Something which I have been asked about a good deal in the run up to the rematch between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fabricio Werdum is just how much has Fabricio Werdum's striking game improved.
In his last two bouts, Werdum has been able to achieve far more and look far better on the feet than any of his previous wins have allowed him to.
Fabricio Werdum has always been underrated as a heavyweight. With wins over plenty of top heavyweights, Werdum is the only man who can claim a win over both Emelianenko brothers, an unusual feather in anyone's hat.
Werdum has only lost to recognisable heavyweight names and has a brilliant finishing ratio even for a heavyweight. Really the only reason that many fans dislike Werdum is his performance against Alistair Overeem, wherein Werdum was labouring under the delusion that pulling guard was a "one size fits all" gameplan as he was riding high from an incredible submission over an overconfident Fedor Emelianenko.
So with his complete dismantling of Roy Nelson and his knockout win over MIke Russow, how much improvement has Werdum shown on the feet and where do his strengths and weaknesses lie?
Firstly, Werdum is beginning to kick with more commitment and therefore more power. No matter how good a kickboxer you are, if you have fear of a takedown ever present in the back of your mind, it is extremely difficult to throw your best kicks.
Werdum doesn't need to be afraid of anyone on the ground because no matter who they are, opponents who end up in his world-class guard will be fighting on the defensive.
Watching Werdum open up with his kicks against Roy Nelson was a great pleasure as he brought out a wheel kick and other gimmicks while pounding Nelson's lead leg with kicks. Werdum's set ups are poor (in that he rarely does anything but kick straight off the bat), but it doesn't matter nearly so much when he is completely okay with being bundled over.
The real danger only comes when he kicks and his opponent counters with a punch. Even great kickboxers have been caught dropping their hands as they kick. It is something everyone does at some point in the fight, but Werdum doesn't seem to defend himself after any of his kicks. Roy Nelson was able to drop Werdum as Werdum was recovering from a kick.
In addition to great confidence in kicking, Werdum has just shown an all-around growth in comfort on the feet. Something which I have always felt his coach, Rafael Cordeiro, excels at is giving his fighters confidence in their ability to scrap.
Sometimes it is good; clearly, the Chute Boxe team benefited enormously from their throwing caution to the wind, and sometimes it is bad, such as in the case of Murilo Rua, perhaps the best technical grappler on the Chute Boxe team, who ruined his career by routinely choosing to brawl when he just wasn't great at it.
As a relatively rangy fighter, Werdum's 1 - 2 works wonderfully when he pops it into the face of shorter opponents as they try to engage. Provided the jab lands, he doesn't even need to worry much about his defence, as a punch to the face will more often than not throw off an opponent's aim.
Gene Tunney, one of the greatest boxers of all time, broke his opponent's rhythm with the simple 1 - 2 constantly, so I will never belittle the strategy.
Problems come when Werdum attempts to land his right straight. He completely opens himself up as he drops his left hand and allows his head to follow his bad intentions towards his opponent, leaving the rest of his body and his defence behind.
Werdum's footwork is also a little concerning if he intends to continue mixing in exciting stand-up combinations into his performances. Often, Werdum will stand still when an opponent attacks or back straight up towards the cage. Mike Russow and Roy Nelson are not light on their feet and gave up so much reach that there is no real excuse for them catching up to Werdum so often.
Werdum's brilliant double collar tie clinch knees (something Rafael Cordeiro definitely teaches very well to his fighters) were enough to make up for Nelson's ability to close the distance on him, but against opponents who do not give up so much height, Werdum cannot rely on the Semmy Schilt / Muhammad Ali defence of cupping the back of the head as soon as the opponent is too close for comfort.
Throughout his bout with Roy Nelson, Werdum also continued to circle directly towards Nelson's right hand. This is basically all Roy Nelson wants. It is his strategy to move his opponent towards the fence and allow them to circle into the right hand, you will notice he often stands closer to the fence on his left side when pressuring an opponent.
Because of Werdum's early assault with kicks, grappling and knees, Nelson tired early (as he often does) and was unable to chase for much of the bout, but it is ringcraft which separates the decent from the skilled on the feet.
Werdum meets Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira this weekend in a rematch of their meeting in PRIDE FC. In their first bout, Big Nog's experience on the feet aided him enormously in defeating the green Werdum. Recently, however, Werdum has shown strides in his stand up while Nog has simply looked slower and less durable.
What Nog might have to offer on the feet is his new ugly boxing style. Nogueira will press an opponent against the fence, free a hand and start punching or elbowing, then break away and box along the fence. This method allows Nogueira to make up for his absent head movement and slow feet, but might be well-suited to Werdum's weak footwork.
Of course, there is no knowing how these things will play out, especially at heavyweight, but it will be interesting to see whether Nogueira and Werdum can continue their development in striking as they both look like completely different men from their first meeting.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.