After 20 years of MMA in the U.S., some irrefutable truths have revealed themselves to us. There is, of course, the necessity for cross-training and conditioning, the mettle of champions and perpetual challengers, and the static ratios of talent versus hard work and how they’re each vital for success. However, 20 years of MMA has also taught us that the path of every warrior doesn’t begin when they first set foot inside the Octagon. Thanks to two decades of some form of cagefighting on television, and the public’s ever-growing appetite for seeing with their own eyes bloodshed brought about via four-ounce gloves, the sport now has its very own minor leagues. But this article isn’t about the regional shows that dot the nation, some of them shallow and some of them deep with skilled athletes, nor is it about any particular up-and-comer who may or may not have a future in the UFC. No, this article is about a reigning middleweight champion named Chris Weidman, whose rematch with legendary former champ Anderson Silva headlines UFC 168 on Saturday night.

Before he first took the Octagon by storm in March 3, 2011 at UFC on Versus 3, Weidman was a fighter on the minor league circuit, clawing his way to the top of the food chain in New Jersey’s Ring of Combat, and since I was there to witness it, this is a firsthand account of those early days. Because really, no story is complete without a beginning, and Weidman’s story – thrilling, remarkable and awe-inspiring as it is – began not in an arena in Louisville, K.Y. as 681,000 viewers watched from home, but in a casino in Atlantic City, N.J., before an audience of only 2,000.

If the Northeast MMA scene was your thing from early 2009 to late 2010, this is what you saw of Weidman and the start of his journey.

Of Hype and Men

The vast majority of spectators at a minor league event have a dog in the race. Maybe it’s their coach throwing down in the cage, or their best friend, or their brother, or their son. Regardless of who it is though, their emotional stake is what turns whatever objectivity may have existed into just so much bullshit. But sometimes – and only sometimes – the coaches themselves speak the truth, and when their tales of unlimited potential and frightening ability are corroborated by impartial outsiders, the real hype builds.

In the winter of 2009, there was talk of a grappling prodigy coming out of Matt Serra’s camp, an All-American wrestler from Hofstra who was soaking up jiu-jitsu like a sponge. If you ran into Matt backstage at a show, he wasn’t shy about extolling the virtues of his new star pupil Weidman – although at the time, Weidman was truly just one of a few star pupils in a stable that included Al Iaquinta and number one rising star Costa Philippou. Still, Matt said to keep an eye on him, that he was special, and in a world where true praise was a rare currency of great value, it was good advice.

Ring of Combat 23, Feb. 20, 2009

If anyone ever said that to watch an installment of Ring of Combat is to see a glimpse of the future, well, they wouldn’t be lying. No other organization in the Northeast can match it in terms of the number of fighters who’ve percolated up to the ranks of the UFC, which is as much a function of the organization’s longevity as it is the event’s propensity for being where the tough fights go down. Take ROC 23 for example. Near the top of the card, Team Renzo slugger Rafael Natal had to duke it out with a Gabriel Gonzaga-trained badass for the belt, while earlier on in the night Philippou and Iaquinta fought fast and furiously against their respective opponents on the main card.

But it was there, tucked into the prelim bouts, that Weidman had his MMA debut, an inauspicious affair against an overmatched Rubens Lopes of Gold Team Fighters. If the word on the street about Weidman was that he was an ace grappler in the making, all you needed to know about Lopes came from the reputation of his team, who were a Newark-based outpost of Brazilian legend Jorge “Macaco” Patino’s growing network of schools. They lived and breathed hard sparring at Gold Team Fighters (think: Chute Boxe in its heyday), so it was assumed that Weidman was in for a fight.

Only, it ended up being not so much a fight as an exercise in wrestling and jiu-jitsu dominance.

Following Weidman’s win, teammate and best bud Gian Villante took to the cage for his debut, and he only needed 35 seconds to toss his opponent around and bloody him for the win. It’s a funny thing now in retrospect, especially given the divergent directions their major league careers have taken, but because of their ROC 23 performances, Villante was actually pegged as the more promising one. Nevertheless, Weidman’s hype continued to build.

Ring of Combat 24, Apr. 17, 2009

Two months later was the next edition of ROC, and it saw future UFC fighters Natal, Charles Oliveira, Ricardo Romero and Louis Gaudinot all rack up impressive wins. Weidman was placed closer to the middle of the card this time, and perhaps as a sign of his steadily increasing fistic prowess, he was paired up with a tough journeyman fighter named Mike Stewart.

With Stewart, two things were always guaranteed: punches would be thrown, and punches would be eaten. But Weidman had been working on his kickboxing with striking guru Ray Longo, and thanks to those newfound and ever-improving skills, plus a healthy dose of raw aggression, Stewart ended up being the one dining on knuckles.

The bout was called at 2:38 of the first round, with Stewart turtled and Weidman wailing away. It was an impressive performance, and the crowd – which wasn’t shy about voicing their approval – made the victory electric.

After this event, it was some time before Weidman returned to the cage. But he wasn’t out of the picture completely. No, everyone knew his focus was now on the famed Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championship. Weidman ended up earning a berth in the competition after winning the ADCC East Coast Trials, and though he eventually succumbed in the quarterfinal brackets at the big ADCC tournament in Barcelona, Spain, the unheard of feat of someone with barely a year of jiu-jitsu getting that far was not lost on anyone. Weidman truly was a prodigy.

Ring of Combat 31, Sep. 24, 2010

One of the great things about Ring of Combat is that often the best will fight the best. Such was the case at ROC 31, which was headlined by a championship matchup between Weidman and the incumbent king Uriah Hall. At the time, Hall was widely hailed as the area’s preeminent striking badass – all that stuff people saw Hall do on TUF 17 was no surprise to those of us who’d watched him hone his craft as he came up in the Northeast fight circuit. By ROC 31, it was well established that he was someone no one dared screw with on the feet.

With his ADCC street cred, it was assumed Weidman was a tough match-up because of his grappling, and that this would be a classic striker vs. grappler contest.
It took just three minutes and six seconds for all present to realize that that assumption was erroneous.

In defeating Hall in the manner that he did, talk instantly shifted from Weidman being a potential UFC prospect to being an inevitable member of Team Octagon. Maybe – maybe – Strikeforce would scoop him up first, but at that point, no one chatting around the imaginary water cooler doubted where the Long Island native would eventually end up.

Ring of Combat 33, Dec. 3, 2010

It’s a curious thing how many beliefs that we held to be true ended up being accurate and inaccurate. We believed in Weidman the talent, believed in where his destiny lie, but we also expected his pal Villante to be the bigger star. Villante had many more fights, many more sudden and violent finishes, and the lone loss on his record was due to a fluke injury incurred while defending a takedown. Weidman and Villante were both considered top fighters of course, but when it came down to it, only one of them could be in marquee bout at ROC 33, and that honor went to Villante.

But Weidman made the most of his co-main event status. His opponent was someone no one knew, some ringer named Valdir Araujo flown in from lands afar, who boasted a black belt in jiu-jitsu and a refusal to wilt no matter what happened in the cage. The contest ended up being far and away Weidman’s toughest test ever – tougher than anyone Weidman had faced before or since (yes, including the fight Anderson Silva gave him).

Weidman took the unanimous decision, and afterwards, made a brow-wiping gesture to his corner as if to say, “Whew, that was a rough day at the office!” To secure the win, he had to endure close leglock attempts, stand-up exchanges, and getting taken down. Weidman had earned his “W” the hard way.

We all know what happened next. Exactly three month later, Weidman was debuting in the UFC, taking on Alessio Sakara and securing the first of many victories and treading boldly down the path to greatness. Maybe on Saturday a million or so people will tune in to watch him smite Silva, and it’s possible that Weidman’s reign as 185-pound king will be a long one. But no matter what happens, one thing will always be true: journeys must begin somewhere, and for Weidman, his began in a cage in Atlantic City, at a show called Ring of Combat.