LAS VEGAS — Chris Weidman settled into his chair. Dozens of media members gathered around him. A 30-pound gold belt sat just to his left.
It has been a year since Weidman became UFC middleweight champion by beating the greatest MMA fighter of all time Anderson Silva. And then he beat him again in December.
Weidman’s accomplishments thus far in the sport have been nothing short of extraordinary. What he did for Isaiah Bird, though, trumps it all, even if Weidman were to successfully defend his title against Lyoto Machida here at Mandalay Bay on Saturday night at UFC 175.
Bird is a 6-year-old wrestler who is from Weidman’s area in Long Island, N.Y. He also happened to have been born without legs. Before a charity event Weidman hosted at his gym in May, Bird and his mother were living in a homeless shelter and he had no wheelchair. The fundraiser accrued almost $15,000 and someone donated a wheelchair. The money will go into a trust for Bird and his mother is working on getting an apartment.
"He’s always been the man that he is," Bird’s coach Miguel Rodriguez said of Weidman. "Nothing has changed. He’s always been a gentleman — humble, caring, family man."
Isaiah Bird gets ready to grapple with former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
Bird, despite his disability, is an excellent wrestler. He placed third in his age group an weight class at the New York Kid Wrestling Championships in March and finished sixth in a national tournament in New Jersey called "War at the Shore," according to Newsday.
Weidman, 30, a former All-American wrestler at Hofstra University, saw a story about Bird on Facebook in the spring and immediately jumped at the chance to help him. The UFC has flown Bird out to Vegas for UFC 175 as a VIP guest of president Dana White. When asked about Bird, Weidman is visibly moved — in his heart, he feels like Bird has done way more for him than vice versa.
"He’s 6 years old and he’s inspiring people at 6," Weidman said. "I can’t imagine what he has in his future to do. I’m just blessed to be a part of his life. I’m happy that my status could help him and his family a lot."
Bird was at UFC media day Thursday, hanging out with fighters and showing off some of his wrestling moves. UFC bantamweight star Dominick Cruz had an impromptu grappling session in the middle of a Mandalay Bay ballroom. Bird, of course, won by tapout.
Bird also learned how to swim Wednesday in one of the resort’s pools. In nearly four hours, he refused to quit until he learned how to do it. That, Bird said, has been the highlight of his trip so far.
"From when we arrived to every minute being here has been an unbelievable experience," Rodriguez said.
People look at him and they feel bad for him. He doesn’t feel bad for himself. He thinks he’s a normal, regular kid. And he is.
Weidman, undefeated at 11-0, said Bird’s story helps keep things in perspective. Bird, Rodriguez said, acts like a regular kid, because he knows he is one. He has the drive to do what everyone else does and thus far he has achieved it in his young life.
"People look at him and they feel bad for him," Weidman said. "He doesn’t feel bad for himself. He thinks he’s a normal, regular kid. And he is. It’s inspiring to see something like that. People make excuses and they feel bad for themselves with little things. Then you look at something like that."
Bird is obviously picking Weidman, his favorite fighter, to beat Machida on Saturday night. He predicts a knockout, because Weidman, as Bird puts it, "punches people in the face." He’s also given selflessly to a boy and family that he didn’t know up until just a few months ago.
"He’s great," Bird said of one of his heroes. "He’s fun. He’s thankful. He’s humble."
Weidman is one of the best fighters on the planet and a UFC star. He conquered Silva’s seven-year winning streak last July. Those things are secondary to who he has proven to be as a person. Just ask Rodriguez, who has known Weidman since the two were high school wrestlers on Long Island.
"When he reached out, it was big," Rodriguez said. "But it was not something new coming from him. He has not changed at all."