fight as he regained the front foot late. A win over Weidman could be all he needs for a title shot, and after Jon Jones’ outing against Thiago Santos, one would be hard-pressed not to give a strong outside kicker a chance.
Conclusions and Capping
While Oezdemir’s performance gives some hope to a sound pressurer in Weidman, the fight overall is too perilous to favor him. Reyes hasn’t faced many strong wrestlers, but he’s a fantastic athlete and Saint-Preux (a great athlete himself) was lifted clean off Reyes’ hips time and time again, so the chances of Weidman winning the wrestling if he can’t win the striking are likely low.
Past that, Reyes is just too potent a striker to trust a fighter with Weidman’s defense to beat him; Weidman’s best shot to stifle the kicking game and force wrestling is pressure, but Weidman’s defensive issues can leave him struggling to get the center back if counters are coming his way, as the Souza fight showed. Weidman’s stamina issues are also notable against a strong body-hitter; Weidman has faded down the stretch before and made bad decisions, even in fights where he had the boxing advantage (like against Rockhold), and Reyes is likely to accelerate that.
The biggest factor is just Weidman being a bit of an unknown quantity at this point; Weidman has disproportionate experience facing southpaws and extremely strong wrestling, so he’d have a shot in his prime at a lefty kicker whose wrestling defense is untested against a Weidman-caliber wrestler, but he’s likely the less durable and defensive party in a firefight, and Reyes is the wrong opponent for that weakness.
Prediction: Reyes via KO1. This writer caps Reyes at -180.