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Fabricio Werdum is the greatest fighter to ever sleep right under our noses

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Zuffa LLC via Getty

Mark Hunt’s mission to Mexico wasn’t ideal; he was traveling 20 hours by plane from his native New Zealand to fight Fabricio Werdum at high altitude on three week’s notice, and he had nearly 40 pounds of weight to cut in the interstices. If there were moments of exaltation in the fight, they came when -- under that set of ridiculous circumstances -- he nearly pulled off a heist anyway.

As improbable as it was, there were brief instances when Hunt looked primed to become the interim heavyweight champion of the UFC, which felt like a pending rearranging of the cosmos.

Hunt plodded forward and dropped Werdum with his big bashers early in the fight. He shoved him to the ground like a bouncer sorting out a fracas, at one point, and at another torpedoed his 285-pound bulk into Werdum’s guard. Even though it’s been a flytrap for people to follow Werdum to the ground in the past, Hunt managed to not only survive the sequence, but drop some hammers in the process. Hunt got up after that little dalliance in the minefield and resumed his search for Werdum’s jugular.

And he came close. He didn’t win in the end but, just by making the walk --and by making Saturday’s main event at UFC 180 tense with the idea that anything is possible -- Hunt did a lot.

Werdum just did more.

Even though Hunt’s been the loveable underdog since coming to the UFC as a throw-in from the Pride deal, his run has been visible and easy to understand (if not fully process). Harder to understand is Werdum’s. He’s the man who continues to go about beating the carnival’s biggest attractions without ever taking on the burden of hype.

Werdum is like Gary Oldman in the movies; he’s so good at what he does that we forget who we’re looking at. He’s the sneakiest "great" fighter going, because he redirects attention. When he was to fight Cain Velasquez, it was all about Velasquez and the foray into Mexico. When Velasquez became Hunt, it became about Hunt as a kind of Samoan Cinderella.

Yet as we fixate on Hunt being a Cinderella it’s important to remember that Werdum -- Mr. Shadow Puppets On the Wall -- shows up to every fight in a coach and horses made from a pumpkin and field mice.

This is a guy who was cut by the UFC for getting starched by Junior dos Santos, you realize that that’s the only legitimate loss he’s really suffered in over seven years? The loss to Alistair Overeem in Strikeforce felt more like a divide in perception than it did a true scorecard. Even for the judges it was hard to fathom that Werdum was actually beating Overeem on the feet with all that excessive pleading he was doing for "The Reem" to join him on the ground (very unbecoming).

The scorecards read like this: Texas doesn’t award victories to mendicants.

I can remember when Werdum was fighting Brandon Vera, and Vera felt like the 800-pound gorilla in the match-up. After the Brazilian somewhat unceremoniously beat him via first round TKO, Vera would say he slept with Werdum under his pillow at night, waiting for a chance to redeem himself. That chance never came.

Werdum was a 6-to-1 underdog against Fedor Emelianenko, really just a warm body to keep the Russian busy as he neared the horizon. Yet Werdum became the first man to defeat him in 10 years. It remains one of the single greatest jaw-dropping moments in MMA history. I can still hear Werdum and his team singing like lunatics backstage at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, just as easily as I can hear the word "fluke" that played down the chorus line afterwards.

Upsetting narratives is what Werdum does very well.

And he did it again to the feel good story of Mark Hunt on Saturday night.

It's true that Werdum had the odds stacked in his favor against Hunt, since he had been acclimated to Mexico City’s altitude for an extended period of time. He was training for Velasquez, a 25-minute assault bull like the heavyweight division has never known, so he was in great shape. But it was still a change that he had to cope with. Hunt’s one-punch power was going to show up in force early, with the idea/promise that he may fade late. Werdum’s best chance was to either get the fight to the ground and submit Hunt, or to drag the thing into the later rounds, where Hunt would slowly extinguish.

So what did Werdum do? Hit him with a lunging knee in the second round, just when it felt like Hunt had the upper hand. Werdum, once again, surreptitiously beat somebody at their own game. Just like he beat Roy Nelson on the feet, and Travis Browne, and Mike Russow. His ground game is real; but it's not necessary.

No, the greatest trick Werdum plays is staying just below our hype point. He’s good at other things, too, things like blending into the environs -- by the time he stepped into the cage with Hunt, he’d long become a product of Mexico. There were corridos being penned about him and his long ride through the Oaxaca hills, and the crowd on fight night backed him as their own -- but sneaking up on people in the cage is as much of a talent as the talent itself.

That’s what made the fight with Velasquez fun to think about, and it’s what makes it fun to rethink as they set it up again. Werdum is sneaky good. He’s a smart fighter. He has more than a single trick up his sleeve. He can sort of play along and then, just when you least expect it, spring a knee on Hunt or a triangle-armbar on Fedor, and kick the needle off the record.

He’s very good at making it feel as though he’s overachieving, but the more you watch him, the more you realize it’s not that at all. He’s simply achieving more than we’ve caught up with in accepting. If he unifies the belt against Velasquez in the spring, jaws will drop afresh. How is that possible for a guy who has won five in a row, all of them convincingly?

(Shhh. Because, brother, don’t be fooled by the goofy faces he makes. He likes the element of surprise. And even though it won’t show up on the Tale of the Tape, Werdum is the stealthiest spoiler in the game).