Are you the baddest man in the planet?
That's the question that will hang over the octagon like a brass ring this weekend, and the answer we're about to get will not satisfy us fully, just will turn the page to the next question, which will be the same question asked in a new context under an even more dazzling spotlight.
When Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum clash in the main event of a UFC fight card Saturday night in Orlando, Fla. (8 p.m. ET, Fox), one of the heavyweights will be beaten on, choked, or arm-twisted to the point where he must acknowledge that no, he's not the baddest. The other big guy, the bout's winner, will not be able to legitimately make the opposite claim, but he will have shown himself to be bad enough to take a shot at the man who wears that mantle of mano a mano supremacy known as the heavyweight championship belt, Cain Velasquez.
This is the way it is with any No. 1 contender eliminator bout, but there's something special about watching the heavies go at it. That goes for mixed martial arts as much as it does boxing. In both sports, there may be more luminous stars at lighter weights, but when the baddest big boys stand in front of each other, it's a meeting of the alphas among alphas.
Browne vs. Werdum is actually three fights all at once. It is its own fight, as billed, but it's also Browne vs. Velasquez and Werdum vs. Velasquez. Everything these fellows do to each other Saturday night will become fodder for the discussion of how the survivor might fare against the champ ... and against anyone else in this big, rough world.
Both Browne and Werdum have looked mighty bad of late, and that promises to boost the profile of the winner in a UFC division that has come to take on the stale look of ascendancy mixed with complacency: There's Cain Velasquez, a sizeable chasm before No. 2 Junior dos Santos, then a Grand Canyon between their lofty home and where the rest live. Nos. 3 and 4 in the SI.com and media-voted UFC heavyweight rankings are Werdum and Browne, respectively, way down the ladder. But here we have a climbing foothold.
Werdum (17-5-1) is a reclamation project of which to be proud. Cut loose by the UFC following a first-round knockout loss to dos Santos back in 2008, the decorated jiu-jitsu black belt has worked some imposing striking skills into his game, and the more well-rounded version of Fabricio has won six of his last seven fights, starting in Strikeforce and working his way back to the UFC. Most notable was a stunning 2010 submission of Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian's first loss in 29 bouts over a decade. Werdum's most recent win, his third in a row since rejoining the UFC, was an armbar submission of fellow grappling ace Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira last June.
Browne (16-1-1) also is on a three-fight win streak. After suffering his only career loss in an October 2012 bout in which he tore his left hamstring and became a sitting duck for the onslaught of Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, Travis has had nothing but first-round KO's, over Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett, each of those performances earning a Knockout of the Night bonus check. That's a lot of momentum to stand in front of.
Browne is the more dangerous striker and, at 6 foot 7, has the length to keep Werdum away. But if Fabricio gets within arm's reach, he can turn this into his fight. Unless, of course, Browne does to him what he did to Barnett, fending off a takedown attempt with a succession of fight-finishing elbows. So many possibilities, each one imbued with the theoretical presence of the champ. Look what he just did! But can he do that to Cain?
Be here now, the mindful among us say, and meet life as it is in this moment. But in the fight game, thinking about the future is inevitable, and that's OK. It doesn't take away from what's unfolding right in front of us. It merely adds color and context that make a fight like this weekend's even bigger than it already is.
Jon Jones defends his UFC light heavyweight championship next weekend against Glover Teixeira, and as if preparing for a challenger who's won 20 straight fights isn't enough, "Bones" also is embroiled in an ugly controversy over homophobic taunts attributed to his Instagram feed. Earlier this week an MMA fan from Sweden -- the homeland of Jones's greatest rival, Alexander Gustafsson -- made public a series of derogatory remarks sent from Jones's phone after the fan had lashed out at the fighter. Jones and his manager claim the Instagram account had been hacked and the comments hadn't come from "Bones."
It's a muddy cesspool of social media gone antisocial, which is nothing new to the interwebs yet never ceases to baffle. The fan's accusation seems crazy. Why would a world champion lower himself to online troll status a week before a big fight? And even if baited into doing so, why go the "fag" and "homosexuality is a sin" route?
Well, we do know that Jones has lashed out on social media before. There even was a previous allegation of him using homophobic language on Twitter, according to a screen shot, posted by a Deadspin reader, that shows two direct messages purportedly from Jones, one a gay-demeaning insult and the other an apology for same. If it was a hacker who perpetrated this latest offense, the hacker did a feasibility study.
We'll probably never know the truth of this, but that's the primary story here only to the righteous among us. Jon Jones the fighter probably wouldn't lose his UFC job over this even if there were a video showing him typing the ugly words into his phone. But Jon Jones the brand? The already dented image takes another hit regardless of whether perception matches reality.
This is an athlete whose grace and beauty within the cage regularly seem to be offset by an oafish and fuzzy sales pitch outside it. Accusations against him tend to be believed because he's mistepped before and because people want to believe them. For a young man who appears to be intent on becoming not just his sport's greatest competitor but also its most transcendent crossover star, the fight for his marketing image is getting tougher than anything he faces in the cage.
• The World Series of Fighting has been doing a little dumpster diving at UFC headquarters and is recycling some found items into a credible welterweight division. The latest trash-to-treasure addition is Jake Shields, who was released by the UFC two weeks ago and signed with the WSOF on Thursday. With newly crowned champion Rousimar Palhares set to defend the belt in July against Jon Fitch, might the winner of that bout between fellow UFC refugees end up with Shields, the 35-year-old former Strikeforce, Shooto and EliteXC champion?
• Too bad the WSOF's 170-pound mix doesn't include Ben Askren. The former Bellator champ, shunned by the UFC and told by president Dana White to go fight in the WSOF, opted to sign with One FC instead. Maybe the money was better. Maybe Askren just wanted to thumb his nose at White. No matter how you package it, this was an image mistake by an undefeated fighter who boasts of being the best welterweight in the world. He's certainly not going to prove it over in Asia.
• Speaking of Askren, Bellator is poised to crown his successor as welterweight champion. The winners of the promotion's last two 170-pound tournaments, Rick Hawn and Douglas Lima, will meet in the main event of a fight card Friday in Council Bluffs, Iowa (9 p.m. ET, Spike). Both men have fought for a Bellator belt before, with Lima losing a decision to Askren in 2012 and Hawn, the former judo Olympian, getting choked out by lightweight champ Michael Chandler last year.