Viva Vai Cavalo: Fabricio Werdum’s Long, Strange Trip Back to UFC Title Contention
PRIDE is dead. PRIDE has been dead for
upwards of damn near a decade. PRIDE, by all available evidence, will remain dead for the foreseeable future. Given these, one would suspect that PRIDE fighters would be finished in terms of competing for major mixed martial arts titles, and, given the advanced age and recent records of such stalwarts as Dan Henderson, Takanori Gomi, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Josh Barnett, one wouldn’t be far off.
Except, of course, in the case of Fabricio “Vai Cavalo” Werdum. The 37 (37!) year old heavyweight re-solidified his previously promised title shot by dominating Travis Browne over five rounds in the most recent UFC on Fox main event last Saturday. It was, bar none, the best example of Fabricio Werdum I’ve ever seen. It’s been so long since PRIDE died, and PRIDE has been dead for so long; how did Werdum reattain his #1 contender title?
Junior dos Santos, UFC 90, October 25, 2008 - An inauspicious beginning if ever there was one. This fight came in the wake of the title shot derailment of another PRIDE veteran, Big Nog, whom had just submitted Tim Sylvia and captured the interim HW title. Randy Couture’s greed and lack of understanding regarding contract law, instead of Cain Velasquez’s (increasingly concerning) rotator cuff, derailed that bout. Werdum had been mentioned as another possible contender for the belt, having defeated Gabriel Gonzaga and Brandon Vera (back when that meant something) after a lackluster loss to Andrei Arlovski.
Werdum, then 31, appeared… unmotivated… at the weigh ins.
Junior dos Santos, making his UFC debut, appeared… hungrier?
Following the first round upset, Fabricio Werdum (in a move which I would excoriate today, as I will if McKinley Noble’s Phil Davis-related fears come to pass) and his management were given a choice: a 50% pay cut or free agency. Werdum chose the latter: JDS would go on to defeat everyone not named Cain Velasquez that was put in front of him. And he even did THAT once.
Mike Kyle, Strikeforce: Cyborg v. Carano, August 15, 2009 – Boy, what a difference subpar competition makes! In between PRIDE and his Zuffa debut, Werdum took a one-off against Aleksander Emelianenko, submitting him in the first round while whispering “your brother is next” as he sank the head and arm triangle in. Fabricio’s three UFC fights did not end in submission, but his first in Strikeforce did, as he quickly guillotined the outmatched Kyle (who would go on to scare the everloving shit out of Bigfoot Silva in a subsequent bout).
Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Strikeforce: Fedor v. Rogers, November 7, 2009 - It’s certainly fascinating, albeit the opposite of surprising, that Fedor Emelinenko’s Strikeforce debut featured two fighters that would defeat him in a fight that barely – barely – made the main card. Silva, the former EliteXC champion campaigning against his 2008 drug test failure for elevated testosterone (this would, of course, become a recurring theme for the giant Brazilian), provided a better foil than Kyle, but Werdum’s striking began to show signs of improvement as he largely outboxed the big man en route to a unanimous decision
PHAY-DOOR! Strikeforce: Fedor v. Werdum, June 26, 2010 – The Last Emperor’s destruction of Brett Rogers (after what should have been a question-raising first round) at the top of the aforementioned card paved the way for this bout. The MMA world’s attention was split, with one eye cast towards the match-up between UFC champion Brock Lesnar and interim champion Shane Carwin, which was mere weeks away. Werdum was a massive underdog, but of course he was – he was fighting PHAY-DOOR, for God’s sake. You know the rest: guard pulling BJJ black belt, the obliging legend, the single tap. Zuffa had either did this or Werdum was the most successful double agent since Edward Snowden. (Hi, Josh Gross!)
Alistair Overeem, Strikeforce: Werdum v. Overeem, June 18, 2011 – You’re Scott Coker. Right, I just cut your legs in half and tore out all your hair. You’re still Scott Coker, though. It’s 2010, Fabricio Werdum has submitted your cash cow/pit, and your “champion,” having defended his title exactly once in the last three years, is entertaining the notion of beating up Todd Duffee (recently cut from the UFC after a loss to fat Chicago cop Mike Russow) for the first (and last) DREAM belt. What do you do? Well, first of all, you let Overeem fight for another organization’s belt while holding yours hostage – that’s a given. Duh. Maybe it also occurred to you to keep Werdum, owner of the most shocking victory in MMA history, on the shelf for a year. That’s pretty inspired.
But what really separates Scott Coker from you, what made him such a successful MMA promoter, is that he wasn’t simply going to let his heavyweight title just be a useless trinket overseas: he was going to ensure that it remained utterly meaningless even upon its stateside return. “How?”, you may ask, “how could Strikeforce do that when their heavyweight division was arguably better than Zuffa’s”? Well, they did a Heavyweight Grand Prix – complete with a championship belt! – that included the champion in a series of non-title fights where his belt wasn’t on the line. You don’t even give Werdum a chance to win the belt from Alistair Overeem; instead, you create the possibility of him losing to the champion in a three-rounder. AND you make sure Fedor isn’t on the card: that way, nobody sees it.
It’s truly, truly amazing Strikeforce lasted as long as it did. It was the WCW of MMA.
Roy Nelson, UFC 143, February 4, 2012 – The Strikeforce purchase’s consolidation of the heavyweight division was, of course, one of the primary pitfalls of the Unified Talent Pool so bemoaned by so many. Werdum, whose stand-up actually didn’t look terrible against Overeem, again benefited from a sudden drop in competition quality as he battered Big Country for fifteen full minutes. Werdum, echoing the sentiments of everyone watching, expressed amazement that Nelson was able to withstand the MT knees he delivered; days later, he claimed that the only part of him that hurt were his knees.
Mike Russow, UFC 147, June 23, 2012 - The less said here, the better. Mike Russow is a fat Chicago cop and Fabricio Werdum beat him up.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, UFC on Fuel TV 10, June 8, 2013 – In a panacea to the rapidly expanding Brazilian market (and in acknowledgement of Nog’s victory over Dave Herman), these two PRIDE veterans coached against each other for the second season of TUF: Brazil before doing battle at the finale. Nogueira, 2-1 in his last three (including a surprise victory over Brendan Schaub), joined Fedor as PRIDE heavyweight champions to tap, either singly or verbally, to Werdum. Vai Cavalo had earned his title shot and seemed willing to wait for it; unfortunately, the champion’s shoulder was uncooperative. He would have to do it again.
Travis Browne, UFC on Fox 11, April 19, 2014 - I was wrong about this fight. I don’t think I was wrong about Travis Browne – he still appears to be an exciting, powerful, athletic heavyweight with a lot of potential and toughness for days. I was, however, wrong about Fabricio Werdum. His jokes to Sherdog about transitioning from BJJ coach to wrestling coach seem much less farfetched after taking down the lengthy Browne repeatedly; Werdum’s Muay Thai, thought to be exposed against Overeem, looked crisp and powerful, wobbling and damaging his larger opponent from range and in close over and over again. I prefer to consider the list of heavyweights that wouldn’t have been finished by that version of Werdum. It’s very, very short.
I’ve written here before about my desire to see (and lack of objections against) Junior dos Santos fighting Cain Velasquez over and over again as long as their rankings dictate. I still have that desire, and it’s entirely defensible to continue to rank JDS over Werdum by virtue of their records and performances since (a JDS victory against Overeem would further complicate matters). Fabricio Werdum, however, has earned his title shot. And whether it’s in Mexico City, Las Vegas or Rio de Janeiro, I cannot wait to see what happens.