Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight champion, Fabricio Werdum, will collide with former Bellator strap-hanger, Alexander Volkov, this Saturday (March 17, 2018) inside The 02 Arena in London, England.
Werdum is among the most active and successful Heavyweights in the world. This will be his fourth bout in less than a year, a clear sign that the Brazilian is looking to earn his rematch opposite Stipe Miocic. Recently, Werdum’s sights have shifted a bit, however, as he’s been dispatching up-and-coming Heavyweight talent rather than his generation of contenders. Looking to take his place among the elite is Volkov, who has quietly put together a trio of wins inside the Octagon. Last time out, he capitalized big in his first main event slot, breaking down Stefan Struve en route to a third round stoppage victory.
Let’s take a closer look at the skills of both men:
It remains to be seen who will prove the more effective striker on Saturday, but on paper, Volkov holds quite a few accolades. A black belt in Tsu Shin Gen and brown belt in Kyokushin karate with 19 knockout victories to his name, Volkov is a lanky, high-volume kickboxer with great fundamentals.
Back in Sept. 2017, UFC matched Volkov with Struve, and the early result was a back-and-forth kickboxing match. As the fight wore on, however, Volkov’s superior fundamentals allowed him to more consistently land damaging shots and wear down his foe, slowly shifting the fight into his favor.
Unlike Struve, Volkov understands the concept of fighting tall. Opposite “Skyscraper,” Volkov did far better than Struve with basic range strikes, namely the jab and lead leg kick. Repeatedly, Volkov slipped his head off the center line and stabbed at Struve’s skull with a long jab, interrupting whatever combination or step knee Struve was looking to throw.
Volkov always does excellent work with his lead leg, but it really did wonders in doing damage from a range Struve struggled to maintain (despite his reach advantage, Struve would fall forward with his punches and end up jamming himself). At that distance, Volkov repeatedly slapped Struve’s thigh with his shin, alternating between the inside low kick and his brutal snap kick to the mid-section.
Opposite fighters who are not 7’ tall, Volkov will happily go high with a left roundhouse kick as well.
Once Struve was beginning to feel the fight a bit, Volkov really expanded on his combinations. In this area, Volkov showed a lot of improvement, as he previously had fallen into the bad habit that is sometimes typical of inexperienced Karate fighters: alternating left-right-left-right straight shots. Against Struve, Volkov hooked to the body, found a home for the uppercut, and finished good combinations with a sharp jab.
It was the finest kickboxing performance of his career, and at 29 years of age, it inspires plenty of hope that he’ll continue improving.
On the other side of the equation is Werdum, a representative of Rafael Cordeiro’s violent brand of Muay Thai. No one will mistake Werdum for a perfect striker, but he’s aggressive, tough and certainly has some offensive skill, which has proven enough to dominate quite a few top Heavyweights.
Since Werdum has absolutely no fear of the takedown -- he generally invites it -- Werdum is able to fire power kicks with little fear of repercussion. If Werdum’s opponent is backing up, he’ll have a hard time doing anything other than blocking the kick, so Werdum takes full advantage by trying to blast through his foe with kicks.
To set up his kicks, Werdum routinely starts his combination with a series of straight punches. It’s very often the one-two combination, but Werdum will occasionally double up his jab or throw a pair of right hands. Either way, Werdum is trying to get his opponent on the defensive, and he’ll then look to build upon the combination.
For example, Werdum commonly mixes a stepping knee into his attack (GIF). 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 his 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 midsection with knees until the hands drop (GIF). It’s not a complicated idea, but it makes him much more effective.
Whenever Werdum gets his opponent to cover up under his flurry of punches, but is to far back to land a knee, a body kick is coming (GIF). Much of the time, Werdum will end his combination with a right hand, stepping into Southpaw on the cross. From there, he’s lined up perfectly for a left kick to the body or head, which is one of the most effective stand up techniques around.
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 stance and unable to counter/defend (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.
Werdum’s kickboxing is all about offense. He’s tough with a solid chin and well-conditioned enough to recover from counter shots that don’t put him out. On the whole, that means Werdum tends to charge at his opponents until they accept that he’s going to lead or a counter punch has ended his night early.
Once the fight enters close range, it’s abundantly clear who holds the advantage. Werdum is an absurdly decorated jiu-jitsu player with a black belt in Judo as well, and though he forces takedowns less often at the age of 40, his takedowns are still a major threat to Volkov.
In the clinch, Werdum will 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 focused 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. Werdum landed an easy single leg and dump for the first time in a while on Walt Harris, showing that he still remembers how to wrestle.
If Werdum is desperate, he’ll frequently go after the double leg. It’s not pretty, but Werdum is pretty good at driving into a body lock clinch. At worst, he can easily pull guard off a failed double leg.
It’s rare that Volkov attempts a takedown, and doing so against Werdum would be a terrible decision, so we can safely skip over that bit this time.
Luckily, Volkov has improved over the years and recently shown himself to be a difficult man to drag to the mat. First and foremost, his size and range mean that most fighters try to shove him into the cage before wrestling. From that position, Volkov does two things particularly well. For one, he dips down and gets his head in good position, driving his forehead into his opponent’s jaw. This prevents level changes and makes it easier to circle away from the fence.
Aside from that, Volkov makes full use of his length by spreading his legs out when his opponent attempts to hit a double leg. With his stance split wide, it’s very difficult for opponent’s to lock their hands and complete the shot.
In an excellent example of Volkov’s defensive grappling, he was able to counter Blagoi Ivanov — Professional Fighter’s League (PFL) Heavyweight champ and Sambo master — to land a rear naked choke. Ivanov committed hard to an outside trip and landed it, but Volkov’s body type allowed him to hip heist directly into mount instead. Ivanov tried to scramble, but he instead gave up a quick submission.
Even more so than the above section, the jiu-jitsu match up favors Werdum — Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), Worlds and Pan-Ams gold medalist — so strongly that covering Volkov’s rare submission attempt is a waste of time. To put it simply, Volkov is a solid grappler with a purple belt in BJJ to his credit, but he is not on Werdum’s level if put on his back.
Werdum is simply an expert from all areas on the mat.
From his back, Werdum is adept with several guards and will choose his guard based on his objective. 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.
One of Werdum’s favorite techniques from his back is to sit up into a single leg takedown. As his opponent flirts with the idea of trying to pass guard, Werdum will immediately sit up and tackle a leg. Sometimes it allows him to build all the way up to a true single leg and finish the shot, but more often Werdum simply latches on and rolls into deep half guard. That’s an excellent position to sweep from, and it often lands Werdum in top position.
If Werdum is hunting for the finish, Werdum will first lock up a closed guard, ensuring his foe cannot easily back out. 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 depending on his foe’s reactions, and his offense is generally so dangerous that there are few opportunities to land ground strikes.
Werdum’s top game is similarly potent. As he repeatedly showed against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, “Vai Cavalo” is a masterful guard passer. Nogueira repeatedly tried to use the many half guard sweeps that he is known for, but Werdum either sliced his knee through the half guard or back stepped around all his attempts. Over and over, Werdum was able to advance into dominant position, where he eventually landed the fight-finishing armbar (GIF).
The Heavyweight title is occupied with The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and Daniel Cormier’s attempt to disrupt the division until July, but afterward the division is wide open. There is no clear contender next in line, which puts the winner of this bout in a great position to contend next. Furthermore, there’s a distinct chance Cormier returns to Light Heavyweight even with a victory, creating another big opportunity for the victor of Saturday’s bout to step into a title fight.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion 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.