The storybook ending would have seen Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira recapture a little of the old magic that more than a decade ago made him a mixed martial arts legend and a hero in his homeland. A victory by the 37-year-old "Minotauro" would have sent the packed house in Fortaleza, Brazil, into a ... well, you can't say a frenzy, really, because these fans were beyond frenzy hours before Nogueira even had his hands wrapped to fight.
The zealous congregation at Saturday night's religious revival didn't quite get to raise the roof of the Ginásio Paulo Sarasate arena in this city on the northern coastline. But it did get a consolation prize: another Brazilian contender for the heavyweight championship.
That would be Fabricio Werdum. Despite being from Porto Alegre (a mere 2,000 miles down the coast in the country's southernmost state) and despite having brought much glory to Brazil with his multiple world championships in jiu-jitsu, the 35-year-old was not the crowd favorite walking into the octagon. But he heard plenty of cheers while walking out of the cage after finishing Nogueira with an armbar at 2:41 of the second round.
The victory puts Werdum in both a prime position and also a puzzling one. The only two men standing in the path between him and champion Cain Velasquez are Junior dos Santos, the Brazilian former belt holder, and Daniel Cormier. The latter, a Velasquez training partner, has stated he will not fight his friend and instead intends to drop to light heavyweight and go after Jon Jones's belt. That leaves Dos Santos, who earned another crack at Velasquez with a head-kick knockout of Mark Hunt two weeks ago. But there's been no date set for Cain vs. Junior III.
So does Werdum just wait? Well, it wouldn't be the first time. This fight with Nogueira was his first in a year, coming at the end of the men's coaching stint on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brasil. Fabricio was keen to avenge his 2006 loss to "Minotauro," which came at a time when the playing field was sort of tilted. Back then, Nogueira was an established MMA stud who'd already reigned as the first heavyweight belt holder in the Pride Fighting Championships and had been in with the best. Werdum, on the other hand, was an elite grappler and no more, a one-dimensional fighter.
Werdum (17-5-1) showed on Saturday night -- as he's been showing in many of his most recent fights -- that he's got a whole lot more fight in him today. He's added a Muay Thai black belt to his one in jiu-jitsu. He's stronger, and it shows in his bulked up physique. And while he's barely a year younger than Nogueira, he's capable of keeping a speedy pace. In winning for the sixth time in seven fights, he landed the more telling strikes -- both punches and kicks -- while the fight was standing. And on the canvas, Big Nog simply could not keep up with him.
That's an astounding statement to make about Nogueira (34-8-1, 1 NC), a jiu-jitsu black belt with 21 submission victories. But he had no answer ... or when he did, Werdum answered right back. That's how the fight ended. Nogueira countered a takedown attempt against the cage with a guillotine, but the move backfired. Werdum quickly escaped, gained top position, and, well, let's allow Farbrcio to tell the story from here: "I was able to get on his back and get the armbar. And then I was able to make him submit. And that made me very happy."
As well it should. Werdum had just beaten a legend, a man whom he soberly described as "an idol for all Brazilians." And the verbal submission was the eighth sub of the night, smashing the modern UFC record of six that had been shared by three cards. This event, which also featured Leonardo Santos becoming The Ultimate Fighter: Brasil champion by beating 21-year-old William Macario (with a sub, naturally) in the co-main event, tied the promotion's record with 10 finishes.
Fantastic finishes were part of the reason the crowd was so energized all night. Seeing Brazilians win all eleven bouts was another reason. But the main reason was simply that this was Brazil. The hot-blooded hotbed of MMA is the home of the granddaddy of the UFC, Royce Gracie, and also of the greatest of all time, Anderson Silva. It owns two UFC belts, courtesy of Silva at middleweight and José Aldo at featherweight. Renan Barão has an interim bantamweight belt. And Junior dos Santos soon will try to get his heavyweight strap back from Cain Velasquez.
Add Fabricio Werdum to the long list of things for Brazilians to cheer about.