"I think it’s going to be a tough fight, but I don’t care what I’ve gotta do to get my hand raised." - Mike Russow
Back in May 2010, their heavyweight encounter at the MGM Grand looked like a mismatch in every way possible. On one side of the cage stood Duffee, a massive specimen, unbeaten in his professional career, and fresh off a seven-second knockout of Tim Hague. Across the cage stood Russow, a doughy veteran with a 12-1 record built largely against regional competition, entering the contest off a largely forgettable unanimous decision win against Justin McCully nine months earlier.
Most people envisioned a one-sided walk in the park for Duffee, and while he dominated the first two rounds, landing more punches than Russow had thrown in the two frames combined, the chiseled youngster couldn’t put away his less sculpted senior.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Duffee collecting his second consecutive UFC victory. The unbeaten prospect tired, his punches losing their sting, his hands dropping lower and lower as the seconds ticked off the clock. Midway through the final round, Russow landed what most will recall as the only punch he threw all night, and he made it count, sending Duffee crashing to the canvas in an unconscious heap to score one of the more improbable wins in recent memory.
While most fans could probably tell you what happened to Duffee since that contest, the trajectory of Russow’s career is probably less well known, which is strange considering the Chicago native has added two more wins since his “Homer Simpson moment” in May 2010, pushing his winning streak to 11 as he prepares to take on Fabricio Werdum at UFC 147 this weekend.
“I think I’ve been under the radar,” admits Russow, now 15-1,1 NC for his career, and a perfect 4-0 inside the Octagon. “It seems like I’ve been averaging one fight a year since I signed with (the UFC) because of injuries. I broke my arm in that Todd Duffee match, had elbow surgery, and so I’ve had some things that didn’t go my way, so I’m pretty excited (right now). I fought in January, and I’m going to be fighting again here, so I’m hoping this year is a big year for me.”
Six months ago, Russow stepped in to the cage with former ADCC champion John Olav Einemo in front of a hometown crowd in Chicago, earning the victory in a contest where he largely controlled the action on the ground against the decorated grappler. It was a fight that fulfilled a longtime dream for the 35-year-old, but one that he says came with some added nerves.
“It was something I’ve always wanted to do since I’ve been in the UFC, get an opportunity to fight in Chicago,” says Russow, offering a more succinct version of Forrest Griffin’s patented “I’m not a big fan of traveling and everything that comes with it” explanation. “It was definitely a double-edged sword though; there’s a lot more pressure I think, because you’re fighting at home, and all your friends and family are sitting out there in the audience. I think it definitely gets to your nerves a little bit more.”
This time around, Russow is switching places with Einemo, and wading into his opponent’s home turf, making the trip to Belo Horizonte, Brazil to square off with the top five-ranked Werdum in what is easily the biggest fight of the veteran American’s career.
Because of Russow’s presence south of the radar, his placement opposite Werdum caught some off-guard. After becoming the first man to cleanly defeat Fedor Emelianenko two summers ago in Strikeforce, Werdum returned to the UFC with a dominant performance against Roy Nelson at UFC 143, battering “Big Country” on the feet en route to a lopsided decision win.
But with four consecutive wins in the UFC, and only a single career loss on his resume, Russow has earned his way into this co-main event matchup, even if some people still haven’t come around to recognizing that as of yet.
“I was definitely excited,” Russow recalls of finding out he was being booked opposite the former PRIDE and Strikeforce star. “You want to face the best, and Fabricio I have a lot of respect for; he’s very tough, and a win over him would be huge for my career. It just moves me on that much further. We’ve had a great camp, been real dedicated, and working hard, and hopefully good things will happen.
“I think (fighting in Brazil will) definitely will be fun. I don’t know if it’s something I’m looking forward to,” adds Russow with a laugh, detailing the logistics involved with preparing to fight outside of the United States. “I don’t know that I’m looking forward to it, but I definitely think it will be cool going to Brazil, and I definitely want to get the win down there.”
Victories over Werdum are hard to come by, as just five men have gotten the better of “Vai Cavalo” over his ten-year, 21-fight career. Adding his name to a list that includes Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, and current titleholder Junior dos Santos would put Russow in distinguished company; it should also be enough to carry him above the radar and into the title conversation in the suddenly deep heavyweight ranks.
It would also give Russow the chance to really commit himself to the sport full-time for the first time in his career.
In addition to being a 15-1 heavyweight competing near the top of the sport’s premier organization, the 35-year-old Russow is also a police officer, juggling his job with the Chicago PD with training for his fights, and spending time at home with his family.
“It’s tough,” Russow laughs, trying to explain how he balances the three. “As the years have gone on, I’ve gotten better at it. It’s taken a lot of practice, but mostly this takes up all my time, so I’m on a schedule 24/7. When I’m off Saturday and Sunday from the police department, usually I have a practice Saturday, and I’ll hang out with my wife and kids, so it’s always busy.”
Pressing pause on his career as a member of the Chicago police force to make fighting his singular focus is certainly something Russow has longed to do, but he’s never been in a position to take that step. With a win over Werdum on Saturday night, he might finally be able to trade in his uniform for a gi for an extended period of time.
“I would love to be able to just fight full-time, but I’m in one of those situations where it’s kind of tough to take a chance quitting a job if something didn’t work out with fighting. I need insurance for my baby, and my wife, and myself, so it’s just one of those things where hopefully I can win this fight, and I think better things may come. Maybe I can take a year leave of absence, and really just focus on it.
“That’d be a dream come true,” he adds, envisioning the opportunity. “It’s the perfect time; I think everything is going just right. If I can get a win over Werdum, I would definitely look into taking a year off, and just focusing on fighting.”
For this fight, Russow took a month-long leave of absence so that he could make sure he’s eating and sleeping properly before departing for Brazil, and spend a solid month focused exclusively on getting ready to face Werdum.
“The guy’s a champion, highly decorated in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so you’ve gotta respect what he does,” Russow offers of his upcoming opponent. “Every fight, I go out there and I want to do more on my feet, but for whatever reason — I don’t know if instincts kick in or whatever. John Einemo — he’s a world champion, very decorated jiu-jitsu guy too, and I still ended up in a grappling match with him when I wanted to go out there and box.”
Though Russow once again prepares to enter the cage envisioning a more tactical, standup affair, he anticipates this fight being similar to his last, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to earn the victory that brings him into the title picture in the heavyweight ranks.
“I think I want to keep it on my feet a little more with Fabricio. If the takedown’s there, take it, but I just don’t want to put myself in bad situations, shooting in recklessly or shooting in with my head on the outside where I can get guillotined and stuff like that.
“I think it’s gonna be like the last fight: a real hard, grind-it-out fight. I don’t want to get into a wrestling match the whole time; I want to be a little more strategic. I know it’s going to be tough, and I’m going to stay in there until the bell rings or the whistle blows or whatever. I think it’s going to be a tough fight, but I don’t care what I’ve gotta do to get my hand raised.”