Sunday June 14th, 2015

Cain Velasquez slumped on his stool, his face blood-splattered and bloated, his affect flashing vacancy like a run-down motel on the outskirts. Water, he needed, so he laboriously lifted a plastic bottle toward his puffy lips, tipped it … and missed his mouth. He stared a glazed stare straight ahead, into his own weary soul, still needing that damn water.

This was the minute-long break following the second round of Saturday night’s heavyweight championship bout against Fabricio Werdum in the main event of UFC 188 in Mexico City. All but the most partisan observers at the packed Arena Ciudad de Mexico or at home watching the pay-per-view telecast likely had the fight scored even, one round apiece, and the three cageside judges later confirmed as much. But scorecards are deceiving.

Complete round-by-round breakdown of Velasquez-Werdum

Across the octagon, Werdum was sitting there like he was out on the town for a haircut. He wore a sweaty gleam, for sure, and his chest was slowly expanding to take in all the thin air it could hold. But the Brazilian was relaxed, fresh—no vacancy in those 37-year-old eyes. He looked like a winner, or at least someone on the verge of becoming one. “I want you to finish,” his head trainer, Rafael Cordeiro, was telling him.

Werdum calmly took in the instruction. Then he did as he was told. Two minutes into Round 3, he anticipated a Velasquez takedown shot, clamped on a guillotine choke before the two big guys had even hit the mat and elicited a quick tapout to become the UFC’s undisputed heavyweight champion in a stunning upset.

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It’s not the first time that the heavyweight fighting landscape has been shockingly shaken up by Werdum (20–5–1). Five years ago, he handed icon Fedor Emelianenko his first defeat in 28 fights, which spanned over a decade. Now he’s dished out the first true beatdown of Velasquez’s career. Fedor, Cain … Fabricio the giant killer.

Though Werdum entered the weekend already in possession of a championship belt that looked just like Velasquez’s, his was an interim strap, brought into play after Cain suffered his second major injury in two years and had to pull out of their scheduled meeting last November. Fabricio took on Mark Hunt that night instead, and he knocked out the knockout artist for the honor of having a shiny brass-and-leather belt wrapped around his waist. But it was a faux honor. Werdum wasn’t the real champ. In order to call himself the baddest man on the planet, he needed to defeat Velasquez (13–2).

That he did so on Saturday night had less to do with what was said in Werdum’s corner between the second and third rounds than what was being spouted at the same time in Velasquez’s. Over there, head trainer Javier Mendes sounded desperate, because that was the reality of Cain’s circumstance. “You gotta< take him down,” Mendes was urging. “I want him down.”

Those might not seem like reckless words if they were spoken about any of Velasquez’s previous opponents—and they surely have been, since Cain’s bread and butter always has been a ferociously relentless ground-and-pound. But against Werdum, a jiu-jitsu ace who has won multiple grappling world championships, the last place one wants the fight to take place is on the canvas. Cain & co. knew this. When the champ had dropped an off-balance Werdum with a short left hand just 10 seconds into the fight, he hadn’t followed him to the canvas, instead backing off to allow his opponent to get back up and get beat down some more.

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Except the Velasquez beatdown never came. He did remain the aggressor for the rest of Round 1, getting the better of most exchanges, but Werdum stood with him within firing range and landed his share as the fighters traded punches. And once the fight went to a second round, Velasquez faded deeper and deeper into awkwardness.

Maybe it was the 602-day layoff since his last fight, owing to Velasquez’s recovery from shoulder and knee injuries. Or perhaps the number that did him in was 7,382: the elevation of the host city in the high plateau of central Mexico. Or maybe Velasquez was beaten to the punch again and again simply because Werdum was a whole lot better on his feet than anticipated. Round 2 saw Fabricio snap Cain’s head back again and again with straight punches, and his viselike Muay Thai clinch allowed him to manhandle Velasquez like no one had before.

Whatever it was that had turned Velasquez into the walking dead before two rounds were done, his corner apparently decided that it was time to tempt fate and take the fight to the mat. Cain got a quick takedown to open Round 3, but when Fabricio nearly reversed him into a bad position, Velasquez got back to his feet. Unsteadily. He looked clumsy and slow, and Werdum continued to land punches and knees on him, then threatened with a standing guillotine. The tables were being turned on Cain and his usual domineering relentlessness. He was the prey, surviving but not thriving. Then, suddenly, Velasquez shot for another takedown, and Werdum secured the guillotine. Almost immediately, Cain tapped.

“I had a big dream,” Werdum said afterward in the cage. “I got it today.”

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​​Where does the dream go from here? Werdum’s big win would seem to be a big win for Junior dos Santos as well. Though he’s a former UFC champion and has long been considered the No. 2 heavyweight in the world, dos Santos has been on the wrong end of a game of leapfrog. Ever since he lost for a second time to Velasquez in the fall of 2013, he’s had to watch fighters ranked below him cut ahead to take their shot at the golden ring.

Now, with Velasquez dethroned, dos Santos is back in the game. Before this weekend, he had been the only man to defeat Velasquez. He also happens to be the last to beat Werdum in the UFC. Back in 2008, his KO of his countryman was so definitive that it sent Werdum out of the fight promotion altogether. He moved on to Strikeforce, where he won three of four, then returned to the UFC in 2012. Werdum has won six straight fights since then.

A six-fight win streak is impressive. Is it enough to earn a title shot? If so, perhaps the first shot at Werdum will go to another former champion, Andrei Arlovski, who also has won six in a row. The 36-year-old Belarusian, who owns a UFC victory over the new champ as well, is a reclamation project, a fighter who looked shot while bouncing around smaller promotions. But now he’s back in the big show, and he has a story line. The UFC might find that irresistible.

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