When we last left our heroes...The word "gatekeeper" is one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated terms in prizefighting. People hear the word and automatically think that referring to someone as a gatekeeper is an insult. As if 50% of the prizefighting population wins a title at some point.
A gatekeeper is not confined to guys like Josh Neer: a limited fighter who gets fights in the UFC because he loses as much as he wins, but is fairly consistent. Rather, it includes a broad range of competitors. Someone who is super talented, but flawed enough to lose consistently can obviously be a gatekeeper.
The thing about gatekeepers is that upward mobility is usually a pipe dream. Except, of course, at heavyweight, where everyone is flawed, and you never know who will end up getting a title shot out of the deep blue.
Werdum and Browne are great examples of the gatekeeper paradox.
As Mike Fagan cynically observes, "What once looked like a heavyweight renaissance now looks like a decaying scrap heap. Of the 15 fighters in the UFC's official rankings, only a single heavyweight is under the age of 30."
Even though I'm on board with this line of thinking (I can think of at least three fights on this card that are more interesting than the main event), I do think Browne is being sold short by observers.
I've been a "harsh" critic of Browne for awhile. Nothing about him other than his ridiculous height ever stood out. The draw against Kongo was dreadful. Though in retrospect, Kongo is looking like the kickboxing version of Jake Shields: a dude you just won't look good against that often. Normally I'd consider his loss to Antonio Silva validation of the undue hype, but since that fight was a little anomalous, his last three fights would appear to highlight the fact that not has he improved, but that perhaps he's been elite for awhile.
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, but you get the point.
Werdum is equally hard to figure out. Part of the problem is that he's only had four fights since his career defining win over Fedor Emelianenko, which feels like it happened ages ago. This fight could either be interesting (think Bisping vs. Kennedy), or quick. I wouldn't bank on awesome though. I'd love to be wrong.
What both men can do: Werdum's ground game is top notch. He has all kinds of IBJJF and ADCC wins on his grappling docket. He does all the things you expect a guy with that kind of pedigree to be capable of: excellent guard passing, good hips, etc.
If there's one thing he used to get little credit for, it's his striking. That has changed a bit. While he's no world beater, he has pretty heavy hands. And his leg kicks are phenomenal. He's picky when it comes to whether or not he wants to exchange, but when he commits, he's a capable striker.
As for Browne, he seems to excel at one thing and one thing only these days: defending a takedown with elbows to the brainstem. As an aside, I hope refs are watching these closely. I don't remember the Barnett elbows being borderline, but the Gonzaga ones definitely were.
Travis has learned to use his reach much better. As Alistair Overeem can attest to, his front kicks are brutal. Despite his height, he's extremely dangerous in the clinch (just to reemphasize the earlier point).
What both men can't do: However, he's also very hittable on the feet. Although this is a really weird fight to predict. Both guys are prone to inertia. Werdum will have a hard time letting fans forget his performance against Overeem: despite how strange it seemed, Werdum has done something similar before...against Andrew Arlovski.
This could be another stinker. For the sake of my Saturday evening, I'm hoping that's not the case. The problem here is that neither guy is the type to engage. Browne wants to stand at a distance, and Werdum will happily flop on his back and pull guard.
Personally I don't mind the guard flopping. It reminds me what the Flyers did to the Lightning (it's the playoffs so you'll have to suffer through these hockey analogies for just a month or two longer) when they mocked their style of defending. If your opponent is willing to take the bait, more power to you. I enjoy watching fighters pull guard because a) I'm a crazy person and b) it's a caricatured version of strategy. Having said that, it doesn't mean I'll watch the fight again.
I realize I haven't said many good things about how I expect this fight to play out. I think this is a solid fight for the division. I just don't expect it to yield fireworks. Despite Browne's current reputation, he's not a go-getter. Other than the miraculous comeback against Overeem, his wins have come via counterattacks in the clinch. Same for Werdum; he's got no problem playing the role of Portuguese troll.
I feel like Werdum is the better fighter, but I think the odd nature of the fight, which I expect to involve a lot of staring, some clinching, guard pulling in the later rounds, and strikes from the outside to produce sporadic exchanges. I hope I'm wrong.
Prediction: Travis Browne by Decision.