There may be an empty seat in the Chris Weidman cheering section this Saturday in Jacksonville when the former middleweight champion faces Uriah Hall at UFC 261, but know that “The All-American” will feel the presence of one of his biggest fans, his late father-in-law Vincent Pecora.
“We all miss him,” said Weidman of Pecora, who passed away on February 17, a few days after being hit by a car in Long Island, New York. “He was a great guy, and this is gonna be the first time he's not at my fight. He was at every one of my fights. We get four tickets, he always had one of my tickets, sitting next to my wife, trying to keep her calm.”
Weidman met his future wife, Marivi, on the same day he met Pecora. He wasn’t picking her up for a date; instead, it was Pecora doing the driving as he brought a seventh-grade Weidman to his first wrestling camp.
“To be honest, the majority of the wrestling tournaments and camps, anything I went to, was because of him - he pushed us and he would drive us,” he said. “My parents were working, and without a guy like him, I wouldn't have been able to accomplish what I accomplished at all as far as wrestling. He exposed me to things that I just wouldn't have had the opportunity to be exposed to. So I'm forever grateful for him.”
A few years later, Weidman, now a senior in high school, began dating Marivi, a sophomore. Pecora approved, not a given when dealing with a no nonsense a Vietnam vet with three tours under his belt.
“He was a scary guy to a lot of other people,” Weidman laughs. “He was a Vietnam vet and he was a hothead when he was younger, but he was always super awesome with me because he was a wrestling guy and his daughter was now dating a wrestler that he approved of, and he was as happy as could be that she was with me.”
And while Pecora now had a deeply personal reason to stay attached to wrestling, and later mixed martial arts, he remained as invested in local wresters and fighters as he did the kid who would become his son-in-law.
“He loved coming to our gym and watching the guys spar,” said Weidman. “He was retired, and the best part of his day was coming to LAW-MMA and walking in there. Everybody treated him with respect, they loved for him to be there and he loved everybody. He was showing up to fights for the amateurs that no one's ever heard of. He was there, driving wherever they were gonna be fighting to support them. As involved as he was with the wrestling, he ended up becoming involved with mixed martial arts once I started fighting. He was everybody's biggest fan.”
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That was especially true when it came to his kids and grandkids, and while Weidman said there was no one as old school as Pecora when it came to toughness, as he got older, there was a change that only the family saw.
“He was the epitome of an old school guy,” said Weidman. “He was all about his word. If you told him that you were gonna be at his house at 9am, he expected you to be there, because if he told you he was gonna do something, he was gonna do it. He was a man of his word, and he expected you to be a man of your word. That's the way he grew up, and you don't really see that anymore. And if I had a problem with somebody, he had my back and he was gonna handle the problem for me. I didn't have to deal with a thing. He was as loyal as it got. If someone messed with me, good luck with him. You didn't want to mess with him.
“He was always very supportive, and it was amazing to watch him progress over his life, to go from being this tough, tough Vietnam vet and then soften up to the grandpa that he became,” he continues. “He was always telling us how much he loved us and appreciated us, and we loved him.”
It’s always great to be on the mats with @wonderboymma and @raythompson @upstate_karate— Chris Weidman (@chrisweidman) April 14, 2021
I loved having @raylongomma in town! He's the best, and I would be nowhere in this game without his coaching and friendship!
Thank you for the great work!
Ten days out till @ufc 261. pic.twitter.com/grunkj3qkk
Throughout Weidman’s rise from college wrestling star to UFC middleweight champion, Pecora was there, telling Marivi, “You gotta make sure he's focusing on this fight.”
“I miss that,” said Weidman, who didn’t have the luxury to mourn while in the middle of training camp. There was a brief trip to New York for the wake and funeral, but then it was right back to the family’s new home in South Carolina to keep the prep for this weekend’s fight going.
“It was definitely hard,” said Weidman. “Training wasn't great that week and trying to eat healthy wasn't too great, but it motivated me to get back into training. He wanted me to always be focused and be prepared for a fight. He knew my capabilities and he saw me in the gym and he wanted me to train my ass off and do everything I need to do to focus on the fight.”
See, Pecora hasn’t left the heart of anyone who had the good fortune to know him, and it’s why the family has set up the Vincent J Pecora Jr Memorial Wrestling Scholarship (https://www.gofundme.com/f/vincent-pecora-jr-memorial-wrestling-scholarship) in honor of “Pops,” so that the wrestlers he always supported will continue to get that support, albeit without him being there in the bleachers.
“A wrestler that we decide who shows certain characteristics and has a good season, they're gonna get that award to help them in college,” said Weidman. “He would be blown away that his name is associated with something that is helping out wrestlers because that's what he really cared about in his life - helping out wrestlers. That was his number one thing that he loved, and I know how much he’d appreciate that.”
Pecora would also appreciate that his son-in-law is listening to him and staying focused for his meeting with Hall, who he defeated back in 2010. That’s a long time between fights, but Weidman still sees things his opponent does that he can capitalize on this weekend.
“He does have some similar habits that got him in trouble in the first fight,” said Weidman of Hall. “At that time, I was just more of a wrestler and jiu-jitsu guy, but I was gonna swing hard on my feet, kind of similar to now, but I do feel like I got way better on the feet since then and got better on the ground as well, and smarter with experience in the cage. But he’s got some old habits that are hard to break. And I think my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu are on a level way too high for him.”
The rematch is an important one for the 36-year-old, who snapped a two-fight losing streak last August with a hard-fought win over Omari Akhmedov. It wasn’t an easy fight for Weidman for a number of reasons, but it was a needed victory that he gutted out, and sometimes, getting your hand raised by any means necessary is all you need.
“I needed that,” he admits. “If I had to pick a matchup that's tough for me, it's an Akhmedov type character: a strong wrestler and grappler who's hard to manhandle, and a grinder. And on the feet, he's dangerous. And on top of it, nobody really knows who he is. I won that fight and there's not too many people talking about it. Some people still think I lost my last fight and don't even know I had that fight because it wasn't on a huge fight card against a big name. But I got the job done. It really came down to heart in that third round and I was able to push through and get it. But man, I was so tired in that fight. That led me to work super hard for this fight camp and get in crazy shape because I don't want to feel like that again. I was tired for about 45 minutes after that fight. I can't remember the last time I was that tired. It wasn't a pretty win, but I got it done against a tough guy. Sometimes just getting your hand raised in situations like that is the most important thing.”
Now he moves forward. Ranked 11th in the division he once ruled, Weidman is chasing another shot at the belt, and as he does so, he’s in a different place – literally and figuratively – than he was the first time he struck gold by knocking out Anderson Silva in 2013. In fact, he’s not shy about admitting that his mindset hasn’t been this focused since his rematch with “The Spider” five months after their first bout.
Morning drills, rolls and wall work with these monsters!— Chris Weidman (@chrisweidman) April 15, 2021
Top-notch partners and the most passionate coaches. So grateful to have had @raylongomma in town from New York and @gymo for a great camp so far.
#UFC261 #fighters #ufc #theallamerican #fightcamp pic.twitter.com/dRg6ZrpDx4
“I put a lot into this fight camp, I've sacrificed a lot, and I haven't taken any breaks,” he said. “I haven't been this guy in a long, long, long time. Since the second Anderson Silva fight, because I think, at that point, I really started looking to cut corners on things. You start winning a lot, I'm undefeated, and I started cutting corners. You think you can do with less and less and that's not really the answer. I don't think I've been this consistent since then.”
It's an understandable dilemma. Weidman reached the top of the sport in ten fights, beating a legend in the process. After doing it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke, what was next for the New Yorker? He didn’t know.
“I didn't really have goals set anymore after I won the championship,” he said. “What's my goal now? I'm world champion. I beat Anderson Silva, I said I'm gonna do it a second time, I did it, and now I guess I gotta see how long I can hold on to this. It just wasn't the same motivation. I was kind of just going through the motions, and I didn't want to pull out of fights (due to injuries), so I guess I'm gonna train less, and that catches up to you. I feel like that's the reason I started having some losses.”
After the rematch win over Silva, Weidman successfully defended his crown twice more against Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort before losing it to Luke Rockhold. That defeat kicked off a 1-5 stretch filled with injuries, near-wins that turned into losses, and an ill-fated visit to 205 pounds. But when he and his family moved to South Carolina and he then defeated Akhmedov, the skies got brighter for his career.
“Now, along with the move and a change of scenery, I'm putting myself in some uncomfortable situations with new training partners and being surrounded by new coaches and different eyes, it's really allowed me to blossom and to go back to my old roots as far as being consistent in going to the gym, and not just for the training camps,” he said. “I did everything right and I feel great, and I can see all the hard work is paying off as far as my cardio and the way I'm seeing things. I'm really excited for this fight and I just want it to pay off the way I think it can.”
He sounds excited, even while getting put through the ringer by coaches and training partners at Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson’s gym, at Gym-O in North Carolina, and even by light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith and the longtime man in his corner, Ray Longo.
“Before, I was trying to talk myself into it, being excited,” Weidman laughs. “But now I really am. I could usually care less about where I'm fighting, but I'm excited about everything with this fight. There are more eyeballs on it, I just know how good I feel, and this sport is crazy - anything can happen - but I have another run in this thing. I know I do.”
“Pops” knew Weidman had another run in him, too. Now it’s up to the kid to do the work and make a statement.
“Uriah Hall is kind of like Israel Adesanya, an athletic striker, so he's similar to the champ in some ways, and I'd like to just put it on him and let people know that stylistically, the champion in our weight class is a guy I could put it on as well,” said Weidman. “It may not be the fight right after this fight, it might be another fight or so, and I know I've got work to do, but I'm in a good spot to prove it.”
For more information on the Vincent J Pecora Jr Memorial Wrestling Scholarship, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/vincent-pecora-jr-memorial-wrestling-scholarship