I remember watching Anderson Silva fight Dan Henderson at UFC 82. I had never really watched MMA, but I looked up to Dan Henderson. He was a wrestler, like me, but also a tough, powerful mixed martial artist. A lot of wrestlers like him were having success in MMA, so I started watching to see what it was all about.
And I watched Anderson Silva completely dismantle him. I was blown away. I was hooked. I started watching that fight with one idol, and I came out with a new one. I couldn’t help watching Silva and thinking, I wanna fight this guy …
I started watching all of Silva’s fights. I watched the fight in which he knocked out Chris Leben, a guy people said couldn’t be knocked out, and I thought, I wanna fight this guy, and I wanna beat him.
I watched when Silva fought Forrest Griffin. He was dropping his hands and dancing around punches — basically just toying with him — and he knocked him out in the first couple of minutes. That’s how most of Silva’s fights are. He made it look so effortless. He was so comfortable. Even when he was taken down, he had that look like, As soon as I get to my feet I’m gonna knock you out. He looked unbeatable.
The more I watched, the more I thought, I wanna fight this guy, and I wanna beat him.
And I can, and I will.
Around the time Silva fought Henderson, I was a wrestler training for the Olympics. I got injured before the trials, and the injury forced me to miss the 2008 Games. At that point, I had a decision to make: I could continue wrestling and wait to try out for the 2012 Olympics, or I could try mixed martial arts.
I decided to try three months of Jiu Jitsu, and I just fell in love with it. I realized pretty quickly that this is what I was meant to do. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, so I fought a lot. Even when I was wrestling, if I lost a match, I always thought, That guy would never beat me in a fight…
So I chose MMA — but if I wanted to be successful, I had some big changes to make.
As a college wrestler, I was a four-time All-American. I reached the national semifinals in each of my four years (two at Nassau CC and two at Hofstra).
But all four times, I lost in matches I was winning. Four straight semifinals, four straight losses. I was basically a choke artist. So people would look at “four-time All-American” and think I’d accomplished something, but I never accomplished my true goal. I was never a national champion.
Truth is, I lost to a lot of guys I should’ve beaten. I wasn’t mature enough to put in the work it took to win a national championship. I was that talented kid who wasn’t working as hard as he could, and when you’re not working as hard as you can, you don’t feel like you deserve to win. I never had that true confidence going into a match where I thought, There’s no way this guy’s beating me, because I worked way too hard.
And that’s what I changed when I got into MMA. I decided I was gonna be the hardest-working kid in the room. I wasn’t gonna be that kid who’s not reaching his potential or not making the most of his ability. I put on this face of a hard-working, tough, gritty wrestler — which isn’t at all what I was, I just wanted to create that illusion. And after about a year of pretending to be the hardest worker in the room, my habits changed and I became that person. I basically faked it till I made it. Knowing that there’s nobody out there working harder than I am gave me the confidence that I couldn’t be beaten. And that’s when I stopped losing.
I knew that to be the best, I had to beat the best, and Anderson Silva was the champion in my weight class. I used that same “fake it till I make it” strategy to convince myself that I could beat Anderson Silva. From the very beginning, every time I trained for a fight, I didn’t train to beat the guy I was fighting. I trained to beat Anderson Silva. I was still so new to the sport, and he was this unbeatable mythical figure to me, so I told myself, He’s human. He can be beaten, and you have what it takes.
And I started believing it, even though nobody else did.
I wanted to shock the world. I wanted to silence all my doubters. I wanted to beat Anderson Silva. I just needed to work my way up to get that chance, and that meant getting to the UFC.
I took on every fight I could whenever I could. I started my professional MMA career 2-0 before I suffered a broken hand. It was a nasty injury that required serious surgery — they took my hip bone out to fuse the joint in my hand — and it kept me out for over a year. But you can’t get to the UFC without fighting. I had to get back into the Octagon. So when I got offered the chance to fight Uriah Hall, who was undefeated and one of the top MMA prospects on the east coast, I took it, even though I was still in pain from my hand surgery and I could barely punch. I trained hard, and on fight night, I knocked him out to win the Ring of Champions middleweight title. Three months later, I defended that title by beating Valdir Araujo by unanimous decision.
I was 4-0 and I was getting impressive wins. I thought the UFC would be interested after I won those two fights, but when my manager got in touch with them, they said they weren’t interested. “Get more fights,” they said.
Then, another setback: During training, I fractured my rib.
After a successful couple of fights, I was back in a tough spot. First off, I wasn’t making any money. I was living in my parents’ basement on Long Island with my wife and my daughter. I was back in school getting my Master’s degree in physical education as a backup plan in case fighting didn’t work out. I was giving private wrestling lessons on the side just trying to make a couple extra bucks. I was making about $15,000 a year with a kid to support. All that, and now a fractured rib. Outside of the Octagon, nothing seemed to be going my way.
I almost gave up on the dream. You usually have to be at least 6-0 or better just to get called into the UFC, and then who knows what’s gonna happen when you get there. It’s not like you get signed to the UFC and start making millions of dollars. There’s no guarantee.
Then, I got a call back from the UFC. They needed me to replace an injured fighter in two-and-a-half weeks, if I could do it. My opponent would be Alessio Sakara — a dangerous striker from Italy who was on a three-fight win streak — on a main card of a UFC event.
I had a fractured rib. I could hardly breathe. But this was my chance. The UFC wanted me, so I didn’t really have a choice. I thought, Crap, I gotta take it.
I couldn’t even really train for the fight. I was injured and out of shape. I just did a lot of cardio and whatever I could do physically that didn’t bother my rib. There was a time before the fight where I thought, I don’t know how I could beat anybody right now. I can hardly even move. But I had to get all those excuses and doubts out of my mind and tell myself, I can’t lose. I won’t lose.
And I didn’t. I won by unanimous decision. It wasn’t what I envisioned for my UFC debut — I didn’t dominate and make a statement that I was here to be champion — but it was a win, and it was a huge win, given the circumstances.
Above all else, it was one step closer to Anderson Silva.
Once I got healthy again, I went on a run in the UFC. A couple of submissions, a unanimous decision and a knockout later, I was 9-0 as a pro and 5-0 in the UFC, and the whole time, I was watching Silva run through guys like Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort. From the time I started fighting, there was only one UFC middleweight champion. It was always Anderson Silva. I wanted to be the one to take that from him.
I was living out on Long Island in Baldwin, New York when Hurricane Sandy hit. With the storm surge, the whole first floor of our house was under about three feet of water. We lost a lot of valuable stuff — sentimental stuff like pictures and Christmas ornaments. Nobody expected flooding that bad. I was forced to move back into my parents’ house with my wife and two kids. The four of us were living in a small room together. It wasn’t anything close to what some of our neighbors were going through, but it was a tough time.
Through all this, I was still training, waiting to find out who my next opponent would be. Then, I blew out my shoulder in training.
Every big fight in my career had come after I suffered a major injury, and most of my fights — especially early on — came during really difficult times for me and my family. Now, I haven’t fought in almost a year, I’m coming off a serious shoulder surgery where they repaired my rotator cuff and labrum and my house had just been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
So of course, the UFC calls to tell me I have two months to train for my next opponent.
I trained for the Silva fight the same way I trained for every other fight. Only this time, instead of pretending I was training to fight Anderson Silva, the greatest fighter in the world, I really was. I had faked it. Now I had made it a reality.
I watched his fights for so long. I knew his movements. I knew his style. I knew his tendencies. His confidence was his most dangerous attribute. He knew how to get in his opponent’s head. He was so comfortable in the Octagon — dancing around, taunting, smiling and laughing — he made you think he was invincible.
But I was prepared for all the mind games. I felt like I was a different athlete with a different attitude than all the guys he’d fought before. I knew he couldn’t beat me by putting his hands down and making jokes, so my gameplan was to move forward, look for the takedowns and punch him in his mouth. Don’t be afraid to strike. Stay in his face and mentally and physically try to break him. Nobody had beaten him in seven years and he was on a 17-fight win streak.
I wanted to be the one to finish him.
Fight night. He came out as vintage Anderson Silva, taunting and making jokes. It was just his act, and I knew it was just that — an act. Whether we were on the ground of standing, I tried to land as many big shots as possible. I wanted to let him know I wasn’t scared. I was there to fight, and I was there to win. I was there to finish him. I was landing shots, and he was just sitting back, putting his hands on his hips and asking for more.
So I gave it to him. I stuck to my gameplan and kept on coming.
Just before the first round ended, I landed another punch, and when the horn sounded, Silva came in, put his arm around me and kissed me on the cheek, then he went back to his corner and kept on talking. He was really putting on a show, but it didn’t get to me. I was there to fight.
I came out fast in the second round and Silva came out clowning. About a minute in, I connected with a left hook, and he wobbled his knees, pretending to be hurt like he was gonna go down. While he was busy acting, I came back with another left. I had him off balance — for real this time — and it was the third left hook that did it. I connected with a third shot to his chin, and he went down.
When he hit the floor, I jumped on him and kept coming with punches. The referee stopped it, and it was over.
For almost six years, I’d been visualizing this moment. I’d been saying I was gonna beat Anderson Silva, and nobody believed me. It’s something special when you say you’re gonna do something and everybody says you’re crazy — when you tell the whole world you’re gonna finish him, and everybody laughs at you — and you go out and do it. It’s an indescribable feeling.
I was the new UFC middleweight champion, but my vision wasn’t complete. I was on a mission, and that mission was clear in my mind: I was gonna beat Anderson Silva and take his UFC middleweight title, then we were gonna have an immediate rematch and I was gonna beat him again.
After the fight, one of the first things I said to him was, “We’re doing this again.” Because I had a vision, and in my vision, we were fighting twice.
Once we got into the Octagon for that second fight, I felt like I was seeing everything he was doing before he even did it. I just had him down. The only thing he actually connected on during the first fight was leg kicks, so all through training, we drilled, and drilled and drilled checking leg kicks. We knew that’s what he was gonna come back with the second time around.
Sure enough, just over a minute into the second round, he threw a leg kick and I checked it. He came right back with another leg kick, and this time, when I checked it, his leg snapped in half. It was ugly.
I wish his leg didn’t break. It’s not the way I’d like to finish a fight. I know there’s no way Anderson Silva could ever beat me, but it still bothers me that it ended that way.
It’s a huge relief, though, to have the Anderson Silva part of my journey behind me. You put so much pressure on yourself and you believe in yourself, but you never really know what’s gonna happen on fight night. For everything to happen just the way I imagined, it’s amazing.
I wouldn’t even be excited for a third fight against Silva. After winning those two fights and having beaten Lyoto Machida to defend the middleweight title since, I need competition. And today, it’s clear to everyone what I’ve known to be true all along: Anderson Silva will never beat me.
The competitor in me instantly searches for new goals. Now, I want to clear out my weight class. I want to demolish the next guy, and the next guy and the next guy. I want to beat all the fighters people think I can’t beat. I want to retire undefeated. It just doesn’t end.
Which brings me to my current focus: I want to completely dominate Vitor Belfort on Saturday. I want to make a statement and let everybody know that I’m head and shoulders above everybody else — that I dominate this weight.
Once again, I have doubters. Vitor Belfort is very powerful and strong, and a lot of people think he poses a big problem for me. So I’ll just have to prove everybody wrong again. I wanna fight him, and I wanna beat him. And I can, and I will.
That’s my singular focus.
Watch Chris Weidman’s entire Singular Focus series here.