MEXICO CITY -- Fabricio Werdum, the greatest heavyweight in mixed martial arts history?
It's certainly not a certainty.
But after breaking Cain Velasquez's will, and taking his UFC heavyweight title Saturday night at UFC 188 in front of 21,000 Mexican fans who were ready to blow the roof off Arena Ciudad de Mexico in celebration of a Velasquez victory, Werdum's name absolutely belongs in the conversation.
For the past few years, the debate was whether Fedor Emelianenko, long acknowledged as MMA's all-time best heavyweight, had ceded the honor to Velasquez.
Now Werdum has submitted them both.
But on the other hand, Werdum has continued to grow and progress as a fighter well into his mid-to-late 30s, long after most fighters are basically finished products. The Werdum who was knocked out by Junior dos Santos in 2008 was considered "just a jiu-jitsu guy." The Werdum who broke Velasquez's will on Saturday night is a well-rounded fighter who can beat you anywhere. Werdum was willing to go spend a month training at 10,000 feet to acclimate to Mexico City's 7,000 feet; Velasquez had to be talked into going to Mexico two weeks early.
What's more impressive? The guy who starts his career strong and drops off, as Emelianenko certainly did after his Werdum loss, or the guy who keeps improving and changing and getting better after a bit of a shaky start? That's a six of one, half a dozen of another argument.
If nothing else, Werdum has the biggest collection of scalps on his resume out of the heavyweight greats. He ended Emelianenko's decade-long win streak, when Fedor had an unbeatable aura. He beat Velasquez in Mexico City. He avenged a loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He could potentially avenge losses to Overeem (against whom he's 1-1), dos Santos, and Arlovski.
Not all that long ago, the idea the Werdum would even return to the UFC seemed farfetched. Now, you can say that this fighter who had been counted out so many times deserves a spot on the short list of the greatest heavyweights in MMA history. And while time isn't on his side at age 37, the simple fact he's worked into this position is one of the sport's greatest stories all on its own.
UFC 188 quotes
"It was an educated crowd. You know how happy that makes me to be in Mexico City, Mexico, and when a guy steps over and gets side control, they cheer? And when they were booing, they deserved to boo. I didn't disagree with one f---ing boo that happened tonight. When they were booing, [the fighters] deserved to be booed." -- UFC president Dana White, praising the Mexico City crowd.
"For sure when I fought Fedor in 2010, it was an amazing fight. Nobody believed in myself again. But this moment is the best moment of my life. The best in the world is the UFC heavyweight champion, so I'm very happy." -- Werdum on his victory.
"Maybe that wasn't enough. Again, no excuses. Fabricio was the better guy tonight. He fought with great technique. Very relaxed." -- Velasquez, on waiting until two weeks out before heading to Mexico City.
"I love this kid. He's such a great fighter. First of all, he goes in with a kid like Marquardt and stands right in the pocket with him and exchanges. His stand-up looked great tonight, but I don't believe he can make 170. I honestly don't believe he can make 170. He's done nothing to prove he can make 170 pounds," White continued. "And when he does make 170 pounds, a) it's dangerous, and b) it screws a lot of things up around here. He's going to have to get serious and get a nutritionist. He had to cut to make 185 and he came in right on the nose. I am the furthest from confident that he is capable of making 170." -- White, not mincing words on whether Gastelum should fight at 185 or 170.
Up: Eddie Alvarez Was Alvarez's fight with Gilbert Melendez the all-out war we all so gleefully envisioned? No. But what we got instead was a solid story all on its own. Alvarez had his left eye swollen shut following a hellacious Melendez elbow. It would have been easy to call it a night. Instead, Alvarez took control by the midpoint of the fight, and turned it in his favor, with his wrestling, his trademark aggressive transitions, and a late flurry in the third round to remove any doubt. One round in, and coming off to his loss to Donald Cerrone, Alvarez's UFC stint was looking like a disaster. Instead, he showed the heart of a champion.
Down: Gilbert Melendez The numbers speak for themselves: Since coming over to the UFC, the former Strikeforce lightweight champ is 1-3, with the only victory over the fast-fading Diego Sanchez. Sure, those losses were to top-notch competition. But Melendez had seemed overly concerned with Melendez the brand in recent years and less concerned with Melendez the fighter. He simply has not evolved as a competitor in recent outings. If he's going to find a way to stay near the top of the mix at 155, he needs to get back to basics.
Yes, Rodriguez was the most impressive of the two, but I'm going to include both fighters who were named for Fight of the Night honors. Rodriguez still needs quite a bit of polish -- Joe Rogan's comparison of Rodriguez to Jon Jones and Anthony Pettis was Rogan at his most lovably over-the-top -- but there's no doubt the Chihuahua native has plenty of potential. Rodriguez showed flash, style, fearlessness, and fighting spirit in a bout which went all over the map. As my colleague Shaun Al-Shatti aptly tweeted, even if Rodriguez is the only thing worthwhile that comes out of TUF: Latin America, the show would have been worth the hassle.
Then there's Rosa. The American Top Team fighter from Boston is 1-2 in the UFC, but check out the circumstance in his two losses: He fought Dennis Siver on nine days notice, dropping 30 pounds in the process, and went the distance in his UFC debut; then last night, he went into the lion's den, took on the popular Rodriguez in Mexico City, and engaged in a thriller. He got Fight of the Night bonuses both times. Win or lose, Rosa's fights are appointment viewing.
Hold: Henry Cejudo Cejudo has all the tools to become the flyweight division's breakout star. He's got the undeniable look of someone on his way to the top. He's also got charisma and he isn't afraid to call people out.
But he's also simply not ready for one of the sport's best pound-for-pound fighters in champion Demetrious Johnson. Cejudo improved to 10-0 against an underrated Chico Camus, but didn't show anything in the process to demonstrate he should be fast-tracked to a title shot. Maybe it really was partially due to his "bad taco." But either way, Cejudo himself understands he's not yet ready for "Mighty Mouse," which in its own way demonstrates he has the right attitude it will take to continue his climb.
Down: Nate Marquardt There's no snark here, no intention to kick a man while he's down, I'm just calling this one like I see it: I don't want to see Nate Marquardt take any more beatings. The man has had a long and distinguished career. He's also lost five out of his last six fights and been finished in three of them. Last night may have been the toughest to watch, as Marquardt seemed too proud to quit and referee Dan Miragliotta didn't seem to be in much of a rush to help him out. It's hard to see how things will get any better from here for the Strikeforce and Pancrase champ.
Hold: Kelvin Gastelum Why keep Gastelum at "hold" after such a dominant performance against Marquardt? Well, that's because White told Gastelum in no uncertain terms that he's not going back to welterweight any time soon. And thus is his conundrum. Gastelum has the misfortune of being a bit too big for welterweight, but he just doesn't have the size and reach of guys like Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold. Given how strong he looked at UFC 188, though, it's hard not to fault White for coming to such a conclusion.
There were no bad judging calls of note on the evening. Sure, there were a bunch of tight decisions, a couple of which could have gone either way, but there was nothing remotely close to a robbery. From an officiating perspective, Miragliotta sure seemed to let Marquardt take too much damage. Fortunately, Marquardt's corner waved the fight off after the second round, something far too many cornermen in this sport are too proud to do.
This also seems like a good spot to acknowledge the Mexico City crowd, which was truly one of the UFC's finest. Of course the fans supported their fighters, and did so with quite a bit of volume. But they also weren't blind in their loyalty. The crowd turned against Mexican-American Francisco Trevino after his poor showing, as they cheered Johnny Case every time he was shown on the screen while they were awaiting the verdict. And as disappointed as they were that Velasquez lost, the crowd was respectful toward Werdum, applauding the new champion for his victory. That's a sign that a city well-known for its rich boxing history also understands MMA.
Fight I'd like to see next: Fabricio Werdum vs. Junior dos Santos
Other than Werdum himself, no fighter could possibly be happier with Saturday night's outcome than dos Santos. As long as Velasquez was champ, the door was all but closed to dos Santos. But after Werdum's victory, the opportunity to regain the title is wide open.
Sure, there are plenty of options out there, not the least of which is an immediate rematch for Velasquez. Stipe Miocic, whose name had been tossed around, lost to dos Santos back in December. And yes, Arlovski's name is out there, too. Arlovski beat Werdum back at UFC 70.
But a rematch with dos Santos, who has still never lost in the UFC to anyone besides Velasquez, would be a huge addition to Werdum's legacy. He's already in the conversation for best heavyweight in history. His first-round knockout loss to dos Santos was both the moment which put JDS on the map and the lowest point of Werdum's career. All due respect to the resurgent Arlovski, but the stars seem to be aligning for a rematch which makes all too much sense.