Fabricio Werdum is the UFC heavyweight division's forgotten man. A winner of five of his last six, he has somehow managed to weave a path of twists that has seen him go from apex on down. In 2010, he became the man to end Fedor Emelianenko's nearly 10-year run of dominance, but since then each fight has been at least a slight downward step in either opponent level or significance, from Alistair Overeem to Roy Nelson to Mike Russow.
It's been a year since that last fight, and to most of the worldwide audience he's been invisible since then. In Brazil, he was coaching TUF Brazil 2, which finally promises an upward step, against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The fight is a rematch of a 2006 PRIDE bout, which "Big Nog" won by unanimous decision.
That match was part of an open weight Grand Prix, so there was something on the line, yet there is more at stake for Werdum in the rematch. When he beat Emelianenko and his future suddenly seemed unlimited, he was 32 years old. It doesn't seem all that long ago, yet he's now weeks away from turning 36. If he is to invade the hot potato championship wars between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, he is going to have to do so soon.
Part of the frustration about putting Werdum (16-5-1) on the sidelines for so long stemmed from the improvement he'd shown in his last two fights. After a disappointing stylistic matchup with Overeem (which actually saw Werdum land more strikes by a 62-46 count), Werdum rebounded by wowing most onlookers with a systematic beating of Nelson. In that fight, which took place almost entirely on the feet, he landed 66 percent of his strikes, a remarkably high number. He consistently beat Nelson to the head and body, and wherever else he aimed.
Against the normally durable Russow, he was even better, needing just 2:28 to knock him out with an uppercut and ground strikes.
There may not be a single thing that's contributed more to his standup improvement than his kicks. Under the tutelage of the renowned striking coach Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum has exhibited much more faith in his techniques, as well as an improved variety. That was a key to his win over Nelson, as he kept him out of range with push kicks to the body and kicks to the lead leg. That slowed "Big Country" down, opening him up for punishment on the inside with knees from the clinch.
Werdum's standup offense is also helped by the fact that most opponents aren't interested in going to the mat with him because of his reputation as a dangerous guard-player. That means they'll often emphasize staying at range, even if it negatively affects their own offense.
Nogueira (34-7-1, 1 no contest) is one fighter who is unlikely to be affected by such a thought. As a third-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he slightly outranks Werdum (second-degree), and will not be intimidated by his prowess.
Now 37, the all-time great is on the tail end of his career. His recent results have been checkered, having alternated wins and losses in his last seven fights. Against Frank Mir at UFC 140, he was submitted for the first time. But the old lion won't go quietly. He found trouble against Brendan Schaub but came back to knock him out. In his last fight, he taught the 28-year-old Dave Herman a lesson on the mat, finishing him via armbar.
One of the reasons Nogueira has not just faded away is because of an active intention to reinvent himself. In recent bouts, he's flashed some power, which was never a main ingredient of his heyday. In the past, he was content to weave his way into an exchange just so he can grab a hold of his opponent and try to pull guard. It's not that way anymore. Against most of his recent foes, including Mir and Herman, he's shown an interest in dirty boxing and working his man against the cage. That is actually a smart tactic for him, because it de-emphasizes his own defensive boxing limitations. By that I mean, he has often been easily hit.
According to FightMetric, in the 30 Nogueira fights they've broken down statistically, he's landed 1.85 strikes per minute, while opponents have hit him with 2.15 strikes per minute. Deficits in the category are rarely seen for true elite fighters. (By comparison, Werdum out-lands opponents in the same stat 2.77-1.86.)
But that's a trend that Nogueira has been able to reverse recently. He outlanded Schaub 17-11, Mir 42-7 and Herman 45-14.
So how will Nogueira's altered style work against Werdum's improvement? At this point in their careers I believe Werdum's striking is much more varied. He has a jab/cross, an assortment of kicks and a strong clinch as his base tools. He too has also flashed some new power due to his willingness to commit to whatever he's throwing. And when all else fails, his ground game is a fantastic backup. He also has much less mileage on his body than Nogueira does. That statistic about Big Nog being out-struck during the course of his career? It adds up over time.
Nogueira is one of the most resilient fighters the sport has seen, but Werdum is a difficult style matchup for him, because he can negate his biggest strength (jiu-jitsu) and he has an edge standing. There are no other significant advantages for either. They are about the same height and have the same reach. Neither is a very good wrestler. Most of this fight will be contested through strikes. In 2006, Nogueira beat Werdum in a decision. In the rematch, Werdum will even the score.