It seems each time a fighter prepares to meet Fedor Emelianenko in the ring, something changes. Whatever it was he did to earn a shot at mixed martial arts' top heavyweight fighter is, rather suddenly, not enough.
This power of persuasion is how Emelianenko, the 32-year-old Russian heavyweight who is unbeaten since December 2000, usually begins his march to victory. Well before he can unleash his speed and power, make use of his uncanny leverage and eerie ability to remain calm in the face of giants attempting to rip him from consciousness, Emelianenko claims a distinct advantage by the sheer force of his reputation -- even if he says otherwise.
Fabricio Werdum, the latest challenger to Emelianenko's thrown, has fallen into the trap. He may not know it yet, but he has. Though the 32-year-old Brazilian says he helped himself by spending more time in the gym over the past six months than he has for any of his 18 previous fights, chances are he'll find himself, like so many others, wondering what went wrong late Saturday night.
The whole thing seems counterintuitive. Of course it makes sense to work harder than ever before. Of course it's smart to improve on weaknesses in training, fix holes, spend an extra couple of hours a day training, running, drilling, sparring, thinking. But inevitably, a training camp in preparation for a fight with Emelianenko tends to push a fighter to the brink of obsession. And often well past.
"It is bad for a fighter to change their game too much," acknowledged Werdum, 13-4-1. And yet he went on to talk about how vastly different this training camp was. How his efforts were "doubled." How each morning since finding out his next bout would come against the Russian he awoke thinking about the man. How he's never felt so tuned up before.
Obsession, it seems, took hold.
"This fight means more than having a belt because everyone knows Fedor is No. 1 in the world," Werdum said after a midweek training session in Seal Beach, Calif. "It's an opportunity everyone is waiting for. I'm sure I will have the victory and I will prove to the world I will be No. 1."
Many, many others felt the same leading into a bout against Emelianenko, who attracts more headlines with less to say than any fighter in the history of the sport.
People around Werdum, such as veteran light heavyweight Renato "Babalu" Sobral, who dropped a decision to Emelianenko in 2001, have said the right things in support of their guy. "He wants to beat Fedor, not just survive," Sobral said. "That's the difference." But there are certain truths about Werdum, who moved from Brazil to California with his wife and daughter for the lifestyle and training options, that can't be wiped away by extra agility drills. His decision to double down on the gym time is evidence of that.
Why work so hard now? It's like cramming for an exam you know you're not prepared for. Not that it matters to Emelianenko (32-1), who has chugged along like a diesel engine, always running, always churning, since he realized a decade ago he could support his family by fighting.
"I think what defines a great fighter is someone who performs well in the cage, someone who makes the right decisions during fights, fights fair and respects the sport and as a result gains the respect and the admiration of true fans of the sport of mixed martial arts," Emelianenko said.
The Russian has drawn some criticism from fans and rivals in recent years for what they see as a conscious decision to avoid fighting the best. Yet no matter what anyone thinks of Emelianenko's recent opponents -- and there was a two-year stretch from 2005-2007 when he fought a less-than-stellar level of challenger -- it is impossible to ignore the fact that he's beaten every type of opponent, often when they're at their best, including the vast majority of top-10-ranked heavyweights during his time at the top.
In Werdum, Emelianenko faces the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner he's seen since stomping Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to become MMA's linear heavyweight champion in 2003, which by all rights means more than any promotional title. The vast majority of Emelianenko's victories over the past five years have come against wrestlers or strikers, so in that sense Saturday's Strikeforce-promoted main event (Showtime 10 p.m. ET/PT) at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., holds some intrigue.
"Werdum is very hard to hit on the ground," Sobral said. "He has a very good defensive guard against punches. Werdum has a little bit different jiu-jitsu than Nogueira and he has long legs."
A focus of Werdum's extended training camp has been the counter to Emelianenko's fast and powerful overhand right -- the punch that stopped Andrei Arlovski in midair and sent him spinning to the canvas in 2009. Arlovski hasn't been the same since. Neither has Tim Sylvia, whom Emelianenko decapitated in 36 seconds. Or Brett Rogers, a second-round knockout victim last November.
The common thread: Each believed he was the one to remove Emelianenko from his perch; each did things in training he's never done before; each walked into the cage essentially obsessed with a man who couldn't care less about any of them.
"Fedor never misses his opportunity," Werdum said. "When others had the chance against him, they failed. When he has a chance, he finishes."