Artwork by Gian Galang
Cain Velasquez is a paper champion.
He hasn't fought in almost two years, and he hasn't fought anyone not named Junior dos Santos or Antonio Silva since 2010. In fact, the great Fedor Emelianenko—hallowed be his name—retired after losing a step or three in 2012, and yet has as many wins over currently ranked top ten heavyweights as Velasquez. In fact, Velasquez has just fourteen fights to his name and a third of them were against the same two Brazilians. Baddest Man on the Planet? My arse.
Of course, I don't actually believe what I just wrote about Cain Velasquez being a paper champion. I just like to inspire incredulity in my readers and then swerve on them. Over the past two years I have praised Velasquez relentlessly for just that—he is relentless. Perhaps the most frightening fighter on offense in the UFC right now. Or... two years ago. That is my problem with Cain Velasquez: I keep heaping praise on him; he keeps pulling out of fights. I feel as though he isn't holding up his end of the deal.
Now, the comment section will already be full of bile from folks who couldn't get past the first two paragraphs, but the awkward facts about Velasquez's record remain true. He didn't ask to fight the same two men on repeat for the last four years, and he didn't choose to tear his body apart in training camp and not make it to fights. Fighters are put in front of him by the UFC, he tries his best to make it to the fight, and when he does he lays down the law. But due to those match ups and dropouts, of all the UFC champions, Velasquez is the one about whom we actually know the least.
There are a multitude of questions surrounding Cain Velasquez and his next opponent, Fabricio Werdum, seems uniquely suited to make the enquiries.
What's a 'Go Horse'?
Fabricio Werdum's record is as good as you will find on an active heavyweight who isn't just hanging around the bottom of the division, taking beatings as they try to convince themselves they still have it. Back in PRIDE, Werdum flew a little under the radar, but beat Aleksander Emelianenko and Tom Erikson, dropping close decisions to Sergei Kharitonov and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Since then, Werdum has bested Antonio Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Roy Nelson, Mike Russow, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Travis Browne, and Mark Hunt.
The final fight won him a UFC interim title—something the UFC creates whenever their champion is out for a ludicrously long time in order to roll with the blow and make a “champion versus champion” fight when the injured fighter returns. It's cheap hype, but when you're given lemons...
Werdum's transformation has truly been marvelous to watch. He was never woefully bad on the feet, in fact around the time that he met an unknown Brazilian prospect named Junior dos Santos, Werdum was getting pretty confident on the feet. 'Cigano' laid Werdum out, as Werdum was giving him exactly the kind of fight he wanted, and went on to be considered the number two man in the division.
But under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum has become something very special on the feet. I previously wrote that Cordeiro doesn't produce good boxers, he produces good fighters. I still respectfully stand by it. When his fighters are moving forward, they're terrifying. On the back end, and defensively, they generally aren't exceptional.
All out aggression is the name of the game, and if you get caught in the headlights of Werdum, woe betide you. In yesterday's rant about “signature moves” in MMA, I despaired that the UFC rarely offers any substantive analysis of each fighter's real habits. It is all very well declaring that Werdum has a great double collar tie and body kicks, but the interesting part is how he gets there. It's always off of the one-two.
The one-two is the bread and butter boxing combination. From Gene Tunney to Wladamir Klischko, mastery and manipulation of the cadence of this two piece biscuit has ruled the boxing landscape for over a century. You see, the one-two can be the sniper lining up a shot, or it can be the artillery bombardment before the troops go over the top. Where boxers like Klischko irritate and hurt with the jab to hide and line up the powerful right straight, kickboxers have traditionally used the paired punches to force a cover up, leading into further punches or kicks.
Cordeiro's fighters, from Chute Boxe to Kings MMA, have always had excellent training in use of the double collar tie. But where an Anderson Silva or Demetrious Johnson will get to the clinch and off-balance their man to slap on the DCT, Cordeiro's fighters will force a cover up with punches, then grab it—they're happy to go around the arms if they have to, they just want to get to work with knees.
The flurries of punches aren't usually particularly accurate, but they set up the DCT beautifully against opponents who lack the footwork and discipline to get off line under fire. They also serve to set up those beautiful body kicks, which rapidly diminish the fighter standing in front of Werdum. And of course, the more winded a fighter becomes, the more he stands still under fire and the easier it is for Werdum to hit him with the punches which started out as just a method of flustering him. Letting Werdum get on offence creates a horrible cycle of abuse.
And that's not even mentioning what is considered Werdum's greatest strength, his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Werdum has focused on his striking in recent years, but still managed to medal in every ADCC no gi championship from 2003 to 2011 while pursuing a full time MMA career. Werdum's greatest grappling achievement in MMA was undoubtedly his baiting an old and wild Fedor Emelianenko into jumping into his guard—he did this by falling down on the first flurry of punches that Fedor threw—The Last Emperor being absolutely enamoured with his hands at this point—then immediately sprung the triangle choke when Fedor leapt in to finish.
The reason that Werdum can strike so effectively is that, largely due to Fedor's loss—combined with Werdum's lofty credentials, no-one wants to jump on top of him. But that might be about to change...
“The Law Hath Not Been Dead, Though It Hath Slept”
A fight has a few stages and ranges. A lengthy fighter might want to prolong the outfight. Werdum wants to move through the outfight, into the double collar tie, and then re-establish distance. Cain Velasquez is about constant forward progression, through the outfight, into the infight, into the clinch fight. If the opponent gets free, or the round ends, he just does it again. There is an absolute sense of direction in a Velasquez fight. He's flirted with hanging around on the outside—it got him knocked out against Junior dos Santos the first time—but now it's pretty much always the same: jab, overhand, drive head first into the clinch.
If he knocks his man down or out on the way, sure he'll follow them to the ground and punch them there. If he gets a takedown along the fence, sure he'll move to the ground. But he's at his absolute best along the fence, with one underhook and his head underneath his opponent's chin—holding them upright.
In the first episode of Jack Slack's Ringcraft we examined how Cain Velasquez's pressing of Junior dos Santos into the fence took away the stance and space which Dos Santos needs to generate power in his blows. If you haven't checked that out, I highly recommend you do.
Velasquez uses this pin along the fence to batter opponents to the body and head with his free hand, and exhausts them as they try to fight free. Dominant head position, underneath his opponent's, forces his opponent into an upright position, blinding them to Velasquez's free hand and stretching out their midsection for more winding blows.
Velasquez's constant diving in behind his head, looking to quickly establish that dominant head position, often results in clashes of heads—it's not something to get up in arms about, his opponents just have to be prepared for that to happen and happen often. Like fighting Evander Holyfield, you can't come in expecting him to not butt you just because he likes you and then freeze when you run face first onto his forehead—it's just part of his style and it will be unless the ref starts calling him on it.
Watching Velasquez's bouts with Dos Santos, they were not “all action” by the conventional measure, but Velasquez was constantly forcing Dos Santos to work. Short punches, knees, and constant jostling for head position. Velaquez would grab a hold of a leg just to make Dos Santos freak out, before dropping it and moving back into a flat clinch along the fence. Dos Santos was forced to struggle from weaker positions for every moment of the fight, and gradually Velasquez's punches from the outside became harder and cleaner each time he moved into the clinch again.
With regards to how Velasquez and Werdum specifically match up, you have a case of offence meets offence. Werdum is not particularly gifted on the counter, and will often just throw the one-two when under fire and hope for the best.
He also kicks from an upright position, rather than stepping off line and “laying down”. This is just a difference of methodology—the upright method preserves the balance better mid-combination and allows a continuation into further strikes, the laying down version is safer from returning punches but more difficult to follow on from. Werdum's kicking while upright means that his head is not hard to find if the opponent breaks cover for a moment:
Furthermore, body kicks are susceptible to being caught. Even if Velasquez didn't want to jump into Werdum's guard, the single leg can be used to get his man onto the fence.
And Werdum's fight with Nogueira, a shell of his former self, was marked by long periods of being caught along the fence in exactly the single underhook and head pin clinch which Velasquez uses as his staple. Werdum eventually ducked a punch and turned Nogueira around—resulting in the scramble which ended the bout, but Nogueira was only hitting with his free hand, Velasquez will be chopping with knees, looking for collar ties, and grinding with his head.
Werdum craftily traps Nogueira's hand, then frees it just in time to duck under a punch and turn the legend around.
But Velasquez has his own issues. His head movement is generally limited to ducking in with overhands, and he is consistently guilty of that old boxing sin of “leading with his face”. His head comes in first, with great force, and if it meets with anything he runs the risk of knocking himself unconscious. It was, curiously enough, Cheick Kongo's awkward and usually inaccurate punching which first pointed this out:
But the same was also visible on the few occasions which Dos Santos stiff armed Velasquez away and had him dive back onto short elbows. Had Dos Santos gone to these early and often, rather than as a sort of “might as well try it now” measure, he might have had far more success breaking from clinches and hurting the champion.
Moreover, Velasquez is not a tremendously gifted guard passer. He circumvented Nogueira's by merit of Nogueira already being pretty much unconscious. But against Bigfoot Silva, he opted to sit heavy in half guard, trapping Silva's arm as the big man looked to move under into a deep half guard. Werdum has shown a great aptitude for deep half guard, but more for going with whatever his opponent gives him. It's hard to see Werdum getting trapped in half guard as he doggedly goes after the same single sweep.
Perhaps the most important question is, what happens if Velasquez wins as he's expected to? He is plagued by injuries almost constantly, and while the UFC is utterly convinced that he will be the biggest thing in Mexican combat sports since Julio Cesar Chavez, just getting the stars to align for him to fight in Mexico has taken years. Cain Velasquez may well go from the UFC's golden boy to the biggest thorn in their side—holding up the absolute title and still being good enough to whoop anyone in the world when he does eventually come back.
Whatever happens, I'll watch Werdum and Velasquez every time they enter the cage. Think of the fight today, let the big wigs worry about the trajectory of the heavyweight division on Sunday morning.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art (and buy prints) on his website.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.