Single sentence summary:
Phil: The heroic All-American fights the evil testosterone abuser, defending the rights of honest sportsmen, children and puppies everywhere
David: Captain America vs. Baron Zemo.
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Chris Weidman is the undefeated middleweight champion. He's handsome and affable and a great fighter. People like him. I've written before that divorced from temporal concerns, he's had an almost perfect run: an underdog win over a famous champion in Silva; confirmation against an incredibly tough and skilled challenger in Lyoto Machida, and now he gets to mete out pugilistic justice against a villainous PED abuser. I'm not saying that this is how the fight is, mind, but merely how it will be viewed.
The problem here is that while each bout adds to something which should make for a compelling narrative, Weidman just gets injured. A lot. It's like great music with a huge gap between each phrase. Weidman, like Cain Velasquez, increasingly runs the risk of anticipation turning to bitterness.
David: Yea Weidman is definitely in a nice political place, publicity wise. He gets to be the white hat against the black hat this weekend. But if Weidman's status at all suffers, it's because of his lack of activity. Like Velasquez. It's hard to figure out his longevity despite his glorious success. I think the skepticism, to the extent that it exists, is over questions about Silva and Machida's status at this point in their careers. It's easy to claim Silva is "washed up" and that Machida is on a "decline". It allows us to make more sense of Weidman because our brains love shortcuts. But his work is cut out for him, with guys like Jacare, Rockhold, and now Belfort waiting in the wings.
Phil: Vitor Belfort's rich and varied history can't possibly be summarized in a few paragraphs, and even if we had a whole article I doubt we'd do justice to it. Some of the greatest fighters in the sport have had reigns which have encompassed two or three generational phases of MMA. Vitor must have been active through six or seven, at least. He's been training BJJ since 1989, and has been fighting as a pro since he was a teenager, fighting under rulesets which allowed eyepokes and groinstrikes, and wearing shoes to the octagon.
He's sort of insane, and has undoubtedly had his career pharmacologically enhanced, but these things have enabled his ridiculous longevity, and he likely wouldn't be here without them. He's a product of his environment. A true son of MMA, for better or worse.
David: ‘Sort of' is the kind of caveat you attach to comments like ‘sort of enjoy quinoa oatmeal'. Not the man who wheelkick knockouts men for a living while acting like Seth Brundle with testosterone and praises god for having the quality of a "young dinosaur" who is ‘sort of' insane.
Belfort is an interesting figure in the way he's an anachronism, and not an anachronism. Which makes him utterly unpredictable. I've always found Belfort to be more of a curiosity than anything. He's a black hat in blob fish clothing. My analogies are becoming increasingly incoherent. But I think the point stands.
What are the stakes?
Phil: A Vitor win announces him as the third man (alongside Couture and Penn) to win gold in two weight classes, even if his light heavyweight championship was something of a technicality. A Weidman win is widely expected, though, and I think mainly people are going to be using it as a measuring stick for the perceived benefits of TRT, even though he most likely would have beaten Vitor at his peak anyway.
David: Technicality? What kind of way is that to disrespect Belfort's violent eyelid punch? To be sure, a Belfort win really galvanizes the division. Well, more like blows it wide open like the dos Anjos win at Lightweight. I hope the TRT angle doesn't become the narrative though. Seems unfair that Belfort would be a symbol for the narrative despite the lack of transparency in general. Critics are quick to use Belfort as the whipping boy in their outrage about performance enhancing drugs, but only because he's such an oddball about it all. If he kept his mouth shut, went to church, and rolled over on his co conspirators in a money laundering plot, things might be different.
Where do they want it?
Phil: The current incarnation of Vitor is a far cry from his earlier self. He's often thought of as still being an aggressive fighter, and I think that is untrue. Old Vitor was close to an evolved form of Phil Baroni, throwing out barrages of straight punches as he charged. Ever since his fights in Affliction, he's slowed his pace and aggression, and is mostly a patient if incredibly physical counter fighter. His best punches are primarily reactive -the right hook, the straight left, and the uppercut to discourage takedowns. He does not initiate exchanges, but he will look to lock the opponent's movement, primarily with his rear-leg headkick and wheel kick, if they try to escape. So Vitor is going to try to play at a distance and reactively.
David: I want to go back to this young dinosaur self description. Yea it's a punchline, and a really strange one, but there's something amusingly fitting about it. It speaks to the whole ‘old Belfort/new Belfort' mantra. He hasn't actually evolved. At least not in the ways we think when think of ‘fighter evolution'. Rather, he's adjusted his style, and grown more comfortable defensively with how MMA has more viscerally emphasized its multi faceted roots. His more passive aggressive style has allowed him to stay relevant, as well as grow more effective. I watch Belfort fight, and I don't see a man who has evolved both in mechanics and mindset. I watch Belfort fight, and I see a man who was so above the bar when he first started that even the residue of efficiency succeeds.
Phil: Weidman is far more aggressive, as an archetypal pressure fighter. He does share a key similarity with Vitor: an innate spatial understanding of the path of strikes and how fighters respond to them. Positioning is the key to Weidman's game, in all phases. He's superlative at maneuvering opponents into the cage, and cutting off their exit with leg kicks or the arc of his left hook. His ability to lock opponents down is aided by his phenomenal reach. Similarly, in grounded positions, he doesn't open up unless he's sure of position and applicability- he held dominant positions against Munoz with eerie calm, but he lays down showers of ground and pound and jumps on opportunistic submissions if he detects an error.
David: Weidman possesses a spatial awareness that is simply on another level. He's not the fastest nor the most powerful, but all of that is functionally substituted by his understanding of the geometry of pugilism.
As painful as it was to watch, his first Silva knockout is still a thing of beauty. People kind of understate it because of Silva's stooge behavior, but it really underlines what he knows how to do. His striking is a lot like his grappling in that way; both could best be described as serpentine. His offense makes fighters begin to feel a sense of claustrophobia not just because of his activity, but how he goes about his activity, until it's too late.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: I don't think you get much of a better idea of Vitor's strengths and weaknesses than the Jon Jones fight. He came within inches of wrapping up a submission on Jones, but after he failed, his already low striking volume dropped catastrophically, and he continued to suicidally pull guard until Jones finally tapped him out. Vitor has just never responded well to sustained adversity.
David: And he never will. Like Overeem, you can never really hide from those intangibles. The best you can do is minimize the cost. However, Belfort hasn't really been in a position to reveal whether or not he can minimize the cost of not responding well to adversity. Weidman has the kind of style that should make him very uncomfortable.
Phil: Even though this is getting tiring to discuss, it has to be how well Vitor has recovered from being on TRT. His peak disclosed testosterone from the Nevada random test was insanely high, and he looks visibly diminished now that it's gone. It's entirely possible that there's a fascinating story of biochemical jiu-jitsu lurking beneath the official story, where his team has had to get him back to some kind of peak form whilst still being capable of passing surprise tests.
David: I wouldn't complain if Belfort won. I'd get to keep myself busy writing about the hypocrisy of everyone's outrage finally coming to a head, as if Vitor Belfort is who the finger needs to be pointed at. It's not that I believe his actions are justified. It's that our response to his actions deserve far more reflection than whether or not the belt is "tainted", like Belfort is some unique case in the PED culture. It's not about equivocation. "Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen did it too but where were you jesters when they popped?!?" It's about the nuance to our collective dialogue. Sadly, Belfort doesn't stand a chance, which leaves me to...
Phil: The old "if you could make someone in the lab" Roganism applies well here, and it does not favour the challenger. Weidman has shown a great chin, powerful stand-up, the ability to pressure, a fantastic top game- almost all the things which have historically given Vitor fits. Chris Weidman by submission, round 3.
David: Maybe we need a Roganism segment. Or something like LOUD NOISES. I prefer Roganisms about violence. 'Vitor Belfort is a killer! World class finishing skills! Weidman is the best MW on the planet but Belfort is a different kind of mass murderer!' Or something. Weidman beats Belfort because his ground game is downright elite in any context. Chris Weidman by Guillotine, round 2.