It’s the moments the world doesn’t see that reveal true character. Not many saw Travis Browne in the Orlando International Airport on the morning of April 20, 2014, and those who did wondered who this 6-foot-7 man was - bruised, limping, but standing tall.
There were no autograph seekers, and selfie-taking wasn’t yet a big thing, so he was able to enter the magazine and snack store without incident. I asked him how he was doing, and the inventory wasn’t pretty. Broken hand, broken foot, injured ribs. It’s the price you pay for 25 minutes in an Octagon with Fabricio Werdum, who decisioned Browne the night before and punched his ticket to a world title fight.
Browne wouldn’t get that shot, even though he was favored to do so, and on that night, he had a good first round, but for the next 20 minutes, it was Werdum’s fight as the gas tank of “Hapa” emptied and his body betrayed him. Yet the morning after, he didn’t complain about injuries or judges. The only thing on his mind was that he lost, and how bad that – and not his body - hurt.
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A few months later, when he was preparing for what would be a victorious return against Brendan Schaub, I reminded him of that conversation.
“It's easy to shrug off and to sit there and put it (the loss) on my injuries or this person or that situation, but at the end of the day, I lived with that feeling of letting people down and that hurt feeling; not physically, but emotionally,” Browne said. “Physically, I don't give a s**t if I get hurt. I'm expecting to get cut, break bones, and have bruises and be sore. I'm expected to feel like that, but what really got to me was that emotional state that I got in. I felt depressed, I felt I lost, and I don't like that and I'll never like that. There's nothing in my DNA that will ever be okay with losing.”
If Browne, just 2-2 since the Werdum fight, never gets a world heavyweight championship, that night in south Florida may be looked at as the moment he was knocked off course forever. If he beats Werdum in their rematch on Saturday night, it might be referred to as the night he got his mojo back.
Werdum, fighting for the first time since losing his heavyweight crown to UFC 203 headliner Stipe Miocic in May, has plenty of mojo seeking to do in his own right in Cleveland. After turning back Browne, he knocked out Mark Hunt and submitted Cain Velasquez, and as the new undisputed champion with victories over three all-time greats in Velasquez, Minotauro Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko, some were saying that not only would his reign be long, but that he was on the verge of being crowned as the greatest heavyweight ever.
Miocic silenced such talk for the moment, putting Werdum on the comeback trail. It might be a short trail if he wins on Saturday, since he does have unfinished business with Miocic and the challenger, Alistair Overeem, should the Dutchman seize the belt.
So while many rematches hold motivation for the loser of the first bout but not the winner, this time around, both heavyweights have plenty to fight for, whether it’s Werdum looking to stay in the hunt for a shot at regaining his title, or Browne seeking redemption.
But who is more motivated? Werdum jumped back into the fray fairly quickly after his knockout loss to Miocic, but he also had a different dance partner in the form of Ben Rothwell. And when Rothwell was injured and forced from the bout, Browne – fresh from a July loss to Velasquez at UFC 200 – lobbied for a rematch with the Brazilian.
In their first fight, Werdum mixed up his attacks beautifully and dominated both on the mat and the feet. Since then, he seemed out of sorts early against Hunt before roaring back and winning in the second, and against Velasquez, he was in top form. The Miocic fight didn’t reveal much other than a reckless disregard for the power of the challenger that led to Werdum becoming an ex-champion in less than three minutes.
As for Browne, he could have had plenty of excuses for his loss to Werdum, but he chose not to take any. He hasn’t looked like the same fiery competitor since then, even with two wins and a Fight of the Night classic with Andrei Arlovski. Yet asking for Werdum on short notice proves that he will be a different fighter this weekend, so again, that’s…
If it looks like the stars are aligned for a Browne upset victory and an even slate with Werdum, that would be accurate, but when one of the best heavyweights of this – or any – era is in the Octagon, all bets are off. “Vai Cavalo” has been where Browne has been, losing a big fight when on the verge of an even bigger one and having to nearly start over. That reboot by Werdum eventually took him to a world championship. But Travis Browne believes it’s his turn now, and what better foe to do it against than the one who ruined his summer back in 2014?