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Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum: Can 'Vai Cavalo' Pull off the Upset?

Fabricio Werdum, right, and Travis Browne fight during a UFC mixed martial arts bout on Saturday, April 19, 2014, in Orlando, Fla. Werdum won. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
Reinhold Matay/Associated Press
James MacDonaldFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

When debating the merits of the latest challenger to Cain Velasquez’s heavyweight title, rarely do we entertain the possibility that the champion might actually lose. The very notion increasingly only makes sense in the abstract, said discussions almost taking on a sympathetic tone for the would-be prey.

The question is this: Does Fabricio Werdum offer anything that might change the established narrative? Up until recently, the answer would almost certainly have been a resounding “no” from any fan with even a passing interest in the sport.

The Brazilian has long been considered one of the most talented submission artists in any weight division, but his striking seemed little more than functional for many years, utilised for the purpose of getting his foe to the ground. His stand-up game certainly wasn’t poor, but nor could it have been described as potent.

After giving a shellacking to Travis Browne at UFC on Fox 11, though, it’s fair to say that this perception has changed. No longer is Werdum’s striking a means to a horizontal end, but it is an end in and of itself.

Conventional wisdom going into the fight suggested that Browne’s striking advantage would likely be decisive. If the Brazillian was to have a legitimate chance against Browne, he’d have to drag the Hawaiian’s 6’7” carcass to the floor and take home a limb.

As it turned out, Browne looked utterly out of his depth against the variety of Werdum’s offence. While the former moved with all the alacrity of a sloth mired in a tar pit, the latter bounced around the cage with a perverse grin plastered across his face for the full 25 minutes.

In retrospect, perhaps we should have known better. After all, the 36-year-old’s striking performance against Roy Nelson was arguably just as impressive. Indeed, even in his losing effort to Alistair Overeem, he competed evenly with the Dutchman on the feet.

It is almost unique to see a fighter add so much to his arsenal at so advanced an age. The only other example that comes to mind is a TRT-fuelled Vitor Belfort.

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Cain Velasquez (red gloves) fights against Junior Dos Santos (blue gloves) in the world heavyweight championship bout during UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Based on current form, Werdum presents an intriguing challenge for Velasquez. The champion has long profited from his well-roundedness and his ability to push a prohibitive pace, but “Vai Cavalo’s” strengths appear to mitigate these advantages.

Would Velasquez be willing to take the fight to the ground, given the Brazilian’s submission prowess? It’s hard to say. Very little surprises me about the champion these days other than his ability to continually amaze. It would be just like him to confound our expectations and win the fight from inside the challenger’s guard.

Should the fight turn into a glorified kickboxing contest, it’s unclear who would have the advantage. Velasquez boasts a more traditional kickboxing style, but Werdum is pure Muay Thai, having honed his skills under Rafael Cordeiro.

The last point segues nicely into the likely possibility that the champion will look to press his opponent up against the cage and beat him up in the clinch, just as he did against Junior dos Santos.

However, dos Santos operates primarily as a boxer inside the cage. Unlike Werdum, his offence from the clinch is extremely limited. Should Velasquez choose to turn the fight into a clinch battle, he will be forced to contend with the challenger’s educated knees and elbows.

Whatever happens, it should be a far more competitive contest than many are anticipating. It’s just a shame that we have to wait so long to see how it plays out.

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