For Dominick Reyes, Chris Weidman goes from gold standard to gold obstacle

Dominick Reyes isn’t the type to hide his enthusiasm about the excitement swirling around him.

Reyes landed in Boston earlier this week and arrived in a sports-crazy city where he’ll soon be headlining a major MMA event. The posters have his face on them, the commercials tell his story, the production will focus on whether he has the goods to take the next step up the UFC light heavyweight ladder on the road to a potential title fight with Jon Jones. He’s not just not on the championship radar; he may only be one well-placed strike away.

“It’s super cool,” he told MMA Fighting. “It’s surreal. It’s dream-come-true type stuff. I’m just happy and excited and balanced and at peace.”

Reyes’ peace among the chaos comes from preparation. A longtime competitive athlete, Reyes has long put emphasis on film study, a trait he picked up during his football days at Stony Brook University, where he played as a safety and still ranks among the top-10 in career tackles.

This study has paid dividends before. In June 2017, he faced Jordan Powell at LFA 13. While scouring Powell’s fight videos on Youtube, Reyes noticed Powell dropped his hands and shook his head after taking a good strike, intent on showing his opponent and the world that he was just fine. To prepare for the moment, Reyes drilled a head kick keying off the movement.

When the two squared off, Reyes pursued Powell with a flurry along the cage line. He grazed Powell with a right cross, and just as he predicted, Powell dropped his hands and shook his head. Or, he started to shake his head. Before he could finish, Reyes fired off a left head kick, knocking Powell face-first to the canvas, unconscious. It took just 53 seconds. The video quickly went viral, and within days, Reyes was signed to a UFC contract.

His rise up the UFC rankings has been swift. His debut came just over two years ago, and here he stands No. 4 in the division, with only three men that Jones has already defeated between him and a title shot. Still, it’s none of those men that Reyes will face at UFC on ESPN 6, instead matching up with former middleweight champion Chris Weidman.

A few years ago, when Reyes was still grinding his way through the regional scene, Weidman was the kind of guy that Reyes wanted to emulate. In fact, at the start of 2015, Reyes bought a journal and listed his goals for the year. Among the career goals he wrote in black ink was this: “Chris Weidman-like year.”

“I wanted to have a breakout year like the year he had when he beat Anderson Silva,” he said. “He came out of nowhere, really. And I saw a lot of myself in Chris. The way he handled himself, the way he did things. And I said, ‘I need to have a big year like that.’ For me, that Chris Weidman was the standard I was trying to live up to.”

Just a few years later, Reyes feels ready to surpass his old measuring stick. Moreover, the buildup toward the fight has gone just a bit past collegial expectations, with the pair exchanging trash talk on social media.

Reyes says it’s a bit surreal to be facing Weidman, pointing out that at the time Weidman was the champion, he had barely begun training and was just another guy at the bar running his mouth, telling his friends he could beat up the champ. These days though, he’s sure he was right.

Remember, he is a student of the game. Since signing for this bout, he has examined Weidman very closely, watched every second of the four losses he’s had in his last five bouts. Reyes says there are specific things he sees in film, but not anything he wants to give away right now. He’ll wait to exploit those during the fight.

“He’s had a tough time, man,” he said. “I just think that he’s aging a little bit here. He’s relied on his athleticism a lot. He’s a great wrestler but his athleticism got him through a lot. He had a good chin early in his career. Now, he’s older. He’s 35, and he’s lost a step. Things that used to work aren’t working, and it’s just not going well for him.”

If you listen to Weidman though, you’d never know it. Weidman has used a considerable amount of his recent bandwidth on Jones, who he has long said he is coming for.

Nonsense, Reyes says. He says it is a callback to Weidman’s early days, when he predicted he would go out and beat Anderson Silva not once but twice.

“He’s trying to repeat history,” Reyes said. “Everyone’s doubting him and he wants to do it and then say, ‘I told you.’ I know he’s doing. But I think he’s trying to talk himself into it a little bit.”

To Reyes, the confidence is not quite artificial, but it’s at least wavering. Either way, Weidman is in trouble.

Reyes knows adversity, he reminds you. In his last fight against Volkan Oezdemir, he was tied after two rounds, capturing the final round on all three judges’ scorecards to pull out a tight win. It was a gut-check that he says was “far more valuable than a first-round knockout.” He got to suffer through pain, fight fatigue, dig deep and find out he was up to the task.

Now, he’s right where he needs to be, where he should be, with only his past gold standard between him and going for the gold.

“I want to win this emphatically,” he said. “This is a performance-based industry. If I go out and put on a great performance against a guy like Chris, that title fight is inevitable.”

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