If you had told the watchers of Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's first fight that one day they would rematch, and it would be Werdum enjoying a substantial striking advantage, they would have laughed at you. In his Pride days, and indeed until very recently, Fabricio Werdum was the prototypical Jiu Jitsu-based MMA fighter: fantastic on the ground, but with poor takedowns and almost no striking ability. But that Fabricio Werdum is no more. In fact, the Fabricio Werdum of today would give just about every heavyweight in the UFC trouble with his striking, and that newfound potency on the feet only serves to complement his brilliant ground game.
Since 2007, Werdum has been training his striking at the Chute Boxe Acedemy under Rafael Cordeiro, whose unique Brazilian style of Muay Thai has had a huge influence on such MMA greats as Pele, Anderson Silva, Shogun Rua, Ninja Rua, and Wanderlei Silva. There are flaws and advantages to the style of Muay Thai that Cordeiro teaches his students, but it's hard to argue that his mentorship has done anything but improve the once one-dimensional Fabricio Werdum.
Today I'll be looking at some of the wrinkles of Fabricio's new striking game.
This is where the training of Rafael Cordeiro really shines. Werdum's clinch game is such that he is now basically a giant version of prime Wanderlei Silva. Having absolutely no fear of being taken down because of his exceptional guard, Werdum throws high knees from the clinch at will. His win over Roy Nelson showed just how devastating those clinch knees can be.
1. Here, Werdum and Nelson are clinched up along the fence. Roy has a deep underhook on Werdum's left side, and Werdum's left arm maintains the overhook. Meanwhile, the two men engage in a back-and-forth battle with their free arms, Roy trying to pummel in for a second underhook, Werdum trying to control Roy's wrist or biceps and make enough space to either strike, turn, or disengage.
2. Suddenly, Werdum is struck by a bright idea. Rather than get clipped by Nelson over and over while trying in vain to control his left arm, why not grab the collar tie that is right there waiting for him? He allows Roy to keep fishing for his underhook, and grabs the back of his head with his right arm.
3. Werdum releases his left overhook and transitions smoothly to the double collar tie. His forearms laid hard across Roy's collarbones, he is easily able to make the space he needs to strike. And, since Roy shows no willingness to counter the double collar tie with a clinch of his own, Werdum is free to drive a hard knee right into Roy's ample gut.
4. ...and a second one that goes high, catching Big Country right on the cheekbone.
The problem with Werdum's clinch game is that it lacks nuance. Like most Chute Boxe fighters, his end goal is almost always the double collar tie, from which he will throw knee after knee until his opponent is knocked out or breaks his clinch. Despite it's effectiveness, this predictability started to get him into trouble against Nelson after the first round.
1. As Werdum circles around the Octagon, moving to his right to avoid Nelson's killer right hand, Roy slings a left hook at him that misses its mark and gives Fabricio the outside angle for free.
2. Fabricio steps in, still at a strong angle relative to Roy's position. Roy is now completely turned away from Werdum, who is effectively facing Roy's center from the side. He lays his left forearm across the back of Roy's neck, and controls the triceps of his left arm with his other hand. From here he can land unanswerable clinch strikes, land a free right hand behind Roy's ear, or take the back.
3. Instead, he allows Nelson to turn into him so that he can grab a normal collar tie. The side clinch would have been a much safer option, since Roy has already shown that he is happy to eat some knees if it gives him a chance to land his right hand.
4. Though it's not the cleanest punch, Nelson does land his right hand on Werdum's temple, and breaks his clinch in the process.
The double collar tie is an excellent dominant position, but it is not impervious to counters. Unfortunately, Werdum doesn't seem to have any confidence in the clinch in positions besides the double collar tie. Even when he grabs a single collar tie, it is always with the goal of working toward the double. As a result, he is very susceptible to being hit while trying to advance his position in the clinch, or while trying to, in typical Chute Boxe fashion, walk forward and grab his opponent's head. Roy punished him for these habits several times in their fight, though he was unable to land cleanly or consistently enough to have Werdum in any real trouble.
This is likely Werdum's biggest weakness on the feet. His hands and head movement are underwhelming to say the least. At the risk of blaming everything on Rafael Cordeiro, this is something we've seen with just about every notable fighter from Chute Boxe, with the exception of Anderson.
Werdum's punches, like Wanderlei's tend to come from the shoulders rather than the hips. Check out this freeze frame of him punching Roy Nelson.
1. Fabricio stands before Roy. Notice the details of his stance; we'll talk a bit more about that later.
2. With the first punch, a jab, he has already leaned forward to the point where his chin is over his lead foot.
3. His follow-up cross is an ugly punch indeed. Evoking Wanderlei, his elbow comes up high as he chambers and unleashes the strike. Not only does this telegraph a punch, but it disconnects the arm from the hip and core, where real punching power is derived from. Instead, the punch is powered forward by pure body momentum, and the strength of the shoulder, which is a relatively weak muscle group compared to the hips.
4. Werdum walks into a high kick, which makes for a nice follow-up to his forward-moving punches, but Roy is a little out of range.
Looking at the above, we can surmise pretty simply that Fabricio hasn't been taught to punch correctly. His problems come down to his punching mechanics, and those come down to his stance. In the first frame of the above image, you can see that he stands relatively tall. This works for kickers: you won't often see nakmuay or kickboxers with very bent knees. But when it comes to punches, having the legs straight creates a myriad of problems. Worse, Werdum's weight is already oriented toward his front foot. To throw a good jab or cross, the weight should be over the back foot, so that the thrower can twist from his rear hip into the blow. With the stance shown above, Fabricio tries to push off from his rear foot, but simply ends up lunging forward, rather than staying balanced over his feet and using his hips to unwind into his punches.
This works well enough against most MMA fighters. Even JDS, the best boxer in the heavyweight division, has a nasty tendency to back straight up. As such, Fabricio could likely march forward throwing punches without too much fear of being countered. And he does a good job of using his punches to work his feet into kicking position. But this chin-first, shoulder-powered punching style is far from optimal, and leaves lots of openings, as well as weakening Werdum's punches.
You can notice also that Fabricio's head stays pretty well dead center as he moves forward with his punches. Also a habit of many Chute Boxe fighters (Shogun being the worst example), Fabricio will make attempts at head movement when he stands in front of his opponent, but that side to side motion goes out the window the moment he starts punching.
So, will these holes be enough to allow Nogueira to catch Werdum? Big Nog has never had the boxing skills of his brother, and has only slowed with age. Despite his flaws, Werdum's willingness to go the ground allows him total freedom on the feet. He is happy to throw high knees and kicks, knowing that any resultant takedown will only allow him to work in his element on the mat. And, even though there are errors in his style, it's hard to deny that the Fabricio Werdum of today is a massive improvement over the one-dimensional fighter of old.