Given the relatively shallow talent pool among the world's MMA heavyweight division, it's hard to be good and also under the radar, yet that's where Mike Russow is despite a four-fight UFC win streak and only one career loss.
That could all change on Saturday. That night at UFC 147, the American fighter gets his highest-profile matchup, a date against top five opponent Fabricio Werdum. To be frank, it's a fight that the Brazilian is expected to win. He's a massive favorite, at around 5-to-1, in a bout that will take place on his home soil. But for Russow, that only means that if he wins, no longer can he be taken lightly. No longer can he be ignored. A win over Werdum will erase any lingering doubts about the abilities of the full-time police officer and full-time fighter.
"I believe I’m right up there with the top," he said. "You know, since i signed with the UFC, I’ve had some injuries and just been averaging one fight a year. I'm excited this year to have two fights already. So, I just want to keep going, and hopefully this will be a good sign."
Finding anyone picking Russow (15-1, 1 no contest) to win may be a challenge, but he certainly has a style that could cause Werdum problems. Russow is a grinder, a former collegiate wrestler at Eastern Illinois and three-time national qualifier who can take opponents out of their offensive rhythm by limiting their options to fighting from their back. That wrestling acumen will certainly factor into this fight, as Werdum has only stopped 33 percent of takedowns against him, according to FightMetric numbers.
Part of the reason Werdum's numbers are so low is because he doesn't mind fighting off of his back. A decorated international grappler who has twice won gold medals at the ADCC Submission world championships, Werdum is believed by many to be the top submission artist among MMA's big men.
So it's certainly possible that the scheduled three-rounder could come down to a fight where Werdum is forced to tap Russow; it might come down to submission or else.
If that's the way it goes, that's just fine with Russow, who noted this week that he has been training with respected jiu-jitsu trainer Rodrigo "Comprido" Medeiros for over five years. Comprido was the same coach who helped guide Brock Lesnar to the UFC heavyweight title with precious little MMA experience, and prepped him for his rematch with submission artist Frank Mir. His instruction kept Lesnar out of dangerous situations, leading to a second-round TKO win.
"So I feel really confident in my jiu-jitsu," Russow said. "I just want to stick to our game plan and go out there and put on a great fight.
For this bout, Russow says the biggest leap he's made in his training is to his conditioning, knowing that Werdum will challenge him in ways he's never been pushed.
In addition, he has the very recent experience of facing Jon Olav Einemo in his last fight. Like Werdum, Einemo is a decorated grappler and a former ADCC champion, yet he found no success against Russow, who scored six takedowns and passed Einemo's guard twice in earning a unanimous decision at January's UFC on FOX 2.
"I think it really boosted my confidence going against such a good guy like John Einemo in January," he said. "He's a world champion, a very good submission guy himself. I know Fabricio is a lot more active and he's very good, but I definitely think it helped my confidence."
Werdum has shown improved striking ability in his recent bouts, making Russow's ground success even more crucial than it otherwise might have been. Given the Brazilian's well-rounded skill set, Russow has much to be concerned with. Yet given what he's accomplished himself, he acknowledged that he's sometimes allowed himself to ponder his place in the UFC heavyweight title picture.
The thought of a moonlighting, active policeman reaching those heights might seem improbable, but Russow has the opportunity to change that perception in just 15 minutes of work on Saturday night.
"It’s been kind of a real slow [career] pace, but I'm really just focused on this fight," he said. "I don't want to look past anything. I just want to get through Saturday and shock everybody."