On April 21, 2007, Fabricio Werdum debuted in the UFC as an accomplished grappler, but not-so-accomplished mixed martial artist.
In his first fight with the promotion, Werdum fought Andrei Arlovski to a decision, losing on all three of the judges' scorecards. His performance was utterly and undeniably underwhelming.
The outcome—as well as the attention Werdum garnered for his seeming unfamiliarity with the concept of throwing a closed-fist-punch—produced little fanfare for the grappling stud, and kept him off of contention radar.
At least for a time. He would quickly turn things around.
In his next bout, Werdum surprised fans with a TKO victory over Gabriel Gonzaga, who was coming off of a title shot. "Vai Cavalo" then doubled up on the result by earning another TKO victory over the then-relevant Brandon Vera.
At this point, Werdum had erased the memories of his first UFC performance and staked a claim to legitimate contendership. This legitimacy, however, was short-lived.
Matched up with promotional newcomer Junior dos Santos at UFC 90, Werdum decided to phone in his training, showing up to the bout out of shape and seemingly uninterested. He suffered a very rough first-round TKO and was immediately booted from the UFC.
Since dos Santos' arrival and Werdum's banishment, the landscape of the UFC heavyweight division has changed immensely.
Gone is Randy Couture, then-champion. Gone is Brock Lesnar who took the title from Couture a month later. Still here are former interim champions Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir, but neither has much of a grasp on the title picture these days.
As it turns out, dos Santos was really just getting started when he blasted Werdum. He went on to win his next eight bouts, capturing the heavyweight crown in the process and establishing himself as one of the division's premiere competitors.
Right alongside dos Santos, Cain Velasquez emerged as another elite heavyweight. After Werdum's departure, Velasquez, who held a 2-0 UFC record at the time, won eight straight and secured the title on two occasions.
Velasquez and dos Santos, who have only lost to one another in the UFC, have clearly separated themselves from the pack at this point, establishing a new order of heavyweight dominance. No one else, save Cheick Kongo, has so much as given either anything resembling a challenge.
For all intents and purposes, there is Velasquez and dos Santos, and then there is the rest.
But Velasquez and dos Santos are not the only two big men to come up in the world of MMA since UFC 90. Indeed, Werdum himself has resurrected his career, enacting an impressive rise to rival either Velasquez or dos Santos, though his has been exponentially quieter.
The Brazilian hooked up with Strikeforce after his loss to dos Santos and quickly made an impact there. He started out by beating up Mike Kyle, decisioned Antonio Silva, and became the first man to legitimately defeat Fedor Emelianenko.
He then lost a questionable decision to Alistair Overeem before rejoining the UFC. Since making his return, he has appeared a new, and greatly improved fighter.
He started out battering Roy Nelson, then knocked out the remarkably durable Mike Russow. This past weekend at UFC on Fuel 10, Werdum continued his ascent by submitting the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Werdum's latest victory is confirmation that he is the forerunner of the field (especially since Daniel Cormier is headed to 205). It's a field that dos Santos and Velasquez have left in the dust.
The question therefore is: Can he break free from the pack and join Velasquez and dos Santos on the heights, or will he just be the largest image seen in their rearview mirrors?
With, by far, the best jiu-jitsu at heavyweight and a stand-up game that has become a real weapon, it's very easy to give Werdum a chance against either of those two. However, the reality of it is, Werdum will remain the division's bronze medalist.
Though his striking has grown tremendously over the years, Werdum appeared uncomfortable moving backward at UFC on Fuel 10 and struggled in close when he couldn't find the Thai clinch. And though his grappling was, once again, unquestionably great, his wrestling was, once again, mediocre.
These deficiencies have been masked by success, but they do exist and their existence is troubling. Because despite how good he's looked, Werdum's successes have not made an effective case that he is capable of overcoming dos Santos' aggression and speed, or the type of unwavering offensive attacks that Velasquez favors.
Of course, theorizing how any hypothetical battle would play out is a subjective exercise, one that will produce as many opinions as there are people making an assessment. But what this instance comes down to is less about styles—even though Werdum is stylistically suspect here—and more simply about performance level.
Werdum may have built himself up as one of the best heavyweights around, but both of the guys above him have done what he has, only for longer and with greater ease. They are simply ahead of him, and exponentially ahead of those Werdum has left in his wake.
That is why they've only lost to, and challenged, one another inside the Octagon.
So despite Werdum's terrific UFC on Fuel 10 win, the UFC heavyweight division remains a two-horse race, and Werdum is not one of those horses. But at least the victory is likely to earn him a title shot by the end of the year and give him a chance to disprove this assessment.
Far more likely, however, is that Werdum fails to make good on that opportunity, and settles into a niche halfway up a mountain, at the heights at which dos Santos and Velasquez compete, and the base on which the remainder of the division congregates, collectively stretching their arms upward, vainly attempting to join them.
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