Here’s the moment you knew for sure that Saturday night’s UFC heavyweight title eliminator wasn’t going to end well for Travis Browne:
It was midway through the third round, and Fabricio Werdum was already having so much of his way that the 36-year-old underdog felt secure in trying an awkward spinning leg sweep. Of course, the move badly missed its mark, ricocheting off Browne’s thigh and sending Werdum sprawling to the mat on his behind.
Werdum merely smiled and—reaffirming that the American wanted no part of him on the ground—sprang to his feet with a kip-up worthy of an in-his-prime Shawn Michaels.
That’s when you understood: There was no remarkable comeback brewing here. Things for Browne were broken beyond repair.
This was supposed to be Browne's nationally televised showcase fight, the one that established him as a dangerous and high-profile challenger for Cain Velasquez, but apparently Werdum didn’t get the memo. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist wore him out, using tight punching combinations, hard kicks and a suffocating ground game to salt away a lopsided unanimous decision (49-46, 50-45, 50-45).
In the end, Browne accepted the first real damning loss of his career and left UFC on Fox 11 looking very much like a work still in progress.
The defeat cast a shade of irony on his meteoric rise through the 265-pound division. As he took the cage prior to the opening round, UFC broadcasters Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan marveled at the fact he'd only been training in MMA for five or six years, correctly noting that it spoke to his remarkable athletic prowess.
Indeed, part of his appeal headed into this fight was that we still didn’t know how good he might really be. His most recent trio of wins over Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett were wickedly impressive, but Browne hadn’t been out of the first round since 2011.
He’d never been in a five-round fight.
At least during his UFC career, he’d never even been taken down.
Now we know. There’s still room for improvement.
While Browne was reduced to playing the rookie on this night, Werdum looked every bit the more developed and experienced mixed martial artist. He surprised Browne early with a more refined stand-up game, popping his opponent's head back with deft punches and scoring on fluid kicks.
By comparison, Browne looked raw and untested. He loaded up on his punches, swinging wide and wild haymakers as he charged in looking for the kill. His athleticism and gameness were still apparent, but now we have a sense that his cardio and overall preparedness need to play a little catch-up.
He exited with a broken hand, a possible broken rib and surely a significant medical suspension with which to go back to the drawing board.
His best moments of the fight came in the first, when he trapped Werdum at the base of the fence and unloaded on him with a series of punches and hammerfists. For a moment, it appeared he might be headed for another first-round stoppage, but Werdum worked his way to his feet and took Browne down (so, there went that stat).
Browne managed to defend well from his back when Werdum grounded him in the first two rounds, but the experience appeared to wear on him. As Browne's conditioning wilted, Werdum’s confidence blossomed, and by the end, the elder fighter was getting whatever he wanted and almost nothing else.
If ever there were a bout with a near-palpable storyline shift from pre-fight hype to post-fight decision, it was this one. Browne came in with most of the hoopla, but over the course of 25 minutes, Werdum wore him down and stole away his momentum.
It remains unclear if he will have much of a shot against Velasquez when they fight in Mexico later this year, but he leaves Orlando regarded as a great deal more dangerous than when he arrived.
If Browne can take solace in anything, it’s that he’s among the youngest contenders in the hoary old heavyweight division. At 31 years old, he’ll have some time to make the changes necessary to resurrect his contender status.
This just wasn’t his night.
That much we knew by the midpoint of the middle round, when Werdum leapt to his feet like a gymnast (I mean, seriously? A kip-up halfway through a five-round heavyweight fight?), tagged Browne with yet another crushing body kick and grinned at him.
The message was clear: 13 more minutes of this, kid.