It was barely a month after Chris Weidman said he’d experienced “the most horrific pain you can imagine,” that the one-time UFC middleweight champion was thinking of returning to the Octagon.
Just seconds into an April 24, 2021, bout against Uriah Hall in Jacksonville, Florida, Weidman threw a routine calf kick that thousands of fighters had thrown tens of thousands of times, in practice and in fights, without incident.
Weidman wasn’t so lucky.
The force of the kick snapped the tibia and fibula in his right leg. One of his bones broke through the skin and his foot was left dangling.
“The pain, you can’t even imagine,” Weidman told Yahoo Sports. “What I’ve been through, I don’t think anybody’s ever gone through this. I’m the only one where the bone’s gone through the skin like that. When that happens, it goes through the muscles, goes through the nerves and affects a lot of things that most people wouldn’t even think about.”
He endured four surgeries and an infection, and Saturday, almost miraculously, he’ll return to competition when he faces Brad Tavares in the main preliminary bout of UFC 292 at TD Garden in Boston.
It wasn’t long after his injury, one of the most gruesome in recent sports history, that Weidman seriously began to plot his return. But in the early days after the injury, he was concerned with more everyday issues.
“In the beginning, I was just worried that I wasn’t going to be able to play with my kids,” Weidman said. “I was thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to do the everyday activities we take for granted. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to play football with the kids or wrestle around with them. Things like that were just in my head. At first, I wasn’t really thinking about fighting.”
He’ll make the familiar walk to the Octagon on Saturday, exactly 849 days after the worst night of his professional life. That night, he worried if he’d be able to walk normally again. Fighting the toughest 185-pounders in the world was the farthest thing from his mind.
Including the four surgeries he underwent to repair the injuries he suffered against Hall, Weidman has undergone an astounding 23 surgeries in his life.
Only days after he’d returned to his home in South Carolina from Jacksonville, Florida, Weidman was sitting on a couch in his home, musing about his future, recording the aftermath of his return home for a video he posted to YouTube. Those surgeries — mostly the last four — weighed heavily on his mind.
“Am I going to have the motivation and the passion to push through this long process again?” Weidman said in the video. “It’s kind of scary, because I don’t know.”
He spoke of his friends and his training partners and of his uncertain future. He expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support he’d received. He leaned back, his right arm behind his head, and tears welled up in his eyes. He closed his eyes and spoke in measured tones.
It was clear that he wanted to be able to fight again, but after suffering one of the worst injuries in UFC history and having a rod implanted into his leg, there were more questions than answers. The pain was still great.
“I really want to turn this thing into such a big positive that it could help so many people in their everyday lives,” Weidman said on the video. I feel like I’ve been so blessed by God, physically and mentally, with everything I’ve been able to overcome in my life. I just don’t want this to be the end.”
Weidman’s recovery gave him a glimpse at a side of life he wasn’t ready for: Retirement. He’d been struggling in his MMA career before his injuries. He’d dropped five of his prior seven going into the Hall fight and wasn’t his usual dominant self.
But he’d won his bout against Omari Akhmedov on Aug. 8, 2020, and went into the Hall fight convinced his career was about to change for the better.
“I went into that fight and my thing was, win that one impressively, fight another big-name guy, get myself into a position where I could get another crack at the title and then make a defense,” Weidman told Yahoo Sports. “That’s sort of what was in my head. I’m so much better now than I was even though, and I felt good about where I was [heading into] the Hall fight. After winning the title again and making another defense, maybe then it would have been time to retire.”
The injury changed things. He got an unexpected and highly beneficial assist in his recovery from his long-time rival, former middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Silva suffered a similar leg injury, ironically in a bout with Weidman, on Dec. 28, 2013.
Not long after he was settled at home, Silva reached out.
“He was actually awesome,” Weidman said of Silva. “Me and him had that competitive relationship with each other. I didn’t expect to become good friends with him. I always respected him, but fighting each other for the title a couple of times, there was some bad blood between us. A little bit. We both wanted something that only one of us could have.
“After I was injured, we got in touch with each other and he was really helpful. I was in a bad place, especially at the beginning, and like I said, I was worried if I’d be able to play with my kids. But he assured me I’d be back better than ever and that it’s all mental. He was a massive help.”
When he finally returned to training, he knew he’d have to give and receive a kick before he could fully commit to fighting.
He was, he conceded, tentative at first, but fighters are cut differently than the average human and he knew he couldn’t put it off forever.
“I had to ask guys to kick my leg a little bit,” Weidman said. “I went southpaw so it was my back leg. I took a kick and then I’d ask, ‘Kick it a little harder. OK, kick it a little harder. Kick it a little harder,’ and then I got to the point I realized how hard I was being kicked and that I’d be all right. As I’ve progressed, it feels great. It feels like I have a titanium rod in there now.”
He wasn’t given an easy test by any means in his comeback. Tavares is a solid fighter and is a quality professional.
That’s the way Weidman wants it because he has big plans.
“You know, this is the part of the story that is still to come, but I really believe this is leading me down a path where I’ll shock the world again,” he said. “I’m just so, so much better now than I was before I was hurt and I’m really motivated to write the perfect ending to this story. Believe me, I will be a world champion again and I will shock the world. Bet on that.”
By simply returning to fight an elite opponent, Weidman has already shocked the world. Only time will tell what other magic he has in store.