One of the world's top submission fighters, Fabricio Werdum, will try to defend his Heavyweight title opposite boxing specialist, Stipe Miocic, this Saturday (May 14, 2016) inside Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Brazil.
Werdum's career resurgence really has been an impressive feat. Since leaving UFC in 2008, he's submitted Fedor Emelianenko, won six straight inside the Octagon, and dethroned Cain Velasquez with a guillotine.
While his Brazilian jiu-jitsu game has been great for a long time now, the rest of Werdum's skills evolved and allowed him to pull off these incredible accomplishments. Once more, he's in for a tough match with Miocic and will rely on these improvements.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the champion's skill set:
After spending most of his early career desperate to drag the fight to the mat, Werdum has evolved into a very dangerous Muay Thai striker. Under the tutelage of the great Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum has learned to aggressively attack and take advantage of his jiu-jitsu background on the feet as well.
Since Werdum has absolutely no fear of the takedown -- he actually invites it -- Werdum outside game makes great use of kicks. He's also a fairly lanky Heavyweight, so it's a smart weapon for him anyway.
In order to set up his kicks, Werdum routinely starts his combination with a series of straight punches. Mixing up his jabs and crosses in different ways, Werdum will then build off his combination depending on how his opponent reacts and how much distance is between them.
For example, Werdum commonly mixes a stepping knee into his attack (GIF). For a tall fighter, this is a very dangerous technique. This was especially effective against both Roy Nelson and Travis Browne, men who generally like to stand and trade at range. Once they tired and began to simply cover up, Werdum was able to take advantage with his knees. Sometimes, Werdum will step forward after the knee strike and continue to punch, re-setting the combination.
Alternatively, Werdum will continue to hold onto the double-collar tie. Using his usual height advantage well, Werdum pressures down on his opponent's neck and breaks their posture. Additionally, Werdum does a nice job whipping his opponent around and keeping him off-balance before delivering the knee.
Werdum is also quite good at mixing up his targets. To open up his opponent's face, Werdum will slam his opponent's midsection with knees until the hands drop (GIF). It's not a complicated idea, but it makes him much more effective.
Against Velasquez, Werdum's clinch served a different and more important purpose. Whenever Velasquez pressured him into the clinch, Werdum would look for the double-collar tie and used it to circle off with a knee (GIF). This forced his opponent to exhaust himself and take damage, while giving Werdum an opportunity to break away and strike.
After his punching combinations, Werdum will very often look for the body kick (GIF). Again, this is a more effective technique simply because he doesn't worry about his opponent catching it and taking him down, so he's able to throw it more freely. Sometimes, Werdum will step into Southpaw on the right hand, allowing him to deliver a powerful left kick. This technique was particularly effective against Travis Browne, breaking his rib and ruining his conditioning.
Though he often gets in trouble for throwing it lazily, Werdum is still effective with his inside low kick. After landing the strike, Werdum will follow up with punches, as his opponent is often out of a stance (GIF). In the case of Mike Russow, it didn't knock him off-balance, but did cause him to duck into a fight-ending uppercut (GIF).
Werdum will also mix other kicks into his offense. For example, Werdum has a very powerful teep kick (GIF). Once more, his lack of concern for being put on his back allows him to throw jumping and spinning techniques without much consequence.
It has to be mentioned that Werdum is a crafty and tricky kickboxer. He's always trying to catch his opponent off-guard through a variety of strange tactics. Just for a few examples, he'll due things like point down at the mat, talk, announce the 10 second clap, and make funny faces in the middle of a fight. For an opponent trying to focus, this can all be very distracting.
Werdum will also rely on more conventional tricks. For example, his flying knee knockout of Mark Hunt was a pretty classic set up. First, the Brazilian shot in for a takedown, which Hunt defended easily. Just a few moments later, Werdum again ducked low in a very similar motion, but instead sprung into the knee (GIF).
Defensively, Werdum has improved a bit. His aggression can definitely still be countered by a sharp boxer, but his cage awareness has increased. He's had difficulties in the past with getting caught against the fence and then standing still, but his improved movement helped him avoid that scenario against Browne, and he circled out well against Velasquez.
Still, Werdum will often fire off his punches and kicks with little head movement, which is always dangerous.
At this point in his career, Werdum does not rely on forcing the takedown. He's still a Judo black belt and above average wrestler, but "Vai Cavalo" has largely been relying on his striking and reactive grappling.
On occasion, Werdum will utilize some of his Judo ability. In the clinch, he'll push his opponent against the fence, only to suddenly turn into a trip takedown (GIF). Lately, Werdum has been relying more on the Muay Thai clinch when in close, which shows how he's focusing more on landing strikes than securing takedowns.
Currently, it's more common for Werdum to shoot for takedowns. One of his preferred setups is to drop down from the clinch into a single leg, ensuring he has a grip on his opponent. From there, Werdum attempts to finish the inside single with a dump. If that fails, he looks to trip up his opponent's remaining leg.
In his bout with Browne, Werdum frequently went after the double leg. He finished it off the initial shot a couple times but also chained his attempts together well. As Browne went to sprawl, Werdum would circle around him and look to drag him to the mat from there with a body lock.
In top position, Werdum's control is suffocating. He's not exactly a knockout threat with his ground strikes, but Werdum can remain so tight while in a dominant position that his opponent will not be able to defend himself from a continuous stream of shots.
Werdum is an incredible grappler, having won gold in the most high level jiu-jitsu tournaments in the world, such as the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), Worlds and Pan-Ams. Considering that he's submitted some of the best fighters in the sport's history, it's safe to say that his game has translated over to MMA quite well.
Werdum is adept with several guards, and thus has numerous options depending on how his opponent is grappling and what he's looking to accomplish. If the Brazilian is looking to sweep or stand up, Werdum will rely on the butterfly guard, which allows him to elevate his opponent's hips. If his opponent tries to pass, Werdum has a chance to reverse position. Should his foe back away or try to hover around top position, Werdum can usually create enough space to stand.
If his opponent doesn't just want to jump into his guard -- generally a wise choice -- Werdum still has a couple of options. While resting on his back, Werdum will occasionally play around with the De La Riva guard. Basically, while his opponent stands over him, he'll control one of his opponent's ankles with his hand and wrap up a leg with his own. Werdum hasn't really used it to sweep in MMA, as it's difficult without a gi, but he keeps his opponent from really throwing any ground strikes.
Additionally, Werdum will suddenly sit up and latch onto his opponent's leg. If he can, Werdum will stand up directly into the single leg takedown and work from there, one of the most high percentage sweeps in jiu-jitsu. When his opponent prevents this, Werdum will spin under the leg into deep half guard. From the deep half, Werdum escapes out the back door and comes up in top position. Werdum hits this sweep often and against quality opponents, such as Antonio Silva and Travis Browne.
It's a really difficult transition to block, and it's saved Werdum from punishment a few times.
If Werdum is hunting for the finish, Werdum will first lock up a closed guard, ensuring his foe cannot easily escape. Then, he'll suddenly swivel his hips or climb his legs high up on his opponent's shoulder. With these movements, Werdum can create opportunities for arm bars, triangles, or kimuras.
He's finished each move at some point in his lengthy career.
On the rare occasion that a fighter is willing to grapple with Werdum, he thrives. Of course, the most famous example of this came when he handed Emelianenko his first defeat. "Last Emperor" was willing to fight Werdum on the mat and paid for it, as Werdum countered Emelianenko's attempts to pass with a triangle choke (GIF). It only took one quick mistake on Emelianenko's part, and Werdum suddenly became the first man to hold a legitimate win over the Russian.
He still remains the only man to submit him.
More recently, Nogueira willingly engaged Werdum on the mat. He didn't exactly choose to grapple -- Werdum kept taking him down -- but once there, Nogueira looked to use his signature half guard sweeps and tried to play jiu-jitsu with Werdum. The whole fight was an excellent example of Werdum's guard passing ability, as he spun around Nogueira's sweep attempts and then either cut through or smashed his remaining guard.
In the second round, Nogueira turtled up to avoid having his guard passed by Werdum again. As he did, Werdum slipped a hook in and moved towards taking the back. To defend, Nogueira stripped off one of Werdum's hooks and attempted to shake him off, but Werdum simply transitioned to an armbar (GIF).
Lastly, a desperate and tired Cain Velasquez chose to try his luck with the takedown. In his first attempt, he was nearly reversed by a guillotine choke and was not able to maintain top position. The second time around, Werdum quickly locked the grip around his neck, falling to his back with a smile on his face and finishing the fight (GIF).
Were it not for Emelianenko's decade of dominance, Werdum would already be a favorite for the greatest Heavyweight of all time. He's pulled off some incredible accomplishments and beaten the best of the best across multiple generations of fighters, and Miocic is simply the next top fighter in line. By defending his belt, Werdum solidifies his legacy as a Heavyweight great even further.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.