Werdum vs. Browne: A Lesson in Mind Games

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

UFC on Fox: Werdum vs Browne went down last night and we were treated to some incredible fights and finishes. Thiago Alves showed he still has it, Donald Cerrone came from behind to finish Edson Barboza, and Fabricio Werdum put on a dominant performance to establish himself as the number one contender for Cain Velasquez's heavyweight crown.

Let's look at some of the lessons we learned from the night's fights.

Thiago Alves Returns

Thiago Alves has a strange history in the UFC. Despite being a constant fixture in the top ten, he was routinely matched up against guys who shouldn't have been in the ring with him, presumably because it led to an entertaining and impressive butt kicking.

The unfortunate Brazilian has been out for almost two years with injuries and came back to fight 19-10, Seth Baczynski. It was a fair match considering Alves' lay off, but most expected Alves to run through Baczynski.

What Baczynski did through the first round looked to be really troubling Alves. Circling the cage, Baczynski picked with backhanded jabs and straights. Now, ordinarily the counter to active lateral movement is to kick the legs, forcing a check or the opponent to pick them up, and low kicking is Alves' A-game. But the height and reach of Baczynski made Alves reluctant to do this.

In order to kick Baczynski's legs, Alves would have to move through Baczynski's punching range, and risk getting hit. So most of the first round was Alves looking uncomfortable, stalking Baczynski and getting slapped with awkward, stinging hand combinations and lovely front snap kicks to the body.

This was the perfect strategy for Baczynski. His legs were safe and he wasn't stepping in with punches at Alves, who loves to slip and counter. Alves was getting scuffed up, then he changed approach. He started letting Baczynski come to him, and Baczynski obliged. With his opponent stepping in, Alves new exactly where the lead leg was, and hammered it every time he could.

Baczynski steps in and gets his lead leg butchered, but also shows the nice front snap kick to the body he landed throughout.

More of the same.

Furthermore, with Baczynski stepping in with punches, Alves was able to use his excellent counter punching game to rough The Polish Pistola up. Baczynski's corner didn't seem to recognize that the change of dynamic was losing their man the fight and advised him to keep backing Alves up between rounds.

Ordinarily, backing a kicker up is an excellent way to neutralize and punish their game. Check out Fedor Emelianenko versus Mirko Filipovic to see that in action. But if the kicker isn't afraid of the takedown, and times the planting of their opponent's lead leg, they can land hard counter low kicks as the opponent steps in. This was a staple of Ernesto Hoost's game.

Baczynski, to my mind, gave away a fight he had shown that he could have won, but it amply demonstrated the wisdom of Alves to change the dynamic of the fight. He realized that he wasn't having any luck as the aggressor and switched roles mid round, he hadn't even been back to his corner and had it stressed to him.

It's certainly exciting to have Alves back, and I hope to see him remain healthy and become a main card staple once again. Who knows? With GSP out of the picture, he could finally win the title the UFC pushed him so hard towards in his original run.

Donald Cerrone versus Edson Barboza

This fight went about as I expected up until the final seconds...

Before the fight I gave a quick pre fight analysis on Twitter, highlighting that Cerrone's low kicking game is only effective when he can force his opponent to retreat with his running punches, and that Barboza can kick out of the stance more effectively. I also noted that Cerrone's running punches force him to eat counter punches and consequently he gets hit a lot early on. I finished with the expectation that Cerrone would be eating counter right hands for much of the fight.

Cerrone came out, tried to rush Barboza, and ate counter punches. And that was the story of the fight until the third minute. As Barboza began to step in with a punch he ate a short jab, fell to the floor and Cerrone, being the ruthless finisher that he is, jumped on Barboza and finished with the rear naked choke.

I know the mixed martial arts community. I can already imagine the many forum threads which have begun, denouncing Barboza's chin—there's probably even some people crying “fix." But people get caught up in what kind of punch is thrown, not the important stuff like where it lands, and when it lands.

Creating collisions is the name of the game. Barboza was looking for his right hand again, closed his eyes and ate the jab that he was supposed to be countering. At no time is a fighter more likely to lose his footing or get hurt than when he is focused on his own offence. Cerrone's slow, loopy running punches  up to the that point likely made Barboza get lazy (though it seems doubtful it was a plan by Cerrone, who always fights like that) and the fast jab certainly came through unexpected.

One of the interesting things which someone said to me after this fight was that Cerrone got lucky and eight times out of ten, Barboza wins that match up. That's the thing about fighting though, everyone has to fight someone who is stylistically a horrible match up for them. It doesn't matter how you get through the horrible stylistic match ups, if you manage it it is certainly more impressive than a dominant win over someone who you match up brilliantly with.

Fabricio Werdum versus Travis Browne

I'll say it right now. Fabricio Werdum might just be the savviest MMA heavyweight I've ever seen. For five rounds he battered Travis Browne from pillar to post, and kept finding new ways to do it. He's a decent sport—he'll shake his opponent's hand after staredowns and weigh in—but he'll get inside their head better than anyone who goes in for all the pushing matches and forehead to forehead staredown nonsense.

Whether it was the pointing at the floor or his opponent, the kip up from the mat, the inviting his opponent to get in his guard, or shouting “ten seconds” and throwing his hands out as he heard the hammer in the third round, before flurrying on a confused looking Browne for those remaining seconds. Werdum gets under his opponents' skin and makes them unsure of just what to do with him.

The first thing to note is that Fabricio Werdum has a cast iron chin. He did a great job of overwhelming Browne for the most part, but he took some heavy shots on route. In the first he ate a flush right hand, tried to take Browne down and got shucked off. Checking his face for blood (a nice way to tell someone was clipped harder than they're letting on) Werdum ducked as Browne came in on him and flopped into deep half guard.

In perfect Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira fashion (and this is something Nogueira did to a young Werdum years ago), Werdum popped out the back door and came up to take Browne down. Browne survived admirably from the bottom, got wrist control, turned away and stood up. As much as we're going to praise Werdum's striking, Browne at all points was able to survive on the ground against Werdum, both of these men seem a tremendous leap from the model of the standard, one dimensional heavyweight.

Unlocking Muay Thai

Something which is abundantly clear in Fabricio Werdum is that the potential of the Muay Thai / kickboxing game on the feet has been blown open by his incredible skill and confidence on the ground. He doesn't need to worry about when to kick and when not to, and that is incredibly enviable.

The secret to Werdum's performance throughout the fight was that everything came off of the 1-2. Just as Cain Velasquez will throw a jab, an overhand and duck into anything that he is doing, Werdum's 1-2 leads the way and he builds off of it.

A lovely 1-2-2.

When Browne defended or covered up, but kept his elbows good and low to protect his body, Werdum would clamp his arms on a double collar tie around Browne's guard.

Essentially this gave Browne inside position on the clinch, but it allowed Werdum to land his knees to the body and attempt them to the face even of a 6'7 opponent. You can keep the opponent from doing much if you pinch your elbows together around their arms when they keep their elbows in. Then Werdum would break and flurry with punches.

When Browne was aware of the clinch and began trying to bring his hands up to deal with it, Werdum would throw his punches, and then kick the body. Body kicks are so tremendously under-rated in mixed martial arts. It's hard to blame Browne for gassing so hard when you count the number of strikes to the midsection he absorbed while his hands were elsewhere. I was completely  unsurprised when I heard the news today that Browne sustained a broken rib in the bout.

And Werdum could do that because he was totally unafraid of the takedown. Or at least, that is the image that he portrayed. Who knows if it is mind games? We saw Alistair Overeem easily hold Werdum flat in the guard when he finally obliged the Brazilian on the ground. No-one knows how much of Werdum's game is mind games and how much is confidence. But he was able to stand on one leg, in an incredibly precarious position, and look into Browne's eyes as if to say “what do you plan to do with that?” And it worked! Browne dropped the leg and gave up a free punt at Werdum's standing leg.

A jab to low kick on the retreating Browne, followed by a caught low kick with no consequences.

Another nice flurry into body kick.

While Werdum's overall performance was stellar, the kidology was by far the most entertaining and enlightening aspect. When Browne clipped Werdum with a high kick (as he did a couple of times throughout the fight), Werdum would drop his hands and play that it was daft to attempt it, and Browne wouldn't try again!

But when Browne ate a body kick and played it off, Werdum immediately went back to the body.

It was like watching someone playing a game with their younger brother, and not quite explaining all the rules properly until he exploited them. Nowhere were the mind games more obvious than in Werdum's now infamous kip up.

A kip up is something you will have seen in kung fu flicks, and at one point in time (around the time of the ninja craze, and before we all knew about the beautifully versatile technical stand up) was considered as a real way to get up in fights. It's energy consuming, it's not combat effective, and Werdum did it entirely to dishearten Browne further, then he ran in with his hands, Browne covered up, and Werdum landed two more free body kicks for his efforts.

There are still holes in Werdum's striking. He leaves openings as he charges in behind his 1-2, with both hands away from his face, and a guy with a solid counter left hook (Junior dos Santos or Mark Hunt) could leave him cold on the mat for doing that, but he rarely went in so aggressively before he clearly had Browne tired. It would be fascinating to see the rematch with Dos Santos now that Dos Santos isn't just an unknown whom Werdum wants to test his herky jerky striking on.

Simply put, the fight between Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum was a lesson in mind games, and how Brazilian Jiu Jitsu mastery opens up the striking game. I have no idea how Werdum will fair against Cain Velasquez, or how much cause Velasquez has to fear Werdum's guard, or how well Velasquez's incredible cardio holds up under someone who will strike the body and legs repeatedly, but I do know that it has all the potential to be an incredible match up, and that Werdum seems to genuinely be growing even in lengthy lay offs.


Pick up Jack's e-books Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jack Slack: Travis Browne and the Real New Breed