No one can discount Fabricio Werdum as an all-time great heavyweight. | Photo: Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Perceptions usually develop slowly in MMA. As a fighter scores wins over increasingly difficult opposition, followers of the sport slowly but surely recognize his or her greatness. That has been the case with most of the sport’s current pound-for-pound best, from Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson to Jon Jones and Chris Weidman. Occasionally, however, those perceptions change suddenly and radically. A jarring event makes us reconsider and reevaluate everything we have seen before.
In June 2003, Randy Couture was considered a very good but unmarketable fighter on his way out of the sport. Couture was coming off two straight losses at heavyweight and was rapidly approaching his 40th birthday. He was put in a Ultimate Fighting Championship interim light heavyweight title fight with Chuck Liddell because “The Iceman” was being groomed for a major showdown with Tito Ortiz and Couture was a respected name as an opponent.
Couture completely derailed those plans. With startling precision, he picked apart and finished a fighter who had not lost in more than four years against some of the best fighters in the sport. It was clear that Couture had a lot left in the tank and that he had star qualities from a fan standpoint, as well. From that point forward, Couture’s career would be defined as a fan-favorite underdog fighting off Father Time as well as the UFC’s best competitors.
In the fall of 2007, Pride Fighting Championships may have been dead, but it was still regarded by many hardcore fans as the sport’s pinnacle. “The Ultimate Fighter,” on the other hand, was a popular showcase, but its fighters were perceived by those who followed the sport most closely to be overrated reality stars. Then Mauricio Rua took on Forrest Griffin. “Shogun” had been plowing through the best fighters in Pride, going 12-1 in that organization, with his only loss the result of a fluky broken arm. Griffin, meanwhile, was an “Ultimate Fighter” winner but heavy underdog, with a recent first-round knockout loss to Keith Jardine hanging over him.
Griffin put to rest fans’ misapprehensions, overwhelming “Shogun” with his offense and ultimately submitting the 2005 Pride middleweight grand prix winner. There were already cracks in the previous Pride supremacy worldview, such as Gabriel Gonzaga’s knockout of Mirko Filipovic. However, it was Griffin-Rua that shocked fans into recognizing the legitimacy of “Ultimate Fighter” competitors and the impeachability of Pride’s best.
Another one of those moments happened on Saturday in Mexico City. Fabricio Werdum did not just prove his greatness as a fighter in his destruction and ultimate submission of Cain Velasquez. Rather, UFC 188 served as a paradigm shift in the perception of Werdum’s entire career. Werdum is not who we thought he was; he is something entirely better. He has not simply defeated many of heavyweight MMA’s all-time greats; he is one of heavyweight MMA’s all-time greats. It has taken many of us way too long to figure that out.
To say Werdum has led a Forrest Gump-like existence in MMA brings about an unfairly negative connotation, but he has so often appeared to be a secondary background character in his own career. He was the B-side in Pride against Sergei Kharitonov, Alistair Overeem and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, then the B-side in the UFC against Gonzaga, Andrei Arlovski and Brandon Vera. That trend continued in Strikeforce against Antonio Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and in his rematch with Overeem. Things have been no different in his second UFC run against Roy Nelson, Travis Browne and Velasquez.
Werdum keeps improving his game and winning most of his fights, but fan attention time and time again has gravitated towards his opponents. It is not so much that he lacks credit for being a good fighter, although he has been an underdog in most of his highest-profile fights. It is more that the public narrative of his fights has tended to be about his opponent, whether he wins or loses.
This trend began at the early stages of his MMA career when he debuted as a world champion jiu-jitsu practitioner. It is no coincidence that his first Pride opponent was Tom Erikson. A massive and powerful wrestler, Erikson was the man that Pride could not get anyone to fight. He struggled so mightily to get MMA opponents that he was forced to take kickboxing fights for years to make ends meet. It would be like Melvin Manhoef eschewing MMA and kickboxing for Greco-Roman wrestling exhibitions. Fighting Erikson in MMA was what you did if you had no leverage to lobby for a more desirable opponent.
With a submission win over Erikson, Werdum proved he belonged in Pride. However, it would not be until the 2006 Pride open weight grand prix that he would have the opportunity to really make a name for himself. With a loaded field, it was a given that Werdum would run into upper-echelon talent. That happened in the first round when he met Overeem.
Given his scary striking ability, Overeem’s submission game has often flown under the radar. While the Dutchman once tapped to strikes from Ricardo Arona, only one opponent in Overeem’s entire storied career has forced him to tap to a submission hold. That opponent was Werdum, who submitted him with a kimura. This would have registered much more strongly if it happened later, but at this point, Overeem’s reputation was not what it would become.
An even bigger opportunity slipped through Werdum’s fingers in his next fight, as he took on the legendary Nogueira. At the time, Nogueira had only lost to Emelianenko and Dan Henderson -- a controversial decision that was later avenged. Nogueira and Werdum fought a close, evenly contested battle. If Werdum had gotten the decision, it would have likely established him in the public’s mind as one of the world’s best heavyweights. Instead, he lost the decision, and Pride cut ties with him. He never again fought for the organization, and the fight with Nogueira was quickly forgotten.
Werdum has been treated as an afterthought for much of his MMA career, but that was never more the case than during his first UFC run. His first fight was against Arlovski, and the storyline was about the popular Arlovski looking to work his way into title contention. His next fight was against Gonzaga, and the story was about “Napao” looking to rebound from a title loss to Couture. Next up was a fight with Vera, seeking to bounce back from his first career defeat to Tim Sylvia. In each instance, the focus was on Werdum’s opponent.
Even with consecutive knockout wins over Gonzaga and Vera, it came as a surprise to nobody except perhaps Werdum himself that he was left out of the title picture when the UFC announced what amounted to a mini-tournament for the UFC heavyweight crown: Couture vs. Brock Lesnar and Nogueira vs. Frank Mir. Werdum was a forgotten man, even in his own wins. His impressive victory over Gonzaga came on a little-ordered pay-per-view from the United Kingdom, while discussion about his win over Vera centered on whether the stoppage by referee Dan Miragliotta was premature.
Werdum complained publicly about his treatment and came into his next fight against UFC newcomer Junior dos Santos out of shape. After dos Santos beat Werdum via first-round knockout, “Vai Cavalo” was ignominiously released. Werdum was clearly one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s best heavyweights, but the UFC discarded him anyway. It was not that he was too old or too boring; he just was not appreciated in general.
More respect would be accorded to Werdum in Strikeforce, the site of what was to that point the biggest win of his career. However, he still would not receive his full due. Victories over Mike Kyle and “Bigfoot” Silva earned him a shot against the great Emelianenko. In that fight, Werdum baited the Russian to the ground and scored one of the most significant victories in MMA history, ending Emelianenko’s long unbeaten streak as the best fighter in the world.
While the win over Emelianenko unquestionably provided a big boost to Werdum’s career, it did not have the full effect that it could have for a number of reasons. First, the quick submission was perceived by some as a fluke because of the way it went down, even though it was the only submission loss of Emelianenko’s entire career. Second, the UFC had a strong heavyweight division of its own, so the victory by Werdum did not establish him as the universally accepted No. 1 heavyweight in the world. Emelianenko lost his perch, but Werdum did not necessarily take it.
Most importantly, any time a great athlete’s streak ends, more attention tends to be paid towards an appreciation of that athlete than the opponent who bested him. Emelianenko was lauded for the humility and dignity with which he handled the loss and celebrated for all he had accomplished. Werdum was not disrespected in the process, but he was overlooked. It was not dissimilar from Weidman’s struggle to get his full credit for ending Anderson Silva’s middleweight title reign. Now, as we look back in the context of Werdum’s greater career, the win over Emelianenko stands out as an important part of his story rather than just an important part of the Russian’s legacy.
It is only in his current run in the UFC that everything has converged in a positive fashion for Werdum. His rapid striking improvement under Rafael Cordeiro has made him a significantly more dangerous fighter. There is no safe refuge for his opponents, as he poses great danger wherever the fight goes. He also has finally been able to string together a long series of wins.
Even as Werdum has strung together those wins, he still has not gotten his proper respect. His fight with Nelson was close to a pick ’em at the sportsbooks; he was a sizeable underdog against Browne; and he was then a massive underdog against Velasquez, even though the American Kickboxing Academy ace had not fought for nearly two years and was fighting at high altitude for the first time.
Inside the cage, Werdum has been winning in spectacular fashion. He gave Nelson a savage beating, submitted Nogueira in their rematch, dominated Browne and knocked out 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner Mark Hunt with a flying knee. His greatest opponent of late has not been a fighter in the cage; it has been the past perception about who he is as a fighter. With every win, he elevated his status in the minds of fans, but even so, he was not getting his proper respect heading into the fight with Velasquez.
The masterful performance against Velasquez finally puts Werdum’s career in its proper perspective. Velasquez had no unavenged losses against the best heavyweights of his generation and won almost every single round in the process. Werdum not only defeated that great champion; he dominated him. He brutalized Velasquez on the feet, forced him to take the fight to the ground and submitted him in quick order when they hit the mat. It stands as one of the most substantial MMA wins in years.
Werdum has five losses on his official record, but that is deceptive. Two of those losses were close decisions to Kharitnov and Nogueira; two more were perplexing debacles in which neither fighter looked good: his bout with Arlovski and his rematch with Overeem. In all his years of fighting elite competition, Werdum has only been beaten decisively once. He did not take that fight seriously going in, and he may have the chance to avenge it soon.
Emelianenko, Nogueira and Velasquez have to be on anyone’s short list of the best heavyweights of all-time. Werdum has now submitted all three. Only one other man has submitted any of them.
These accolades did not manifest themselves because Werdum happened to be in the right places at the right times. If anything, he was unlucky and could have been recognized for his true greatness much sooner. That is a moot point now. Werdum’s greatness is now undeniable. He cemented his place in history at UFC 188, and now we can only sit back and see what he achieves for an encore.