Inside Chris Weidman's return from a near career-ending injury

Trailer: 'Chris Weidman: The Return' (0:28)

Follow the story of Chris Weidman's return to the octagon following a catastrophic leg injury. (0:28)

Editor's note: Watch Stephania Bell's documentary on Chris Weidman's recovery on ESPN+.

Chris Weidman lay face down in the Octagon, writhing in pain and trying to understand the severity of his injury. The former UFC middleweight champion was just 17 seconds into his fight against Uriah Hall at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 24, 2021, when a single right leg kick silenced the sold-out arena.

Weidman's leg snapped as it struck Hall's shin. He suffered a compound fracture of his two lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula, and the latter bone had punctured the skin through his calf, rendering his injury even more serious. Ringside physicians rushed to stabilize his leg as he was immediately transported to the hospital.

Seeing him so severely injured was a devastating shock to all watching, but it was an immediate dagger to the heart of the three women closest to him. His mother, Mary, and wife, Marivi, were spectators in the arena and could not tell exactly what had happened. They just knew they needed to get to Chris. Meanwhile, his sister Colleen, watching from home, told ESPN she was curled up on the floor, sick over what was happening.

"The only time I did not watch his fight with my eyes, praying over every move, he got injured," Colleen said. "That is when he got his legs snapped, and I know it's not my fault, but I do feel a little responsible, because I had a bad feeling about that fight."

As she raced to get to her husband, Marivi, who never watches his fights even though she is always present in the arena, glanced up at a television in the concourse and saw from the replays that he had broken his right leg.

She did her best to remain calm despite the emotional reactions of everyone around her. After all, this situation isn't unfamiliar to the Weidman family. She remembered Dec. 28, 2013, when Anderson Silva sustained a broken leg in a fight against Weidman.

"How did that happen again?" Marivi asked herself. Then, she started processing the situation. "OK, this is a broken bone. I don't know if I feel better or worse about it, but I need to get to him."

She rode to the hospital in the ambulance with Weidman and his parents following close behind.

As Weidman was being pulled out of the ambulance at the emergency room, Mary was right there to greet him.

"I haven't heard him call me mommy in years and years," she said. "He's like, 'Mommy.' And I just burst into tears and said I love you. And then they took him in."

Weidman underwent surgery in which doctors cleaned and treated the wound to prevent infection and repaired his tibial fracture by inserting a rod down the tibial shaft to stabilize it. As is often the case, the fibula was left to heal on its own. Weidman was sent home to Fort Mill, South Carolina, shortly afterward to recover.

Once there, Mary came down from Long Island to help care for Weidman, while Marivi carried forth in making sure their children's routine remained as normal as possible.

"For us, the kids were in school, so life had to continue," Marivi said. "[Weidman] was missing now. He was the head coach for multiple kids' activities for our sons. So now they had to find replacements for that."

And while Marivi fulfilled the role of both parents during Weidman's recovery, Mary reprised her maternal role.

"Mommy was there to help. And that was good, you know, because he was having like no feeling in his leg. Nerves were damaged with the brutal injury," Mary said. "So, he just needed somebody to, you know, keep touching his leg or rubbing his leg. Because he just wanted to feel something, you know? I just took care of him. It was a gift."

Weidman had multiple surgeries, a wound infection and a long and difficult rehabilitation process, but throughout the process it was clear he was planning to return to fight.

Mary, Marivi and Colleen all supported him in his decision.

"Mentally I knew he was ready to return the day after he broke his leg," Marivi said. "I knew that that's not the way he was going to end it. There was no way he was going to let that be the way he walks out of the Octagon. And he didn't walk out, so he's going to walk out."

"He's not a person who gives up. He will just keep going and going and going," said Mary. "I just worry about him. I really don't want him to hurt anything else."

Colleen believes her brother's path to success in life has always been through obstacles.

"He gets dropped down, all these obstacles come in his way and he leaves the obstacles frustrated because he just is not gonna stop rising back up," she said. "He's such a fighter. You know he's not done yet and no one could really tell him when he's done. I know people want to say, 'Well, he needs to retire.' And no one can tell him that. That's between him and God, you know? He's going for it. Good for him. I'm gonna support whatever choice he has and be right there praying for him."

Certain words come to mind when describing Weidman's two-plus-year journey back to the Octagon:

Resiliency. Perseverance. Strength.

Faith. Belief. Determination.

These words were spoken again and again by people from both inside and outside Weidman's inner circle as they sought to describe what it has taken for him to return to the setting from which he last exited on a stretcher. The ability to come back from an injury that would have ended many a fight career, the will to push himself through multiple surgeries and infection and the belief that he could succeed are all admirable traits ... but where do these qualities emanate from?

While Weidman has had his share of mentors, coaches and trainers along the way, perhaps his singular ability to rise up against adversity again and again is due, in large part, to the influence of three women in his life: Mary, Colleen and Marivi.

While his father, Charlie, got him into wrestling -- for the character building -- his mom was not about to sit silently by at his matches. A self-described "yeller," Mary said she had to task herself with filming Weidman's matches to keep from interfering.

"Wrestling is like you're watching your son turn into a pretzel," Mary said, "and your instinct is, 'Let me go break that up.'"

Her quiet voice and sweet demeanor belie a fierce protective instinct that, at times, when Weidman was young, almost led her directly onto the mat while he was competing.

"One time we were in upstate New York, and it was a really important match in high school. He was in the finals. They had these barriers and they let you sit on the floor around the mat. So I'm sitting on the floor ... and then he was starting to lose, and I didn't realize, but I started crawling onto the mat. And I'm screaming, 'Come on Chris!' My husband had to drag me back," she said, laughing at the memory. "I was climbing over the barrier."

Colleen, the youngest child in their family, said Weidman and his older brother Charlie were "overprotective" of her growing up, as brothers often are, with Weidman using his physical powers of intimidation toward boys who even dared to be her friends. His explanation was always that he was simply looking out for her.

But perhaps those roles reversed as they grew up. Colleen, deeply committed to her faith, is, as Mary describes her, the "prayer warrior" for Weidman. He calls Colleen an angel and he believes she knows him like no one else.

Their mom agrees.

"Colleen has a direct channel to the Lord," Mary said. "She went to Nyack College, a Christian college in New York. And she was actually the team chaplain for a year or two. So she knows how to pray. She's really good at it. And he loves it, he loves when she prays."

Colleen is more deeply connected to the MMA world via her husband, Tony Thompson, the brother of Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson (with whom Weidman has trained). Not only does Colleen understand grappling from growing up watching Weidman wrestle, but she deeply understands the MMA community as well. Her knowledge of the fight world combined with her inner spiritual guidance make her a critical part of Weidman's pre-fight routine. During the pre-fight family prayer at the hotel, it is Colleen who leads the group to guide Weidman as he prepares to enter the Octagon.

"Before the fight, as much as it's dreadful, there are really special moments, we all get together and we pray together and it's just a really sweet, special time," Colleen said. "We always end up crying, because we love each other so much, and because of all the pressure that's happening over him, you know?"

Not only does Weidman draw comfort from Colleen but his wife, Marivi, says Colleen has a "knowing" about her, a sixth sense that gives her an idea of how Weidman will perform hours later.

Colleen agrees.

"I'll look in Chris' face and I could kind of just already see exactly what's gonna happen and that could make me sick, or that could be like, I'm confident, let's go, let's go do this, let's get this win, and then go home."

Chris and Marivi have known each other since they were kids growing up in Long Island. Her father coached wrestling, her older brother competed in wrestling and the two families often traveled together to tournaments. They began dating in high school and were married as soon as she graduated from college.

Marivi has always been a planner. She knew in high school she wanted to be an accountant and followed an educational path to get there. When she and Weidman were first married and he began MMA training, she arranged for them to meet with his coach, Ray Longo, to discuss how Weidman could earn an income while on a structured path to competition. They left with an agreement that Longo and Weidman would have two years for Weidman to either succeed in MMA or move on to Plan B. Within two years, Weidman had established himself as a legitimate fighter who had a future in the sport.

The help and guidance of those he loves most provided the support Weidman needed to make perhaps the most surprising Octagon walk of his career.

As Weidman prepared to enter the Octagon at UFC 292 on Aug. 19 to face Brad Tavares, all three of the women he relied on most were with him. Marivi and Mary sat in the hotel room with Weidman as Colleen joined via FaceTime to lead them in their traditional pre-fight prayer. Their routine was unchanged, their faith in him stronger than ever after witnessing all he had done just to make it to that night.

Resiliency. Perseverance. Strength.

Faith. Belief. Determination.

Words are powerful. But not as powerful as the act of embodying them at a time when your life has turned upside down. There is no formula, no supplement, no pill, no injection that manufactures the will and the drive athletes like Weidman so clearly possess. Even among the elite, not all are willing to engage in the torturous path of uncertainty that returning to fight following a career-threatening injury requires.

Eight hundred forty-eight days after leaving on a stretcher, Weidman walked into -- and out of -- the Octagon once again. The outcome of the fight, a unanimous decision win for Tavares, wasn't what Weidman wanted, especially as Tavares focused on the legs of Weidman throughout the bout, ultimately resulting in a fracture of Weidman's other leg. But Weidman still went the distance in the loss, and that alone was a victory for the entire Weidman family.

Although the fracture in Weidman's left leg, a small fibula fracture, affected his performance in the fight, it did not require surgery and was able to heal on its own.

"Look at my brother now," said Colleen. "He's just overcome so much, it becomes more inspirational. If you just have a perfect life all the time, you're not relating to anybody. So his story has become more powerful because he has a comeback from this."