Werdum shows he’s now a contender

Fabricio Werdum has had quite the career renaissance in the past several years, culminating in his dramatic first-round stoppage of Chicago policeman and fellow heavyweight Mike Russow on Saturday night at UFC 147 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

After floundering around in the wake of being destroyed by current UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos at UFC 90 in October 2008, his dramatic submission win over Fedor Emelianenko in a June 2010 Strikeforce bout has been pointed to as something that has seemingly become a watershed moment in Werdum’s career.

But if you wanted to know the point when the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace finally turned the corner and became the well-rounded heavyweight contender we thought he could be, Saturday night was it.

Werdum’s striking game has improved dramatically from his Strikeforce fight with Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in November 2009 until this point in one key regard. He’s gone from having functional striking ability that set up his elite-level BJJ skills to having first-rate kickboxing abilities and takedown defense. It was on display against Russow, who may not have elite wrestling skills, but has a knack of getting nearly any fighter to the ground.

The one thing that stood out most about Werdum was his ability to transition from his leg-kick game to takedown defense with Russow. Whenever Russow came in, Werdum was masterful in going to the clinch and throwing knees, making the Division 1 wrestler back out in a hurry.

If you didn’t know Werdum was a BJJ practitioner who transitioned into MMA, you’d think he’d been kickboxing for years. He’s exponentially increased his abilities in that department in a relatively short time to the point where now it’s one of his strengths. He may not have finished Roy Nelson in February at UFC 143, despite dominating him over three rounds, but his violent finish of Russow (who hadn’t been stopped by strikes in his career to this point) shows something about him that hasn’t been evident before.

He’s finally ready to be a serious contender for the UFC heavyweight championship.

Losing to Dos Santos may have been the best thing that happened to Werdum in retrospect. Without that loss, and his subsequent release from the UFC, Werdum would not have been forced to develop a well-rounded game. Werdum may have been a top heavyweight, but he was vulnerable on his feet. Dos Santos exploited this in quick fashion when Werdum was a win away from a potential title shot at the time, and now that fight looks a lot different on paper than it did nearly four years ago.

This time, Werdum looks like he’ll last significantly longer than the 81 seconds he did against Dos Santos at the time.

Werdum’s growth as a fighter ties directly back to that moment and culminated Saturday night in Brazil in front of a highly partisan crowd in his favor. The Werdum of four years ago wouldn’t have minded going to his back against Russow, counting on his considerable grappling skills to pull off the win. The Werdum of four years ago wouldn’t have transitioned from a solid defense of a takedown into a Muay Thai clinch, then wing a knee toward Russow’s head in the process.

From the way he strikes to the way he goes for the clinch, Werdum at this point looks like one of the more well-rounded fighters in the division. It used to be the key to defeating him was avoiding his ground game, which is legendary for all the right reasons. On the ground, Werdum may be the best BJJ practitioner in the heavyweight division, but on his feet he’s no longer a slouch — or even mediocre.

Right now, you can’t argue that Werdum’s striking is elite in a division that features Dos Santos and K-1 kickboxing champions Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem. What it is, however, is good enough to hang with anyone in the division for an extended period of time. In 2008, you couldn’t have said that. And now, in 2012, Fabricio Werdum is on the cusp of a title shot in the UFC because his standup game has improved to the point where it isn’t completely overshadowed by his ground game.

And against Mike Russow, a tough fighter with a tremendous chin, his striking was on full display.