At UFC 143, former UFC/Pride/Strikeforce fighter Fabricio Werdum returns to the Octagon for the first time in over three years. He's facing Roy Nelson in a fight that, on paper, looks to be a grappling showdown. But in this sport of MMA, we often see two closely matched ground specialists chose to decide the fight on their feet, and given these two men's histories (especially Nelson's), there is a strong chance we'll see more stand-up than ground action on Saturday night.
So in anticipation of Werdum vs. Nelson, let us take a detailed look at the striking of Fabricio Werdum. Werdum is your classic high level jiu jitsu practitioner, with a pile of world class grappling and submission accolades. But over the years he has trained with Mirko Cro Cop and progressed his stand-up. So where do his striking skills now stand, and how will they hold up against Big Country? Let's break it down.
I'll start off by talking about development, because for Werdum, this is perhaps the biggest part of his striking game. His striking progress over the years has been phenomenal. When he first started in MMA back in 2002, he was undeniably a submission specialist. His striking in those early fights is rudimentary at its best - terrible at its worst. Watching his early fights you see a very sloppy fighter with terrible technique just winging wide punches with no form at all. He showed no defense, keeping his chin way up, his hands way down. You can see this in this early fight with Gabriel Gonzaga.
Against Ebenezer Fontes Braga in 2004, he scored a win with a big overhand right, which in some ways showed promise for his game, but also hurt his stand-up. After the Braga fight, he became too reliant on this huge right, and would swing it wildly, overextending himself and falling off balance in the process.
But by 2005, and in particular his Pride 30 fight with Sergei Kharitonov, that began to change. It was during this time that Werdum and Cro Cop began training together - ostensibly to help Cro Cop with his ground game, but you can also see the K-1 veteran's handiwork in Werdum's striking. He tightened up his defenses and got his wildness under control.
Today, Werdum is still primarily a ground fighter, but he is now comfortable on his feet, and has made great strides to become an all around MMA fighter.
Strengths, weaknesses, and more in the full entry.
As I said above, Werdum's earliest skill in striking was in the power of his overhand right. That's still a decent punch for him, but his game is now based more on smaller, more nuanced technical striking rather than the big overhand bomb. He has two particular strengths to his game today.
- Head movement. Werdum is very good at using his head to evade punches. He will slip punches to the sides like a boxer, ducking and weaving his head to avoid strikes. This is an impressive technical skill, and an area where the majority of MMA fighters are lacking. He also does a better job keeping his chin tucked, which keeps him safe should he get caught while slipping a punch. This slip is his best striking defense.
- Distance. Werdum has a good sense of spacing relative to his opponent. He's not interested in getting into a standing shoot-out, so will stay just outside range when standing. From this position, he can quickly get in, land his shots and get out. Defensively, this also allows him to slip shots more easily, and using less movement, which conserves energy.
It's not a powerhouse game, and it does tend to get overrated at times due to the progress he has made over the years, but Werdum is effective at what he does well on the feet.
That said, there remain some notable issues in Werdum's striking - issues that have cost him. His biggest problem area is defense, particularly with his hands. From the very earliest stages of Werdum's MMA career, he was not great with his hands, allowing them to move away from his head while striking, or simply hanging them low while standing. He has made improvements here, but not enough. Those hands still have a tendency to drop at times. Against Junior dos Santos, he managed to keep his hands up, but also left them very wide apart. Cigano could have driven a truck between Werdum's hands, and when the powerful striker saw the opening, he easily blasted an uppercut through to put Werdum out. So a step forward in keeping the hands up, but he is still, 10 years into his career, not effectively closing the gaps to keep out incoming strikes.
When Werdum does get pulled into more striking, these openings become more exaggerated. When striking, he often ducks his head to the point that he is looking down at an opponent's feet. He did this in the exchange with Fedor Emelianenko, though obviously was able to get through that and end things well for himself. This goes along with the idea of his overextending on the right punch - a habit he has mostly broken over the years, but can still fall back on. On the whole, he has a bad tendency to get himself out of a proper posture, allowing his opponent too many openings.
VS. ROY NELSON
The particulars of Werdum's strengths and weaknesses in striking are part of what makes the Nelson match-up at UFC 143 so fascinating.
On the one hand, Werdum's habit of dropping his hands and exposing his head is an absolute disaster against Nelson. Big Country's stand-up game is very basic but effective - he'll try to land that heavy right hand and put you out. If Werdum drops his hands or drops his head and gives Nelson a direct line to that overhand right, Nelson has the power to put Werdum to sleep.
On the other hand, Werdum can control the distance, stay outside, and use his head movement to avoid that right. He's a faster fighter than Nelson, and, for the most part, is better at controlling how the stand-up plays out. If he avoids the shootout, and successfully dodges the big KO punch, he can outstrike Nelson.
The question then comes down to this - can Nelson get inside and put that big hand on Werdum's chin? My opinion is that he can't. But if Werdum makes too many mistakes in his striking, he's going to find himself down and out for the second time inside the Octagon - his big return spoiled by a technical flaw that he has spent 10 years unsuccesfully trying to correct. And if he has corrected it? Then welcome Fabricio Werdum back to the top of the UFC Heavyweight division.
Here are a few closing gifs showing some of the things we discussed. First, the dos Santos KO from UFC 90. Note how Werdum's arms are wide, leaving his head so exposed.
And finally, here's the standing exchange with Fedor where Werdum completely drops his head: