For all of the talk of saturation in the mixed martial arts schedule, the UFC’s March calendar suddenly seems rather sparse: Only a single event, taking place overseas and available only on the promotion’s streaming service, UFC Fight Pass. As headliners go, it’s not exactly a barnburner, but among a card mostly comprised of popular locals and kids on the come-up, the main event does have consequence in the often-stagnant heavyweight division.
Creeping up on his 41st birthday, Fabricio Werdum is attempting to make a bid for another UFC championship fight. He’s not that far off. Currently ranked third, he has just Francis Ngannou and Alistair Overeem ahead of him on the contenders’ list, both of whom have lost to champ Stipe Miocic more recently than he has. The goal for Werdum is to win and wait out the winner of Miocic’s scheduled UFC 226 match with Daniel Cormier.
Attempting to play spoiler is 29-year-old Russian Alexander Volkov, a former Bellator champion who has started his UFC run with three straight wins, including a recent TKO over Stefan Struve, and is looking for a breakthrough win.
Volkov (29-6) has a solid if unspectacular offense that is dependent on his kickboxing and his adroitness at utilizing his reach. At 6-foot-7 and with an 81-inch wingspan, Volkov stands among the most sizable heavyweights, and fights like it. While many tall fighters routinely give up that advantage, Volkov attempts to capitalize on his reach at every offensive opportunity. He is particularly adept at this when his opponent backs up against the fence. In his bouts with both Roy Nelson and Struve, he capitalized on their backward movement, fighting at the end of his strikes as his opponents struggled to work their way out of corners.
Volkov does a couple of things that can cause confusion. For one, he frequently switches stances. While he mostly fights out of the orthodox position, he has no qualms about going southpaw and leading with a right uppercut or a left high kick. For another, he punches from unconventional angles. His overhand isn’t always a true overhand, and his hook isn’t a true hook. Instead, he fires the strikes off from whatever angle has the best likelihood of landing. These slight modifications may not sound like much, but when fighters see the same patterns tens of thousands of times in the gym, any variation — combined with Volkov’s power — can be truly disorienting.
Despite his size, Volkov is able to keep up a strong pace, a fact that offers particular danger in the form of his combination striking. Though his three-fight UFC stretch is a small sample size, he’s averaged 5.28 landed strikes per minute, according to FightMetric, a number that places him toward the top of the heavyweight division. Worth noting against an aggressive opponent like Werdum is that Volkov is not necessarily comfortable countering off his back foot. He clearly prefers to come forward in the kind of heavy barrages that helped him knock out Struve last September.
All of that is good. The danger zone for Volkov in much of his career has come through his wrestling and grappling deficiencies, including in his most recent career losses to Cheick Kongo and Tony Johnson, both of which came in Bellator in 2015. But there are signs he’s made significant progress there. In his three UFC bouts, opponents have gone a combined 2-for-16 in takedown attempts against him, and that includes a 1-for-8 showing by former Division II All-American wrestler Timothy Johnson.
Against Werdum, success in those departments will be defined by simple survival. While Werdum is no takedown artist — he manages only 30 percent accuracy, per FightMetric — any ability to get the fight there could mean the end. Werdum has the edge on the ground against nearly any UFC heavyweight, as evidenced by his 11 career submission wins and decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, and even if he can’t find the finish, he can hold a mount forever.
If Volkov can fend off that dimension of the fight — and it’s a virtual certainty he won’t voluntarily bring the action there — Werdum has plenty of striking tools.
Under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum (23-7-1) rounded out his attack with a kick-heavy arsenal that, like Volkov, is dependent upon barrages. Werdum is much more selective in the use of his energy, but prefers to fight in bursts which often include all-out chase-downs of opponents across the cage. That type of offensive explosion is often rewarded in the form of either landed strikes or the creation of openings, and over time, it has been a boon to Werdum. But it can also be quite risky, as Stipe Miocic proved during his championship-winning, counter right-hand knockout shot against Werdum in 2016. Still, in this particular matchup against an opponent that does not list counter-striking as a particular strength, Werdum should find success there against Volkov.
His kicks could likewise play a pivotal role; he has a strong preference for going to the body, so when Volkov goes southpaw, Werdum will have an open target.
Another favored Werdum position is the clinch. Werdum has done some of his best work there with tight punches and knees, including in his recent fight with Marcin Tybura. He may well elect to crowd the long-limbed Volkov, either looking for knees or to set his underhooks into a takedown.
As mentioned previously, Volkov does not like fighting off his back foot. He is just as apt to cover up or create space with a push-off than plant and fire counters. So from the outset, it will be instructive to see which fighter pushes to take the center of the cage and press the action.
Also worth noting is that Werdum has effective tools to deal with Volkov’s length, namely the push kick and the front kick he has favored over the last few years. Werdum likes to go to the body in an attempt to wear opponents down. It also serves to back an opponent up, feeding into his interest to barrage a retreating opponent.
Werdum has more paths to victory than Volkov. Age may catch up to him at any time, but based on his most recent performance against Tybura, that time is not quite yet. Expect him to work the body, back Volkov up and win the exchanges. I don’t expect it to be a blowout, but Werdum’s skills are still a level above, and he emerges with a unanimous decision.