The purpose of this piece is not to predict who will win at UFC 188. There is not a single person who would tell you that Fabricio Werdum is the favorite to beat Cain Valesquez.
Not since the days of Fedor Emelianenko has there been such a dominant heavyweight champion. Cain Velasquez’s only career loss is to the Brazilian boxing dynamo Junior Dos Santos which he then avenged twice over in brutal fashion. With the exception of his rocky 2009 win against Cheick Kongo (in which the Frenchman repeatedly found Cain’s chin), none of Velasquez’s wins have been particularly challenging.
Barring a showdown with a rancor or the IRS, I can’t see anyone dethroning Cain. Hell I’d give him 50/50 against the rancor.
So if you’re a betting man, put money on Cain Velasquez and read no further.
This piece is to realistically gauge the chances of Fabricio Werdum, the perennial heavyweight underdog who scored upset after upset culminating in a come from behind victory against Mark Hunt to steal the interim heavyweight title.
Compared to Cain’s previous opponents Werdum is easily the least imposing. He isn’t the freak athlete and walking nightmare that is Brock Lesnar. He doesn’t possess the nauseating body work and hand speed of Junior Dos Santos. Nor does he have the tectonic plate altering knockout power of Easter Island flesh golem Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
Werdum, however, has two very valuable and overlooked assets.
The first is that Werdum has a chin with a capital “C”.
That may be a confusing statement to casual fans whose only exposure to Werdum’s “chin” is his face plant knockout loss at the hands of Junior Dos Santos. But ducking into a full force uppercut of a future heavyweight champion is nothing to be ashamed of and apart from that blemish Werdum has survived power shots from true knockout artists before coming back to win.
In the first round of his Strikeforce bout with a pre-TRT ban Bigfoot Silva (what I mark as the beginning of his career rebirth) he was on the losing end of a flurry that culminated in a clean right-left hook combo that floored him.
After absorbing vicious ground and pound, he struggled to his feet before getting dropped again by an elbow. In the second round Silva floored him again with a left hook as he moved backwards. Werdum survived yet again and reversed position before going on to win a decision.
In his most recent two fights he survived a whip like right hand from Travis Browne as well as two powerful crosses from Mark Hunt (all resulting in knockdowns) before winning both fights in emphatic fashion. There’s no denying that Werdum is durable.
In a division full of giants where almost everyone has knockout power, having the durability to survive is valuable but against Cain Velasquez it is necessary. The pace the champion puts on his opponents means that at certain times the opponent will be forced to guess between defending a takedown attempt or defending Cain’s devastating right hand.
In the event Werdum guesses wrong, being able to survive and equalize the situation using his incredible ground game is invaluable. Could Cain knock out Werdum on the feet anyway? Certainly.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
The second and most important asset Fabricio Werdum possesses is that he is an opportunist; even if a certain skill isn’t his forte he will abuse the hell out of it as long as it works.
Against Bigfoot, Werdum realized two things. The first was that Bigfoot would read and move out of effective range for outside leg kicks but fail to do so with a switch kick to the inside. The second was an issue that would plague Silva his entire career; any time his left hand wandered away from his chin he was slow to bring it back into position and eat right hands.
So what did Werdum do?
Starting at about two minutes into the second round, Werdum used switch kicks exclusively when Bigfoot was out of punching range. Whenever Bigfoot came forward Werdum would slip the punch and throw a right hand which which connected a fair amount, then immediately secure a clinch where his superior muay thai and ground game overwhelmed and tired his stronger and heavier opponent.
As a result he went from being knocked down 3 times in the first four minutes to winning the fight via unanimous decision.
Against K-1 veteran Mark Hunt, Werdum found himself at a loss; he was being out struck and outgunned, his own guard game was no match for the ever evolving Hunt, and takedown attempts were almost immediately stuffed.
Instead he used Hunt’s reflexes against him; Werdum faked a takedown and when Hunt ducked to sprawl he ate a vicious flying knee that set up the end of the fight.
Being an “opportunist” or an “exploiter” may seem like a throwaway quality but it is impossible to overemphasize how valuable it is. It’s what made former pound-for-pound king Jon Jones so dangerous; when something wasn’t working he’d find something that did and spam it like he was playing Tekken and wanted to piss off his friend.
So what is exploitable about Cain?
Well . . . he can be hit coming in.
While Cain has the concussive power that you’d expect from a man weighing close to 240 lbs, his strikes are mainly to close distance where he’ll either work in the clinch or shoot for a takedown. While this is a very good game plan (Frankie Edgar anyone?) it has a notable drawback.
When a fighter tries to close distance or level change they are adding force to any of the opponents blows that connect which makes seemingly harmless hits do disproportionate amounts of damage.It’s also tougher to keep balance and maintain defense while moving and throwing (something Chris Weidman does exceptionally).
A recent example of both factors in play would be what Anthony Pettis did to Gilbert Melendez in his first title defense. Melendez was constantly using jabs and straights to get into the clinch where he could stifle the far slicker Pettis. Pettis is no power puncher (look at how easily Rafael Dos Anjos shrugged off his combinations) yet he was able to stagger the durable Melendez with a short, no wind up right hook as the latter stepped forward to exchange.
While Junior has two lopsided losses to Cain, the fact is that he’s spent almost 50 minutes in the cage with the champion and has exposed some holes in his game. When Cain came in to close the distance Junior touched him . . . A LOT.
Granted his poor shot selection of soft jabs and left hooks (as Cain was moving to his own left) and his habit of circling the cage with his hands at his damn waist meant Cain always got the better of exchanges but he still touched him. Sometimes the stars would align and Junior would actually use an appropriate strike for someone who likes to get in close. For example, this brutal elbow that rattled Cain more than any punch did in their third fight.
The point is that there are gaps and Fabricio Werdum is far better equipped than previous opponents to take advantage of them; he won’t be as fearful of getting taken down and he has powerful knees and elbows in his arsenal that he will exploit if he connects even once.
People are suggesting the possibility of a Werdum submission win but I vehemently disagree. The fact is that the higher up the mixed martial arts ladder you climb, the harder it becomes to score a submission from the bottom and the more valuable it is to simply use the threat of submission to stand back up.
Werdum’s guard will mitigate Cain’s ground and pound but it certainly won’t give him the win.
If Fabricio Werdum wants to win the title this Saturday, he will have to punish Cain Velasquez hard and often whenever he tries to close the distance. Werdum must mitigate Cain’s cardio advantage with sheer damage so that they will be on even footing in the championship rounds.
So believe it or not, I think Fabricio Werdum is the best equipped to defeat Cain Velasquez.
I wouldn’t bet on him, but I’ve been wrong about him before.