Sunday November 16th, 2014

At the moment, the grand moment, when the UFC championship belt was wrapped and fastened around the waist of Fabricio Werdum, the shiny brass-and-leather strap shined under the arena lights almost as sparklingly as the smile that spread across the 37-year-old Brazilian’s face. His was an unrestrained expression of childlike joy, a visible manifestation of the crowning achievement of a mixed martial arts career spanning a dozen years, times that have been up and down and now up, up, up.

Twenty feet away was another smiling heavyweight. This one wasn’t standing in the octagon, though, but instead was seated in the first row outside it, an interested observer among the thousands of howling fight fans who had filled Arena Ciudad de Mexico on Saturday night for UFC 180, the promotion’s first visit south of the border. Cain Velasquez was smiling, all right, but his was not a smile of someone sharing in the winning fighter’s high spirits. Velasquez was smiling the smile of one who knows a camera is on him, knows his face is being splashed across the arena video screens, knows the crowd is whooping it up as much for him -- sitting there unshaven in his flannel shirt -- as for the man who’d just scored a knockout in the title fight.

Make that “title” fight. Fabricio Werdum (19-5-1) owns a UFC championship belt, but it’s weighed down by an asterisk. After taking out Mark Hunt in Saturday’s main event, Werdum is what’s known as an interim champ, a placeholder meant to keep the throne warm until Velasquez is healed from a knee injury. When Velasquez pulled out of this event three weeks ago, it was un gran fastidio, or big bummer, for the UFC to see its Mexican-American star fall from the Mexico City marquee. But the show must go on, so the promotion brought in Hunt, the most rotund actor ever to fill the Cinderella role. Talk about changing the narrative.

If Hunt had won Saturday’s main event, those of us who chronicle this sport would have run dry of adjectives, especially ones of a superlative nature. He’s 40 years old. He came in with a record of 10-8-1. As recently as 2010, he was on a six-fight losing streak. And even though he’s on a career upswing, the first “M” in “MMA” isn’t his game. In Hunt’s dictionary, “mixed” is related to “mixing it up,” which refers to trading punches, with the canvas becoming involved only after Mark lays out his opponent upon it.

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Indeed, within the first minute of the fight, Hunt put Werdum on the canvas. Werdum got right back to his feet, though, which tells you the brawny New Zealander didn’t get all of him. But Werdum had got the message. From that point on, he was cautious, mostly staying on the outside of Hunt’s punches, except for a couple of desperately lunging takedown tries. Eventually the fight did go to Werdum’s domain -- he’s won multiple world jiu-jitsu championships -- but even there Hunt got the better of the combat, landing a few short punches and elbows while positioning himself out of submission peril. Round 1 was all Hunt, not a beatdown but a confident stalking.

When the second round began and Hunt again floored Werdum with a punch, he was further emboldened. He continued to stare down Werdum, who by this point was standing on the outskirts of Mexico City, too far away to produce anything resembling combative offense and -- this is key -- far enough away to see what was coming at him. Hunt seemed content to maintain the slow pace -- particularly in a five-rounder at 7,000-plus feet in elevation. He patiently kept looking for that one big shot that would punctuate his redemptive tale.

It did eventually come, but he didn’t see it.

Midway through the round, Werdum feinted a takedown try, and when Hunt lowered his head and body angle to defend, the Brazilian came forward with a flying knee. It connected square on the jaw, and Hunt fell to the canvas, splayed out on his back. Werdum pounced and landed a dozen short punches before referee Herb Dean jumped in at 2:27 to end it.

“I faked a takedown and got the knee,” Werdum said on the Fox postfight show. “He knew I was going to take him down, so I faked one.” 

Count one cageside observer impressed. “It just shows that Fabricio does everything and he does everything well,” said Velasquez, who leading up to this event coached opposite Werdum on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. “He’s not a one-trick pony.”

No, he’s not, but this pony is going to need a lot more horsepower to take away the real championship from Velasquez.

Until he was caught flush, Hunt was leading the way in Saturday’s fight, though with him it was a slow dance. Even when he put a hurt on Werdum, he didn’t shift into high gear. But high gear is where Velasquez lives. His engine is designed to run an opponent down. Cain might not have the pop in his punches that Hunt does, but he’s got the relentlessness to pop and pop and pop. Werdum can run but he can’t hide.

Of course, we already knew that Velasquez would have a striking edge in a fight with Werdum. Where the champ might find peril, goes the thinking, is when the fighters are on the mat. Cain has never shied away from ground fighting, even when in with jiu-jitsu black belts. But, as we’ve been told over and over, Werdum isn’t just any black belt, right?

Well, then, how did Hunt, who’s always been a fish out of water when he touches canvas, successfully swim his way through a couple of minutes with Fabricio? Hunt was on top, true, and he’s heavy load to maneuver. But Werdum never even remotely threatened.

If Hunt can survive a meeting in Werdum’s business office, so can Velasquez. Maybe the champ -- the real champ, not the wink, wink champ -- will rein in his aggressiveness a bit. Or maybe he’ll be the brutalizer he’s been with everyone else he’s tangled with.

We’ll find out in March. Maybe. That’s when UFC president Dana White said we might see the return of Velasquez. The champ wasn’t so definitive, but he sounded optimistic. And excited. And like a man who had to smile a lot on Saturday night because he had all of these muscles -- facial and otherwise -- he simply didn’t know what to do with.

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