Mark "Super Samoan" Hunt vs Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum
Resurgent laconic punchy Samoan cuboid takes on resurgent wacky grapply Brazilian troll
Walk off knock out artist with a heart of indifference takes on upset artist with a heart of troll.
Weight class: Heavyweight
Mark "Super Samoan" Hunt
10W-8L-1D (5W-2L-1D UFC)
UFC ranking: #4
Fighting out of: American Top Team
Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum
18W-5L-1D (6W-2L UFC)
5 (T)KOs, 9 submissions
UFC ranking: #3
Fighting out of: Kings MMA
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: This is a matchup of two Cinderella stories. Mark Hunt was the "comedy Samoan kickboxer" of Pride, whose iron chin and fearsome punching power was unfortunately combined with a non-existent submission game. He was brought over to the UFC on a contractual technicality, and immediately lost his first fight. Then, he won. He won a lot. He's only lost to Junior Dos Santos in recent memory, and is coming off a brutal walk-off knockout of Roy "Big Country" Nelson.
David: Hunt's an interesting story because he really was just a dude in the Heavyweight division. Sure we all liked him, but nobody thought he'd actually reach a point where the MMA universe collectively bet on him to win big, high profile fights.
Phil: If Hunt was the proverbial kickboxer with no ground game, Werdum was the proverbial grappler with no stand-up. A superlative BJJ technician, he moved nomadically between Pride, UFC and Strikeforce, doing well and picking up some very good wins (notably, of course, all-time great Fedor Emilianenko), but often failing to put together serious runs. Nogueira in Pride, Arlovski and JDS in the UFC, Overeem in Strikeforce all bumped him back down the ladder.
Somewhere along the way, he developed into a pretty damn good striker. He's undefeated in his current UFC run, and is coming off a comprehensive drubbing of highly-touted heavyweight Travis "Hapa" Browne.
David: Werdum always seemed destined for some sort of Roberto Traven like status: fine grappler, not a great mixed martial artist. I was convinced he was more than that when he fought Big Nog, because he showed some real moxy in that bout. It was a good win for Nog, but also a good showing for such a neophyte against the then ridiculously elite Nogueria.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Interim heavyweight belt, yeah!
David: Has an Interim belt ever ended up being truly meaningful? Seems silly to hand over a fake belt to a fighter. Why not just hand them the real thing? Sure everyone knows the champ didn't lose it, but the champ needs to be present too. If he's not around, regardless of the circumstances, then them's the breaks.
Phil: It's difficult to really get all that jazzed over a fairly meaningless bit of scrap. However, the fight is still incredibly high profile, and as the first event in Mexico City, a potential goldmine market for the UFC. So expect some decent hype. Just, not nearly as much as there would be if Cain was there.
David: Do I get to complain about Cain's nonsense training with Joe Grasso here? Yea I know. He's the UFC HW champion, so whatever he's doing is clearly working. I don't care. The dude is always injured, and he needs to train accordingly. Hell, some athletes get genetic testing for proneness to tendon injuries. Can MMA please take a step forward into the 21st century?
Does Hunt take the horse to the glue factory, and if so how does he do it?
Phil: If asked "who is the more three-dimensional fighter" when looking at these two guys, I'm pretty sure that almost everyone would say that it's Werdum- he can punch and kick, he can wrestle, he can grapple. Hunt is mostly just a kickboxer.
However, this is something of a trick question. If we are talking about the literal three dimensions of space, and how the fighters move in them, then the winner is clearly the Super Samoan. He employs real lateral movement, notably subtle head shifts which he uses to get himself out of the way of (or, at worst, take some steam off) incoming punches, and more exaggerated rolls with which he ducks under bigger swings. Both of these are enabled by his superlative base and excellent hips, creating a sound yet flexible launchpad from which he can fire quick and devastating punches on the counter
We've talked about whether fighters like moving forwards or backwards before. Almost all heavyweights are massively predicated on forward motion. I don't think it's coincidence that the current champion is a completely aggressive, devastating threshing machine: In this division of forward motion, he is its undisputed emperor.
Hunt is one of the very few fighters who are comfortable going backwards. His striking experience at all levels and battle-hardened confidence in his chin and defense has gifted him a rare ability to fight off the back foot. The best example of this is still his nasty, pivoting check hook. This laconic confidence has meant that he tends to start somewhat slowly, taking the time to figure out his opponents.
The question becomes: against Werdum... is this a particularly good idea?
David: There's an irony here which is that I think Hunt would do well to adapt on the feet going backwards against Werdum. Werdum is a massive HW, and his striking is severely underrated. For one, he's very strong moving forward, and inside the clinch looking for takedowns. But more than that he's actually a quiet destroyer inside the clinch. I would seriously not be surprised if Hunt got rocked by one of Werdum's clinch knees.
Phil: I think that while taking the time to figure out, say, Roy Nelson was a good idea for Hunt, this is because Big Country is fundamentally a pretty limited fighter. Given room to breathe, Werdum only really comes in on a straight line. But when he does, he brings devastating chains of offense, as characteristic of fighters trained by his mentor, Rafael Cordeiro: he mixes up punches, kicks, takedowns and straight up trolling and is extremely cunning and unpredictable. Conversely, and again this is something characteristic of fighters from King's MMA, he does not fight well going backwards at all. It may actually be in Hunt's best interests to pressure, even if forward motion puts him at risk of the takedown.
David: I've been impressed with the way Hunt has survived ground exchanges, but I can't expect that pattern to continue against Werdum, so I don't know that aggression really helps when one takedown is all Werdum needs. I mean, Mark Hunt could theoretically call himself the UFC Heavyweight champion. I wouldn't care how I got that belt in Hunt's shoes. I fully support a Tim Sylvia defending his belt imitation here.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: Hunt vs Bigfoot. Hunt stayed on defensive early against a much bigger and longer fighter, and Bigfoot smartly took the early going by opening up with kicks repeatedly from the outside. Werdum is a far more accomplished and dangerous kicker than Bigfoot, and could rack up significant damage if Hunt lets him.
David: That's a good one but I go with Hunt vs. Josh Barnett. Even though Hunt has improved that part of his submission game, I think we severely underrate how good Werdum still is when when's looking to strike on the ground. Hunt's ability to endure, and scramble are what have improved. However, his ability to prevent himself from being put in those positions has not improved, and you just can't give opportunities like that to a fighter like Fabricio.
Phil: Just to balance it up a bit, I'd also like to mention Big Nog vs Werdum. Even though it's remembered as something of a blowout win for Werdum, it's notable that Big Nog was able to make Werdum look distinctly uncomfortable by throwing volume into the pocket and backing him into the fence. It largely shut down Werdum's striking, and forced him into reactive takedowns. Which he then used to easily win the fight. Hey, I didn't say it was a foolproof plan!
David: It's weird how this bout is being analyzed when you look at them from 6 years ago. Hunt has to worry about Werdum's striking, while Werdum has to worry that Hunt will be able to survive on the ground long enough to land a huge shot.
Phil: Environment. Is there a worse place to be a heavyweight? Mexico City is at altitude, so the air is naturally thin. Worse still, it's actually in a basin, and is incredibly enormous (20 million people or thereabouts, according to wikipedia). As a result, the significant amount of pollution it generates tends to just sit in the basin without getting blown away. The air quality has been dramatically improved from its low point in the ‘90s ("it's like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day" etc) but it's still going to be brutal, brutal going.
Add to this that Hunt is coming in on short notice, that he's one of the few heavies to cut weight from the 265 lb limit, and that Werdum was training to fight the most terrifying cardio machine the division has ever seen. It does not seem to favour the Super Samoan. However, it might, in one particular way: if the fight goes really deep.
Werdum will almost certainly have the advantage in the middle rounds, but if the fight runs hard into the championship frames, both men may well be running on fumes. That kind of heaving, wheezing showdown which is so endemic to Heavyweight, where both men are trying to throw punches while struggling to suck down cheesegrater breaths... well, that's where Mark Hunt is a lot more familiar and comfortable than practically anyone.
David: Thank you Phil, for the geography lesson. And I mean that sincerely. The most I've learned about Mexico in 32 years of existence is that if you go there to drink alcohol and have fun, there's always some Satan worshipping drug lord to make your life miserable when the brothel turns out to be a cover for torture porn.
On topic, but I think there's something to be said for Hunt's durability. To me it's just always a question mark. I realize he's shown no signs of breaking down, but it's always on the back of my mind. I realize Hunt isn't like any puny mortal, but something about this fight feels like the proper setting for a punchline from the MMA gods: "Werdum knocks out Hunt with superman punch 30 seconds into round 1" the headlines could read.
Phil: Werdum should have a pronounced advantage at range, and can close the distance behind nasty flurries of strikes. Hunt has decent takedown defense, but he ended up getting taken down at least once by Struve, Bigfoot and even Nelson. If the fight goes to the mat, Hunt may conceivably be able to survive due to his sheer toughness and the boggling strength to buck much better grapplers off him, but he'll likely be in bad, bad trouble. The fact that it is short notice and at altitude stacks the deck still further for "Vai Cavalo". Fabricio Werdum by submission, round 2.
David: I think we're supposed to disagree for the sake of disagreeing with each other like a bad ESPN talking head show, right? Piss on that. Hunt could survive Struve. He will survive Werdum. No matter how good at trolling Werdum is, Hunt knows how troll harder, faster, and with more love. This is Rocky vs. Clubber Lang, except Rocky is played by a schlubby Samoan who gets vocally bitter on Facebook, and Clubber is played by the drug kingpin from Only the Strong. Mark Hunt via walk off knockout. Left hook. Round 1. Fifty eight seconds in.