Artwork by Gian Galang
If you just enjoy watching fights, and tune out for the patter and exterior shots in between them, you might not even notice where the UFC takes its cage each weekend. You can assume if the card is especially weak it’s probably taking place outside of the United States, most likely in Europe where any old tat with 'UFC' on it will sell out in minutes, and where the post fight press conference is simply a line of softballs about “when is the UFC coming to country x?” But Brazil, more than anyone, has taken an especially bad kicking in terms of event quality in recent years. Going from top notch title fights on solid or even good cards like Anderson Silva versus Yushin Okami, and Jose Aldo versus Chad Mendes, to a run of god awful cards over last year. Maia versus LaFlare and Condit versus Alves were pretty weak. Henderson versus Belfort III was so-so with an obvious gimme main event. Bigfoot versus Mir marked the first time any country was treated to a UFC card headlined by a man on a three fight losing streak against a man on a four fight losing streak—the stakes could not have been lower.
Then there was UFC 190, which was absolutely horrendous. You will remember that this was the card at which Rousey-mania hit its peak, and where we were all supposed to pretend that knocking out Bethe Correia was a showing of supreme boxing ability. The rest of the card read like a who's who of “who?” with some old Brazilian thrown in for the patriotic fans. And that has been the UFC's calling card throughout its trips to Brazil—throw in some old, far past it Brazilians and the fans will still love it. In fairness to the Brazilian crowds, they want to see their countrymen, but it leads to some awkward moments when you build an entire card around a far past his sell-by date Mauricio Rua against an up and coming Ovince St. Preux. There might never have been a more uncomfortable moment in MMA than the resounding silence which greeted that thirty second starching.
So this weekend's card comes as both an enormous surprise and a treat. The people of Brazil will be ecstatic for it and the fight fans outside of Brazil will actually care. Headlined by Fabricio Werdum's first defense of the heavyweight crown, UFC 198 contains a Brazilian in every match, is fairly evenly matched, and the main card is stacked with fights that actually mean something! No one is pretending that Anderson Silva is in the title picture, but his fight with Uriah Hall is both interesting stylistically and relevant to his current position in the division. To match-make stars to their current level and still utilize their star power can be difficult, but the UFC is pulling it off wonderfully on this card. Mauricio Rua is not a top light heavyweight anymore, but he is in against Corey Anderson who is working his own way towards the top ten and is a very respectable challenge for Rua.
So today we'll take a look at the main event, and then we'll study the delights of the rest of the card through the rest of the week.
Fabricio Werdum has made leaps and bounds in his game since he began learning to strike with Rafael Cordeiro and the team at Kings MMA, but this often gets overplayed. The idea that he is some kind of brilliant technician on the feet simply isn't true. He is not the defensively able pressure fighter that Rafael dos Anjos is, for instance. What Werdum has is confidence and he has it in spades. He can kick with impunity because he isn't worried about being taken down and often downright encourages it. But when he faces aggression he often simply meets it head on, it's a little crisper than in that famous footage of him and Wanderlei Silva swinging at each other for a round of sparring, but when his opponent hits him he will often just pump looping one-twos in response.
Werdum looks like a brilliant striker when his opponent is tired, or concerned about his takedowns, or worried about applying their own takedowns. When Werdum looks bad is when opponents are not worried about his takedowns and comfortable simply throwing back at him. The first round of the Cain Velasquez bout, Werdum looked extremely hittable on the feet as he threw naked kicks and pumped one-twos with his head stationary.
But against Travis Browne, Werdum was able to use his meat-and-potatoes striking combinations to fluster and hurt the larger, harder hitting man. There is nothing to say that you have to be technically perfect to be good at hitting people—Fedor showed that and Werdum shows that well today. Using cross hand traps, flurrying upstairs to set up his wicked kicks to the midsection, using inside low kicks to set up that one-two. It's simple stuff in thoughtful combinations.
Also significant in Werdum's game is his double collar tie which he will slap on when he misses punches, or over an opponent's guard as they cover up, and use to land knees to the body and head. Being taller than men like Roy Nelson and Cain Velasquez, Werdum was able to use this as a constant threat, but he also had a good degree of success in short, single knee bursts when the taller Travis Browne used head movement to avoid the incoming flurries.
Stipe Miocic is one of the better boxers in the history of the heavyweight division. Relying on a sharp, non-committal jab combined with convincing feints, Miocic was able to make top flight bangers like Mark Hunt swing and miss, eating stiff leads in return. Miocic's real damage is done with the right hand, usually as an inside parry counter or stepping around and trying to lance it in over the shoulder from a slight angle—I can only imagine that this is what his corner are calling for as they shout “Klitschko quarter” throughout every one of his recent bouts. He has shown to be a decent ring cutter, as in the first three rounds against Junior dos Santos, if leaving himself a little vulnerable to counters as he does so. Miocic also demonstrated an excellent ability to go to the body when he was matched with Stefan Struve.
Miocic's jabs and feints working in perfect harmony to make Mark Hunt miss and eat blows.
Some ring cutting against Dos Santos.
On the ground Miocic has shown an affinity for the turk—essentially the wrestler's view on being put in the half guard. Rather than passing Mark Hunt's guard, Miocic would deliberately hook and sit on one of Hunt's legs to hold him in place and drop strikes while threatening the Kimura. This is similar to Josh Barnett and a few other top players styles of passing wherein they will often catch one of the opponent's ankles between their thigh and calf—stifling attempts to play a true half guard but keeping the opponent trapped to the floor and attached until the top player decides otherwise. An interesting match up as Werdum has been more effective with his his deep half guard more recently than his closed guard which was easily stalled out by Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem.
An interesting point from the Werdum—Nogueira bout is that Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who was thoroughly done as a top heavyweight by the time he fought Werdum a second time, was able to pin Werdum to the fence for periods and dirty box him from the single underhook clinch, as was Cain Velasquez. Each time Werdum eventually escaped and threatened the double collar tie but the fact that he was so easy to put on the fence is what is interesting. A man like Jon Jones who would use his elbows and move dynamically in the infight along the fence rather than simply holding and looping in weak hooks might easily cut Werdum to ribbons in this position.
Werdum demonstrating that beautiful angle off into the double collar tie that Demetrious Johnson uses so often.
But the theme of the Nogueira fight overall was just that Werdum is half as comfortable moving backwards as he is forwards. If you can outstrike Travis Browne on offence and eat right hands from an ageing Big Nog when you're put on the back foot, you have some issues with comfort on defence more than any glaring technical holes.
Werdum makes good use of the jab, but also pulls it back lazily and hangs his right hand down by his nipples as he does it.
The problem is in punishing him consistently for his defensive flaws both on the front foot and on retreat. Mark Hunt, Big Nog, Roy Nelson, Travis Browne and Cain Velasquez have all easily landed right hands on Werdum because of his aggression and his lacking defensive abilities. In fact all of them except Nog knocked him down at some point in their fights with him.
Especially as a result of Werdum's naked right low kick which has gotten him into trouble so many times.
Browne and Nelson also knocked him down off of naked kicks.
But none of those men knocked him out because he is so dangerous to jump on, but also because he is so durable and well conditioned for a heavyweight. That cannot be overstated in a division where so many fighters come in to get it done in the first round. Consistent exploitation of his defensive flaws over rounds is necessary to get the better of the heavyweight champ, not a perfectly set up right hand. A knockout should always be treated as a happy bonus and an early clocking off for the fighter who scores it. If a fighter's gameplan revolves around finding the knockout, he is setting himself up to fail.
Interestingly, Stipe Miocic had similar problems with fighting on the back foot against Stefan Struve of all people. As Struve walked Miocic down and trapped both of his hands, Miocic got off good body shots and his usual inside parry to right hand to the chin, but he was denied his jab and caught out by short left hooks and right straights which were followed up by hurting uppercuts from underneath his guard. Miocic is a very upright fighter so perhaps he doesn't have to deal with uppercuts as often because the target isn't there as readily. His defence has looked so much sharper in recent fights, and he has fought both as an aggressive crowder (against Andrei Arlovski, Junior dos Santos) and an outfighter (against Hunt), but hasn't had to deal with much in the way of forward pressure from his opponents.
Miocic was doubly unfortunate as this slip on the mat saw him rise into the longest right hand in the heavyweight division.
Gameplans and Questions
Ultimately this fight is one between two men who thrive on a passive opponent. Not necessarily a covering, tired opponent, just one who isn't constantly moving forwards. The most interesting play off of this bout will be how Miocic's slick inside parry to right hand works against Werdum's tendency to pump one-twos and reach for the collar tie when his opponent steps in on him. The inside parry means that the fighter's right hand can trace the line of the opponent's jab back to his jaw and it can be a devastating counter punch, but it is also reliant on speed and good anticipation. If the counter fighter isn't on a hair trigger or anticipates a lazy jab and is instead greeted by a perfect one-two in fast rhythm, he can eat the right hand while his own left is occupied in taking the opponent's left away.
Here are a couple from the exceptionally quick and savvy Andre Ward. (Read Andre Ward: Old School Science, New School Thinking for more Ward technique).
Miocic has been prone to over aggression and to hanging his chin on a platter and walking that line between constant pressure and presenting openings is the tightrope he must learn to walk. For Werdum, keeping his back off of the fence seems smart, but his double collar tie is always a threat. Use of low kicks from distance would be a smart strategy for Werdum and keeping the pace high. Miocic in the fourth and fifth rounds against Junior dos Santos was nowhere near as effective and he has been left sucking wind in a few of his UFC bouts. We also haven't seen Miocic in with a decent high kicker like Werdum—which is always something interesting to look out for when a fighter has an upright, bladed stance and a loose guard. If Werdum feels that he is comfortable on the mat against Miocic and not likely to simply get stalled out as he was against Overeem and Hunt, he might want to consider focusing on the body kicks which so badly affected Travis Browne. Not only will they hinder the movement of Miocic and slow the constant advance needed to pressure fight effectively, they will work to set up the high kick as the rounds progress.
As someone who has become quite jaded with the heavyweight title in recent years due to its lack of defenses and the constant stream of do-overs for Cain Velasquez, I have to admit that when the heavyweight title fights roll around I do find myself getting invested again, and this is one of the best in a while. Miocic is a very gifted boxer and wrestler by heavyweight standards and even by MMA standards, but he is still vulnerable to his own attitude. Rushing in on Junior dos Santos got him dropped, being crowded by Stefan Struve saw him eat punches his smooth footwork would otherwise see him unbothered by.
Attitude in the heavyweight division can make a huge difference and it is consistently the men who aren't behemoths, but who can suffer the first round onslaught and rally behind their superior conditioning, technical ability and heart who get the job done. Werdum might not be technically perfect on the feet, but he is the perfect heavyweight everywhere else and a worthy successor to Fedor Emelianenko in that regard. Miocic is in with one of the best in the division's history and win or lose that will tell us a lot about his demons and whether he can prevent them from impacting his stellar technique and gameplanning.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.
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