The principal reason that the MMA community worked so hard to legalize the sport in New York was financial. New York City is the biggest media market in the country and there was plenty of money to be made running events in the Empire State.
A less prominent reason that MMA in New York made so much sense was the preponderance of fighters who live and train in the area. Saturday night on a Fox card, UFC demonstrated that depth of talent with their first card in Long Island filled from top to bottom with New York area fighters.
At the top of the bill was Chris Weidman, the proud former UFC middleweight champion on a three fight losing streak. The stakes were sky high for Weidman. A fourth straight loss, and one coming while fighting for the first time in his native Long Island, would be devastating to his career. At 33-years-old, many have asked whether Weidman is no longer one of the best middleweights in the world. Opposing him was Kelvin Gastelum, a dangerous fighter who entered the bout with a 13-2 (1 NC) record.
Early on, it looked like it might be another rough night for Weidman. Gastelum caught Weidman with a left hand late in the first round and dropped Weidman to the canvas. Weidman may have been saved by the bell as he was in big trouble and eating punches as the round came to a close. A fourth straight TKO loss seemed a reality possibility, but Weidman persevered.
In the second round, Weidman got a takedown and controlled Gastelum on the ground while landing a series of elbows. In the third round, Weidman landed some significant punches on the feet and then got another takedown. Weidman slickly locked in an arm triangle choke and forced Gastelum to submit at 3:45 of the third round.
The local crowd came unglued for Weidman’s win, literally jumping up and down in celebration. The Weidman family hit the Octagon with Weidman’s father parading around the Octagon with his son. Two years of pent up frustration gave way to joy as Weidman, his family and his fans celebrated one of the most satisfying wins of his career.
“Keep doubting me,” Weidman proclaimed after the bout. “I know Long Island hasn’t been doubting me. They’ve got my back. But these other people around the world, keep doubting me. I dare you.”
It remains to be seen whether Weidman will be able to work his way back up to the middleweight title that he once held. However, on one memorable evening, Weidman accomplished all he could have asked for.
In other action on the card:
• Darren Elkins secured a close split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) over Dennis Bermudez. Bermudez appeared to land the better shots throughout but Elkins instigated clinches more often and got Bermudez’s back for an extended period in the first round. The win was Elkins’ fifth straight although he still has holes in his game that generally keep him from being considered one of the best in his division.
• In a gritty performance, Patrick Cummins survived early danger against Gian Villante and rebounded for a split decision victory (29-28, 28-29, 29-28). Villante hurt Cummins with punches in the first round and Cummins suffered a bad cut from an accidental head butt to make matters worse. However, Cummins turned it around and put on a better performance in the second and third rounds. That turned out to narrowly be enough on the judges’ scorecards.
• Jimmie Rivera wants his name in the bantamweight title mix and after his fifth straight UFC win it’s hard to argue with the man. Rivera landed some heavy shots on the dangerous striker Thomas Almeida and mixed in some takedowns as well. Rivera picked up the unanimous decision win (29-28, 30-26, 30-27) to improve to 21-1 while Almeida dropped to 21-2.
• In an all action slugfest, Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos picked up an unpopular split decision win over New Yorker Lyman Good (30-27, 28-29, 30-27). Good moved forward throughout the fight but Dos Santos countered effectively and that was the difference for the judges. Both men landed plenty of major blows and the fight easily could have gone either way.
• Former Alabama football star Eryk Anders’ UFC debut couldn’t have gone much better. Anders recorded the game high in tackles when Alabama won the BCS championship in 2009 and he has fought professionally since 2015. Fighting for the first time on the sport’s biggest stage, Anders was calm and poised in picking apart tough veteran Rafael Natal. Anders hurt Natal repeatedly before shutting the lights out with a punch at 2:54 of the first round.
• Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira continued his welterweight surge with a brutal walk off knockout of Ryan LaFlare in front of LaFlare’s hometown crowd. LaFlare used his wrestling to win the first round but in the second Oliveira got to work on his feet. As LaFlare was coming in, Oliveira knocked him out with a vicious uppercut. Undefeated in his last five fights, Oliveira is emerging as a force at 170.
• Prior to Saturday night, Chase Sherman had gotten the knockout in every one of his wins. That streak ended against the tough Damian Grabowski, who withstood a lot of heavy blows and made it to the end. Sherman was still the clear cut winner and the judges gave him the fight unanimously (30-26, 30-27, 30-27).
• It wasn’t thrilling to watch, but Jeremy Kennedy’s wrestling was too much for Kyle Bochniak and Kennedy picked up the unanimous decision win (30-27, 30-27, 29-28). Kennedy talked after the fight of earning a following in his native Canada. He is unbeaten at 11-0 but will need to show more than he did Saturday night to capture the public imagination.
• Brian “Boom” Kelleher had a dream UFC debut as the journeyman fighter submitted longtime contender Iuri Alcantara in less than two minutes and announced his desire for big fights. Kelleher’s second UFC fight was more of a nightmare as Marlon Vera caught Kelleher in an armbar and forced the submission in just 2:18 of the first round. The Ecuadorian Vera has now won three straight in the UFC.
• Junior Albini doesn’t have an intimidating look or presence, but he is dangerous inside the cage. Fighting in the UFC for the first time, Albini secured his 10th straight win with a TKO over Timothy Johnson. Johnson had never been knocked out before but Albini caught him with punches and the fight was called off at 2:51 of the first round.
• Shane Burgos improved to a perfect 10-0 with a dominant victory over Godofredo Pepey. Burgos punished Pepey with his striking, knocking Pepey down repeatedly and refusing to go to the ground with his Brazilian foe. The judges scored the contest 30-26, 30-26 and a baffling 29-28 for Burgos.
• Long Island native Chris Wade kicked off the event with an entertaining unanimous decision victory (29-28, 29-28, 30-27) over local New Jersey rival Frankie Perez. Both fighters had their supporters and they engaged in a back-and-forth contest that was competitive throughout.