The UFC heavyweight title is said to be cursed. No champion has ever managed more than two consecutive defenses of the belt, going all the way back to the first ever UFC champion, Mark Coleman. Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez, and Tim Sylvia all own more than two title wins, but all three were felled The longest single title run belongs to Cain Velasquez, who wore the belt for 896 days between December of 2012 and November of 2014, a time period in which he only managed to defend the strap–you guessed it–twice.
Point is, holding onto the belt is hard. Until recently I wouldn’t have bought into any talk of a “curse” myself. Heavyweight has always been a dangerous division. The most dangerous division, in fact. Of the 15 times a challenger has upset the heavyweight champ, there have been nine KOs, and two submissions. With even the smallest contenders walking around in the neighborhood of 230 pounds, and the largest actually cutting weight to make the 265 pound limit, heavyweights have a much harder time absorbing the blows of their opponents, or returning to their feet once taken down.
Big men, big consequences.
But talk of a mysterious curse is absurd. The word “curse” would imply that something other than the nature of the division is keeping champions from defending the belt. “Curse” implies that a fighter might win the championship, only to suddenly lose the tactical advantage that got him there. “Curse” suggests that a fighter could put on the greatest performance of his career to win the title, and then revert to the sort of reckless antics that got him KO’d and booted from the organization in his first UFC stint.
Stipe Miocic was expected to be a tough challenge for UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum’s first title defense, but Werdum was comfortably favored. How could he not be?
A quick tour through Fabricio Werdum’s history is evidence enough of his fighting prowess. “Vai Cavalo” has submitted three of the greatest (if not the three greatest) heavyweights of all time: Cain Velasquez, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Fedor Emelianenko. Before winning the UFC belt, he knocked out the resurgent and famously iron-chinned Mark Hunt. He holds dominant wins over Travis Browne, Alistair Overeem, and Antonio Silva. He beat Gabriel Gonzaga twice, knocking out the fellow submission ace both times.
So when Fabricio Werdum stepped into the Octagon on May 14th, 2016, he did so as a legend of heavyweight MMA. An undisputed great, whose ever-expanding skillset and crafty style had most in the MMA community confident in his chances.
And then Werdum, for reasons too nebulous to discern, decided to run after Miocic with both hands swinging, leaping chin-first into an effortless counter punch. Combined with the inertia of Werdum’s 240 pound frame, the short, backstepping blow was more than enough to separate Werdum from consciousness. The champion plummeted face-first to the floor and landed in a heap, champion no more.
I can’t accurately describe what it felt like to watch the knockout unfold, but I think I did a pretty good job capturing my emotions on Twitter immediately after the fact.
THA FUCK JUST HAPPENED
— Connor Ruebusch (@BoxingBusch) May 15, 2016
The outcome was almost immediately compared to that of the fight between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, in which McGregor stopped an aggressive Aldo (then the only featherweight champion in UFC history) with a single punch 13 seconds into the first round.
But this was much different. McGregor is a dynamite puncher for his division(s). Stipe Miocic, being a heavyweight, packs a respectable punch, but he is not among the hardest hitters in the division, with a lower-than-average knockdown ratio, and a propensity for attritive TKOs rather than one-punch knockouts. Jose Aldo threw himself into the punch that knocked him out, but his attack was set up and well-timed–even as he tumbled to the canvas he landed a left hook that sliced open McGregor’s eyebrow. Werdum’s assault was nothing so technical. Literally running after Miocic, he abandoned the shock-absorbant safety of his stance, throwing predictably right-left, right-left. Instead of cutting off the cage, he chased Miocic along its perimeter, showing none of the ringcraft or striking savvy that has become his calling card.
Miocic even stung Werdum a second before his final, suicidal assault, and yet he forged on regardless.
It’s not the first time in recent memory that a title has changed hands on the back of a baffling tactical decision. In December, then-middleweight champion Chris Weidman went for an ill-advised spinning kick that saw him taken down and pounded into semi-consciousness. To Weidman’s credit, however, he was three rounds into an exhausting, back-and-forth war when he committed his fatal mistake. Fabricio Werdum was less than three minutes into a close first round that could have very well gone his way.
So what the hell was he thinking?
PRESSURE, or PRESUMPTION?
Some have accused Werdum of disrespecting the threat offered by Miocic, or failing to focus on preparing for the bout. Since the bout he has roundly refuted any such notions. “Some people were talking about that maybe I was too worried about the happy face or the promotion, ” he said at the post-fight press conference. “It wasn’t that. It has nothing to do with that . . . I was very well prepared physically and mentally.
“The right word is ‘reckless.’ I was a little bit reckless.”
It’s hard to argue with Fabricio’s self-assessment, but the cause of that recklessness remains a mystery.
Mental pressure may have played an important role in Werdum’s humiliating fall. Not the kind of pressure that his teammate Rafael Dos Anjos forces on his opponents, but the kind of pressure generated by 40,000 Brazilian fans, ravenous for a historic hometown win.
Aided by that immense weight of expectation, it is possible that Fabricio stepped into the Octagon demanding too much of himself. Determined to put on a show, to make good on his prediction to knock Miocic out, it’s not so hard to imagine how Werdum expected too much of himself in a dangerous matchup. With the victory theme of legendary Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna playing during his walkout, Werdum seemed to be entering the fight bearing the twin burdens of national and personal pride.
But pressure isn’t the only thing that breeds impatience. Overconfidence, too, can make a man reckless.
So much of Fabricio Werdum’s success in the last four years has come as the result of confidence. After dropping an uninspired decision to Alistair Overeem–one that he could have taken had he trusted in his kickboxing a little more–Werdum made his way to the UFC and went on a five-fight tear that led him directly to the title. Four of his opponents–Roy Nelson, Travis Browne, Mark Hunt, and Cain Velasquez–managed to stun or knock down Werdum, and yet none of them could overwhelm or outlast him.
Werdum’s skills didn’t evolve much from the time of his Overeem fight, but his willingness to use them did. Instead of flopping and begging his opponent to grapple with him, he started taking the fight to them. On the occasions when his grappling didn’t get the job done early, Werdum happily peppered the opponent with jabs and long-range kicks. And with veteran craft and tremendous fitness, he outlasted–or finished–them all.
So when Werdum saw Stipe Miocic standing in front of him, what did he see? A big man with a small gas tank? A dangerous opponent that needed to be put away quickly? Or just a chance to seize glory and become the first man to defend the heavyweight belt in Brazil?
Some combination of these is my best guess. Fabricio Werdum is a phenomenal fighter, but even phenomenal fighters have off days, and every off day is a potential nightmare in this division. For all of his brilliant moments, even Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight of all time, survived his fair share of scares. He was nearly knocked out by Kazuyuki Fujita, slammed on his head by Kevin Randleman, and–wonder of wonders–keylocked by Mark Hunt. When Emelianenko began to slip, heavyweight entropy hit him hardest of all, and he succumbed to three straight losses.
It bears remembering that the first of those was to Fabricio Werdum, and now he has experienced his very own reckoning. Pressure, confidence, poor preparation–any or none of these might have contributed to the bizarre, uncharacteristic rush that led to the end of Fabricio Werdum’s UFC title reign. All it takes is one mistake, no matter the root cause. Heavyweight is a brutal division, and that’s that. Obviously the belt isn’t cursed, right?
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