The new Fabricio Werdum truly emerged against Travis Browne in the third round of their title eliminator on Fox. In the classic Brazilian "butt scoot" position, Werdum challenged Browne to hit the mat and roll around with him a bit. Browne, wisely, wanted no part of the former Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion.
The old Werdum would have made quite a petulant show of it. A ground-first fighter, he had managed to capture not a single heart or mind in his 12-year career despite beating a who's who of the sport's best heavyweights.
The new Werdum?
He simply smiled, kipped up like he was the second coming of The Rock, a fairly flabbergasting feat for a man approaching 260 pounds, and proceeded to walk over and continue beating Browne to a pulp.
"Werdum has been fooling all of us," Fox Sports 2 analyst Chael Sonnen said after the fight. "He doesn’t have to take you down to beat you. He just Muay Thai’s you to death."
It's been a transformation a long time coming. Werdum, who entered the top level of the sport as Pride Fight Championship star Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic's training partner and jiu-jitsu coach, has been diligently adding significant stand-up skills to his collection of tools for a decade.
Now, at 36, it's all finally coming together. And it couldn't be happening at a better time. Werdum will challenge heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez for the UFC belt in his next fight, the first title shot of his long and surprisingly storied career. And while he doesn't need me to tell him this, it's worth noting—Velasquez is no Travis Browne.
Browne, a monster in the first round, faded quickly once the fight went longer than five minutes. Browne had rarely even been beyond the first stanza in his entire career—seven of his nine UFC fights ended in the initial moments.
His heaving breaths and injury issues were an opportunity for Werdum to finish the fight. Instead, he carefully chose his moments, preferring the secure win to the spectacular knockout.
"Werdum could have finished the fight," UFC president Dana White said at the post-fight press conference. "He played it safe at the end to get the shot at the title."
That's an option that won't be there against Velasquez, who often looks like he could fight 10 rounds without a pause. Against an exhausted Browne, Werdum had the freedom to smile and pick his spots.
That luxury doesn't exist when you're in the cage with Velasquez. He comes forward, mixing punches, kicks and takedowns in dizzying combination, and he doesn't stop until the final bell rings. It's a pace that's placed him second all-time in strikes landed per minute, almost unthinkable for a heavyweight.
MMA Junkie's Ben Fowlkes explains:
That’s the great strength of Velasquez. Sure, he’s also fast and powerful and utterly unrelenting, but mostly he’s methodical. It’s as if he’s got a factory setting that’s just a few RPMs higher than most heavyweights, and he never slows down or speeds up as the fight progresses. He doesn’t take rounds off. He doesn’t freak out trying to finish. You can’t intimidate him or wear him down or get him to spend energy he doesn’t have. He’s got the fighting style of a torpedo and the personality to match.
As scary as Velasquez is, Werdum couldn't ask for a better time to step into the cage with him. Velasquez, who had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder at the end of 2013, will be battling his own body and significant ring rust. Werdum may also possess the Kryptonite to disrupt Velasquez's normal fight strategy.
Werdum vs. Velasquez: Whom do you like?
The champion likes to keep the fight standing, using takedowns when he sees openings or when he feels pressured. But a decision to take Werdum to the ground can't be made casually.
"Cain said he wanted to fight Travis Browne because he knows he could take him down and win the fight," Werdum told Fox Sports' Brian Stann after the fight. "But he knows when he takes me down, that’s the start of the fight."
In short, the fight between two increasingly well-rounded fighters might devolve into a classic battle that has defined mixed martial arts since the sport's inception: wrestling against Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It's a battle Velasquez has won throughout his career, dispatching Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Silva in relatively smooth sailing.
If Werdum does manage to take the UFC title from Velasquez, it begs some serious historical questions. Most pundits agree that Velasquez, Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko are the best heavyweights of all time. Should he beat Cain, Werdum would own victories over all three.
Suddenly, you can see how much this fight means. Werdum is fighting for his first title and his legacy in a single bout. Perhaps that's why his grin was so wide in every post-fight interview?
"It’s been my dream for a long time," he said. Unfortunately for Werdum, dreams all too often turn ugly against Velasquez.