Saturday night on Fight Island, Fabricio Werdum returns to action against Alexander Gustafsson looking to halt the first two-fight skid of his 18-year, 33-fight career.
In a sport where the schedule dictates that we shift our focus to the next event fairly quickly and the totality of a competitor’s accomplishments can sometimes be blurred by immediate stakes and recent results, the fact that the 42-year-old Brazilian has been fighting at a high level for as long as he has and his longest career slide is a two-bout slide with a two-year absence between appearances where the second of those results is a split decision shows just how talented and successful Werdum has been over the years.
He’s not just an athlete who has racked up an impressive resume simply due to longevity either — Werdum has earned significant victories at several different stages and in multiple promotions, and his place in the pantheon of elite heavyweight talents in mixed martial arts history is all but assured.
But just in case you’re not fully convinced, here’s a look back at the key performances from the storied career of the former UFC heavyweight champion.
PRIDE 29 VS. TOM ERIKSON
If you ever want to see just how much the sport has changed over the years, go back and look at the earliest fights of some of the longest-tenured stars in the sport and check out the Murderers Row of talent they faced early in their careers.
Sure, some of them waded into the competitive waters, but many of them dove into the deep end wondering if they would be able to stay afloat. Werdum’s first five opponents were, in order, Tengiz Tedoradze, James Zikic, Kristof Midoux, Gabriel Gonzaga, and Ebenezer Fontes Braga; a collection of fighters who either were having or went on to have long, successful MMA careers.
His sixth bout came at PRIDE 29, where the poster fitting featured a bunch of great white sharks with the word “SURVIVAL” in the center.
Werdum’s initial appearance under the PRIDE Fighting Championships banner was also Erikson’s last, and while some will look at the resume of “The Big Cat” and not understand why this was a pivotal effort in the formative stages of Werdum’s career, hardcore fans get it.
Erikson was a two-time All-American wrestler and an absolute tank of a man who transitioned into MMA nearly 10 years after his career on the wrestling mats ended and still went 7-0-1 over his first eight fights, including a knockout win over future UFC champ Kevin Randleman.
Submitting Erikson in his PRIDE debut made it clear that Werdum was someone to keep an eye on in the heavyweight division and was the first real “sit up and take notice” victory of his career.
PRIDE 30 VS. SERGEI KHARITONOV
If his win over Erikson made folks start paying attention to Werdum, then going the distance and losing a split decision to Kharitonov was the moment that made people realize “this guy might be something special.”
At the time, Kharitonov was 12-1 and one fight removed from stopping Pedro Rizzo in two minutes at PRIDE FC: Critical Countdown 2005. The only person to beat him was Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, then considered one of the top two heavyweights in the world, and the fight went the distance.
This was Werdum’s eighth professional appearance and third trip into the PRIDE ring and he nearly doubled the length of the list of people to have beaten Sergei Kharitonov in a mixed martial arts fight.
I can’t stress enough how wild it is that just eight fights in, Werdum was holding his own against one of the most terrifying and talented heavyweights in the world. Those things just don’t happen today.
PRIDE FC: TOTAL ELIMINATION ABSOLUTE VS. ALISTAIR OVEREEM
This is a must-add to any list of Werdum’s biggest victories for two reasons:
(1) It’s a great effort in the opening round of an absolute monster of a tournament, and
(2) It kicked off a rivalry that carried over into Strikeforce and held strong into the UFC.
Overeem moved to heavyweight two fight earlier and stopped Kharitonov with knees two fights earlier at PRIDE 31. Over the previous six years, he’d only lost three times, once each to Chuck Liddell, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. This was a clash of two promising heavyweights with bright futures that started with Werdum’s signature flying side kick and ended when the 28-year-old laced up a kimura late in the second round.
Overeem had never been submitted before and was controlling the fight for the most part, getting the better of things in the striking throughout and initiating the takedown that ultimately led to his demise. The fact that Werdum was able to torque on the arm and secure the tap with Overeem still inside his full guard makes it all the more impressive.
More than a dozen years later, these two still aren’t particularly fond of each other and though Overeem won each of the next two meetings — both narrowly — something tells me that if they were given the opportunity to do it one more time, each man would take that fight in a heartbeat.
PRIDE FC: CRITICAL COUNTDOWN ABSOLUTE VS. ANTONIO RODRIGO NOGUEIRA
You know that cliché in team sports about having to lose in the playoffs before you can win in the playoffs? This was the MMA version of one of those situations.
Werdum’s reward for beating Overeem in the opening round of the 2006 Open-Weight Grand Prix was a quarterfinal pairing with Nogueira, who was coming off a quick first-round submission win over Wagner Martins.
Nogueira was 27-3-1 with one no contest heading into this bout, with a 15-2 record (plus that one no contest) in PRIDE; Werdum was 8-1-1 overall. Though they weren’t far apart in age, “Vai Cavalo” was a relative pup compared to the seasoned and savvy Nogueira. Although he was able to make it to the final horn after getting rocked very early in the fight, and had some positive moments of his own, this was one of those instances where Werdum was overmatched, caught a loss, and ultimately became a better fighter as a result.
Werdum would get a chance to avenge the loss several years later; more on that shortly.
STRIKEFORCE: FEDOR VS. WERDUM VS. FEDOR EMELIANENKO
If you’re an MMA fan, this is one of those instances where you remember exactly where you were when you saw or heard that Fedor Emelianenko was beaten cleanly for the first time in his career.
Personally, I was at my wife’s 10-year high school reunion in Vancouver, nursing a scotch and feeling wildly uncomfortable in a room full of strangers, knowing that a solid fight card with an incredibly important bout in the main event was taking place and I wasn’t watching it.
Heading into this one, Werdum was on a two-fight winning streak and sported a 13-4-1 record overall, but still hadn’t quite removed the albatross of getting knocked out by the debuting Junior Dos Santos at UFC 90. Everyone knew he was a good fighter, but he was fighting someone many considered the best heavyweight of all-time and the outcome seemed academic.
Emelianenko had won 11 consecutive bouts since fighting to a no contest with Nogueira, and the lone loss in his 33-fight career to that point was a controversial doctor’s stoppage against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in the second round of the Rings: King of Kings 2000 tournament. He was, for all intents and purposes, undefeated, and everyone expected it to stay that way.
But Werdum had other ideas.
The two started swinging hammers at each other almost immediately and Werdum ended up on the canvas in the fray. Emelianenko followed him to the ground and Werdum immediately attacked an armbar but couldn’t secure the hold. Emelianenko rained down hammerfists as Werdum tried to turn and pivot into safer space underneath him, and in the midst of the chaos, the Brazilian grabbed the Russian icon’s arm while simultaneously locking up a triangle choke.
Emelianenko tried to wiggle free, but Werdum maintained control of his wrist and secured the triangle choke even further, pulling down on his left foot to lock it behind his right knee. After 30 seconds of trying to find a way out, Emelianenko tapped and Werdum not only became the answer to a trivia question, but also the most intriguing heavyweight competing outside the UFC at the time.
UFC 143 VS. ROY NELSON
A year after beating Emelianenko, Werdum lost a strange fight with Overeem in Dallas where, despite seemingly getting the better of things in many of the striking exchanges, he spent an inordinate amount of time on the ground, beckoning “The Demolition Man” to come and join him.
Overeem never obliged, eked out a decision, and suddenly the remaining momentum Werdum has accumulated from beating Emelianenko was gone. He was still “The Guy That Beat Fedor,” but it felt like the buzz had disappeared.
It quickly returned when Werdum returned to the Octagon and pitched a shutout against Nelson at UFC 143.
The Brazilian veteran hooked up with Master Rafael Cordeiro and the Kings MMA crew, got into tremendous shape, and showed that his striking had grown by leaps and bounds. He ripped off striking combinations, showcasing punishing knees in the clinch along the fence, and tied in his outstanding grappling skills when needed.
As the fight wore on, Werdum continued to widen the gap between he and Nelson, who gets full marks for his durability, but who got busted up and beaten in this one.
Three years and four months after exiting the Octagon after getting knocked out in 80 seconds by “Cigano,” Werdum returned in triumphant fashion and showed that he was going to be a factor in the division.
UFC ON FUEL TV 10 VS. ANTONIO RODRIGO NOGUEIRA
Seven years after their first meeting in Japan, Werdum and Nogueira met for a second time in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil Season 2 Finale. They once again entered at very different stages of their respective careers, but this time, it was Werdum who had the upper hand.
While Werdum was coming off two big victories and peaking in his mid-30s, Nogueira was only 18 months removed from suffering a gruesome spiral fracture in his arm during his loss to Frank Mir at UFC 140.
Werdum was simply too much everything for the Brazilian legend — too quick, too sharp, too strong, too skilled — and gained a measure of revenge for his earlier defeat by submitting “Minotauro” midway through the second round to extend his winning streak to three.
In hindsight, this was a passing of the torch moment of sorts between two of the best Brazilian heavyweights of all-time. Nogueira would go on to lose each of his next two appearances before announcing his retirement, while Werdum would continue the best run of his professional career.
UFC ON FOX 11 VS. TRAVIS BROWNE
I can’t stress enough how damn good Travis Browne had looked prior to this bout, which everyone knew would determine the next title challenger in the heavyweight division.
Over his previous three outings, the towering contender had knocked out Gabriel Gonzaga in 71 seconds with those vicious elbows to the side of the head of an opponent that is trying to take you down that I still call “Hapa Elbows” to this very day, rallied to stop Alistair Overeem in the first round of one of the wildest one-round fights in recorded history, and knocked out Josh Barnett with even more “Hapa Elbows” along the fence.
Nine months, three fights, three knockouts, six minutes and 19 seconds of total cage time.
Browne was a beast and seemed poised to add another victory to his resume before going on to fight for the UFC heavyweight title, but once again, Werdum had other plans.
The Brazilian started the fight with the same flying kick he threw at Overeem to start their previously mentioned PRIDE fight, and then more or less blanked Browne over the next 25 minutes.
It was similar to his bout with Nogueira in that Werdum was once again too much everything for his opponent. Werdum never let Browne get comfortable, and every time he did try to mount some offense, the Brazilian had an answer. As the rounds piled up, you could see Browne’s spirit withering inside the Octagon, almost like he knew his title hopes were slipping away, right in front of his eyes.
Even though he’d entered on a three-fight winning streak and had that victory over Emelianenko as the trump card in his back pocket, Werdum never really had that “future champion” feel about him, but that changed after this fight.
UFC 180 VS. MARK HUNT
Werdum’s victory over Browne set up a showdown with reigning heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, but before they faced off in the Octagon, they were tabbed to coach against one another on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, with the championship fight slated to headline the UFC’s initial event in Mexico.
Three weeks before their bout at UFC 180, it was announced that Velasquez had suffered a knee injury and the bout would have to be postponed. Cult figure and knockout artist Mark Hunt stepped up in his stead to face Werdum and the interim title clash became the main event for the November 15, 2014 event at Mexico City Arena.
As much as Hunt pulling off the upset would have been an incredible story, it was never in the cards. “The Super Samoan” was only a couple months removed from a knockout win over Roy Nelson and took the fight on short notice, at altitude, against a fully trained, fully prepared fighter in the midst of the best run of his career.
Though Hunt won the first round by scoring a brief knockdown with a glancing blow early in the frame and solid output on the ground and standing over the remainder of the round, his already limited gas tank started to run dry and Werdum capitalized.
Werdum started the second round picking his spots and varying his attacks more, mixing in kicks to the legs and body along with the occasional punch, while Hunt continued launching cinder blocks at the Brazilian’s head. Stationed in the center of the Octagon, you could see Hunt breathing heavily, waiting for the next chance to try and land a clubbing blow, and Werdum timed him up perfectly, blitzing forward with a flying knee that put the iconic fighter on the canvas.
A torrent of hammerfists followed, prompting referee Herb Dean to step in and stop the fight, sending Werdum into celebration mode as he became the interim UFC heavyweight champion and secured another date with Velasquez.
UFC 188 VS. CAIN VELASQUEZ
Eight months after dispatching Hunt to claim his segment of the heavyweight title, Werdum and Velasquez were back in Mexico City for their unification bout in the main event of UFC 188.
Velasquez had re-established his standing as the best heavyweight on the planet with four straight dominant efforts following his initial loss to Junior Dos Santos in November 2011, but injuries had become a constant hindrance and cause for concern for the American Kickboxing Academy product. Between filming TUF Latin America and the knee injury that scuttled their initial meeting at UFC 180, it had been 20 months between fights for Velasquez and many wondered if that inactivity would factor into the outcome.
The returning champion came out pushing the torrid pace that he was known for, taking the fight to Werdum, refusing to give the interim titleholder a chance to breathe. But as the round continued, Werdum slowly started chipping away and having success while Velasquez’ output slowed noticeably.
Although Velasquez continued to be the aggressor to start the second, Werdum increasingly found a home for his own offerings, handling Velasquez’ pressure better than anyone had ever before and assuming control of the fight just two minutes into the frame. With each passing minute, Werdum widened the gap, hanging on his superior conditioning to leave Velasquez beaten and bloodied as he staggered back to his corner after the round.
With Werdum pumping out the jab to start the middle stanza, Velasquez did as he was instructed between rounds and shot for a takedown, briefly putting the Brazilian on the canvas. When they returned to the feet, Velasquez connected with a head kick that only seemed to spur on Werdum even more, as the interim champ continued to unload offense.
Just after the two-minute mark of the round, Velasquez shot forward for a takedown with no setup and Werdum happily accepted, snatching up a guillotine choke and cinching it in as soon as his back hit the canvas. Velasquez tapped almost immediately and with that, Werdum became the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion.
Five years after shocking the world and beating Fedor Emelianenko, the Brazilian veteran solidified his place in the pantheon of heavyweight greats by ascending to the throne in the UFC by battering and ultimately submitting the man many felt was destined to be the greatest heavyweight of all-time.