Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight.
There are belts and there are belts.
The brass-and-leather one that will be at the center of Saturday night’s heavyweight tug of war between Fabricio Werdum and Mark Hunt will sparkle and shine under the Arena de Ciudad México lights, but that strap doesn’t mean a whole lot, really. Oh, sure, it identifies the wearer as a UFC champion, but not without the word “interim” attached, and that’s fight lingo for “faux.” No one will go to bed at the end of the night believing that the true world champ is anyone other than Cain Velasquez.
But Velasquez injured his knee in training three weeks ago, leaving top contender Werdum without an opponent for the main event of UFC 180 in Mexico City (10 p.m. ET, PPV). Enter Hunt, the rotund 40-year-old New Zealander whose ham-hock fists have produced seven knockouts in his 10 mixed martial arts wins and 13 more in his kickboxing career.
Hunt brings with him a more impactful definition of “belts.”
Still, Hunt (10-8-1, 5-2-1 in the UFC) is an unlikely title challenger. When he joined the UFC in 2010, he was riding a five-fight losing streak. (Does one actually ride a five-fight losing streak, or does it ride you?) The behemoth promotion had offered to just pay off the Strikeforce contract it had acquired and let Mark walk away a richer man. But he wanted to be a fighting man, as he’d always been, so he was given a fight. Which he lost to Sean McCorkle, making it a six-fight slide. But then, as unlikely as it seemed, he became a smash hit by winning four in a row, three by knockout. And after a momentum-slowing KO loss to Junior dos Santos and a rock-’em-sock-’em draw with “Bigfoot” Silva, Hunt did what no one previously had done in the UFC: He knocked Roy Nelson cold. That was in mid-September, and a month later he was offered this opportunity.
Werdum (18-5-1, 6-2 UFC) has won all four of his fights since rejoining the UFC following a stint in Strikeforce that ended with the second-fiddle promotion going silent. The 37-year-old Brazilian is best known for ending Fedor Emelianenko’s decade-long unbeaten streak in 2010. But his most recent outing might be even better, because he beat down and rose above expectation. When he and Travis Browne tangled in April, with a shot at the title at stake, the thinking was that Fabricio needed to get the fight to the canvas, where he could use his virtuoso jiu-jitsu. Instead, he stood and traded with Browne and delivered a different sort of dominant performance.
Will Werdum, who’s No. 1 in the SI.com heavyweight rankings (because Velasquez and Dos Santos, both of whom have been out for over a year, are ineligible), dare to utilize the same fistic game plan against the No. 4-ranked Hunt? That would be the very definition of living dangerously.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of the five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1, starting at 8 p.m. ET. The main card also will be screened by Fathom Events at 400 movie theaters nationwide.
This was to be the second competition between Velasquez and Werdum. They first faced each other as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, which aired on Fox Deportes and Spanish-language TV outlets in Latin America. In other words, if you’re a monolingual English-speaking dinosaur like me, you didn’t see any of it. But you can catch up by watching the season’s two finales on Saturday’s card in Mexico City: Alejandro Pérez and José Alberto Quiñónez collide in an all-Mexico bantamweight bout, and their featherweight countryman, Yair Rodriguez, takes on Leonardo Morales of Nicaragua.
Speaking of fights that are not the UFC 180 main event, this might be a good time to mention that the $55 Werdum vs. Hunt PPV will have some MMA competition on free TV on Saturday night. Bellator 131 in San Diego (9 p.m. ET, Spike) features a feisty rematch of top lightweights Michael Chandler and Will Brooks, though the event is actually headlined by a meeting of aged former UFC guys, former light heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar. And the World Series of Fighting card in Tampa, Fla. (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), also serves up a helping of UFC castoffs in title bouts: Yushin Okami challenging David Branch for the middleweight tile, and Melvin Guillard facing unbeaten lightweight belt holder Justin Gaethje. All but Gaethje have fought for the Dana White Fight Club.
Will a faux heavyweight title bout that unfortunately doesn’t feature the baddest man on the planet still manage to carry the night?
Last Five Fights
4/19/14 Travis Browne W UD 5
6/8/13 Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira W Sub. 2
6/23/12 Mike Russow W TKO 1
2/4/12 Roy Nelson W UD 3
6/18/11 Alistair Overeem L UD 3
9/20/14 Roy Nelson W KO 2
12/7/13 Antonio Silva D (Maj.) 5
5/25/13 Junior dos Santos L KO 3
3/3/13 Stefan Struve W TKO 3
2/26/12 CheickKongo W TKO 1
Tale of the Tape
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2)
Other Numbers to Count On
57.4: Percentage of Werdum’s significant strikes that have successfully landed, which is fourth-best in UFC history, according to FightMetric statistics.
6: Submissions among Hunt’s eight career losses.
4: Knockouts among Hunt’s last five wins.
7,382: Elevation of Mexico City, in feet above sea level. Fabricio Werdum has been training in the thin air for months.
Fabricio Werdum taps out the great Fedor Emelianenko:
Mark Hunt paves the way for a title shot by planting Roy Nelson:
Both men want the same thing: Werdum on the mat.
In Hunt’s version of that scenario, Fabricio is woozy and seeing stars that he will not remember in the morning. In Hunt’s envisioning, he’s just landed one of his sledgehammer fists and put out the lights on Werdum.
In Werdum’s mind, the trip to the mat is a two-man journey and it’s voluntary, at least for him. As he imagines it, he’s gotten Hunt off his feet via a takedown or by whatever means are necessary, and now he’s going to work. Mark is a fish out of water when off his feet, whereas Fabricio swims like Michael Phelps down there.
So it’s simple. If you see two fighters standing on Saturday night, understand that that’s good for Hunt. If you see two men on the ground, that favors Werdum. It’s true that Fabricio can stand and trade leather a bit, surely better than Mark can grapple, but this is no time to try to prove that.
Werdum is the betting favorite, with a money line ranging from -407 (bet $100 to win $24.57) to -550 (bet $100 to win $18.18) at various sportsbooks. The line on Hunt ranges from +345 (bet $100 to win $345) to +422 (bet $100 to win $422).
I give Mark Hunt five minutes. If he can find Fabricio Werdum’s chin in the first round, he’ll walk out of the octagon with the faux belt. After that, he’s on borrowed time. Why the rush? Because Mexico City is more than 7,000 feet above sea level, and Hunt has not had as much time to adjust to the elevation as Werdum has. In fact, “The Super Samoan” told ESPN he weighed over 300 pounds when he was called to replace Velasquez. His weight cut to 265 will be arduous enough, never mind the thin air. So for Werdum it comes down to surviving the first round, then taking advantage of a depleted Hunt. Werdum by submission.
“I definitely feel I’ll have a small advantage over Mark Hunt. You definitely feel the altitude when you're training in Mexico. It’s definitely impactful when training there. It takes the body some getting used to.”
-- Fabricio Werdum, speaking to Fox Sports about his having trained for two months in Mexico City, which is more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
“Everyone’s a world-class ground fighter until they get a punch in the face. So that’s how I deal with all these ground fighters. I hit ’em in the head, and there goes your [f-ing] black belt.”
-- Mark Hunt, speaking to Submission Radio about the challenge of facing a two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and two-time ADCC submission wrestling champion.
The Rest of the Card
Jake Ellenberger vs. Kelvin Gastelum, welterweight; Ricardo Lamas vs. Dennis Bermudez, featherweight; Edgar García vs. Héctor Urbina, welterweight; Jessica Eye vs. Leslie Smith, women’s bantamweight; Augusto Montaño vs. Chris Heatherly, welterweight; Alejandro Pérez vs. José Alberto Quiñónez, bantamweight; Enrique Briones vs. Guido Cannetti, bantamweight; Yair Rodriguez vs. Leonardo Morales, featherweight; Marco Beltrán vs. Marlon Vera, bantamweight.
The UFC has not yet announced the bout order, but the fights that are not part of the pay-per-view will be on Fox Sports 1 beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. An hour-long postfight show begins at 1 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 2.