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If you were looking for a bout to typify what a crossroads fight means, it would be hard to do much better than the UFC on ESPN 6 main event on Saturday in Boston. Going in, it appeared to be a showdown between two fighters moving in opposite directions. The undefeated Dominick Reyes had won five straight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and was moving towards a light heavyweight title shot by progressively taking on stiffer competition.
Chris Weidman, on the other hand, appeared to be fading. A series of losses to top middleweights had dropped him out of contention at 185 pounds and led him to take the risk of moving up 20 pounds. The former middleweight champion had his doubters and was a bigger underdog against Reyes than he was against any opponent in his career not named Anderson Silva. Weidman, 35, would be taking on an opponent the same age he was when he dethroned Silva.
Of course, just because a fight is perceived to be a crossroads fight going in doesn’t mean that’s how it will be perceived after it is over. Randy Couture made a career out of defeating rising stars thought to be taking his place. Weidman was following the playbook of veteran fighters like Urijah Faber and Kenny Florian, who switched weight classes and earned title shots quickly based on their success in new divisions. Weidman was openly talking of the UFC light heavyweight title, and he might not have been far away if he won.
Instead, Reyes-Weidman only seemed to affirm what we’ve seen recently from each competitor. If anything, Reyes was even sharper than he had been in recent bouts, as his most impressive performance came against the biggest name opponent of his career. Reyes isn’t the most physically imposing fighter, nor does he attract attention with a larger-than-life personality. Rather, he just keeps winning, and the Weidman bout was a key moment in his rise.
On the flipside, another disappointing setback for a proud competitor in Weidman seemed to affirm the concerns many had about his recent performances. He didn’t react well at all to getting hit, a serious problem for any fighter. In the recent “30 for 30” documentary focusing on his rivalry with Tito Ortiz, Liddell lamented his retirement because he was performing well in losses before getting knocked out. That was true; Liddell was winning most of the fights in which he was knocked out. However, he was still getting knocked out pretty much every time out.
Weidman has now been knocked out in five of his last six fights. That never happened to Liddell, nor did it happen to the likes of Andrei Arlovski or Alistair Overeem, either. It’s exceedingly rare for a fighter of Weidman’s caliber to get knocked out so many times in such rapid succession. The loss to Reyes may be remembered as the point when fans hoping for a resurgence came to accept Weidman reached a different stage of his career. Weidman was an accomplished champion, but MMA isn’t kind to great champions as they enter the later stages of their careers.
Beyond simply a crossroads for two men, the Weidman-Reyes fight was a crossroads for a couple of divisions. It’s not simply that Weidman is no longer champion; the middleweight division over which he ruled has largely vanished. Top rivals like Silva, Vitor Belfort, Yoel Romero and Lyoto Machida have all reached their 40s. Ronaldo Souza will join them shortly. Luke Rockhold seems ambivalent about continuing to fight.
In their place, a new middleweight division has emerged behind the likes of Israel Adesanya, Robert Whittaker and Paulo Henrique Costa. When Weidman captured the UFC middleweight title, Adesanya and Costa had two professional MMA fights apiece, while Whittaker hadn’t yet competed at middleweight. As Weidman left the middleweight division, he left behind a division that would have been hardly recognizable to him just a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Reyes represents a UFC light heavyweight division that’s finally showing some life. After Jon Jones methodically cleaned out the weight class, a new generation of potential threats never really emerged. Jones wasn’t available to fight all that often, but if he had managed to keep a busy schedule, it’s not entirely clear who he would have fought. The division still hasn’t completely revitalized itself, but it’s getting better.
Thiago Santos gave Jones one of the most competitive fights of the champion’s career and did so despite tearing seemingly every other ligament in the lower half of his body. Santos might be able to do better still once his knees are fully healed. There’s also the emerging Johnny Walker, whose spectacular style has turned heads since he joined the UFC. If he can defeat Corey Anderson at UFC 244, he could find himself in the Octagon against Jones in the not-too-distant future.
That then leaves Reyes, who may be next in line after his win over Weidman. As a door may have closed for Weidman and a previous era for UFC middleweights, a door opened for Reyes and a new generation of light heavyweights. Of course, there’s still someone guarding that door. Until someone beats Jones, that 205-pound transition won’t be complete. That’s a crossroads that might still take some time to come.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.