The UFC returns to London with a critical heavyweight bout that will leave the division with a clear number one contender at it’s conclusion.
The heavyweight division is due for it’s biggest fight in many years. The only problem is that one half of the fight isn’t technically a heavyweight. Such is the result of a champion who has run roughshod over the division. While the super-fight is scheduled for this summer, the UFC will be going across the pond for a critical bout to determine the next step in the division when former champion Fabricio Werdum faces up-and-comer Alexander Volkov.
By all accounts, Fabricio Werdum was on his way to irrelevance in the MMA world. He lost the world title due to immense tactical errors against Stipe Miocic. A year later, he lost to perennial contender Alistair Overeem and it appeared that another title shot was not in the cards for a now 40 year old Werdum.
What’s more, it appeared he just couldn’t get out of his own way outside of the cage. He lost his role as an analyst on FOX due to his public taunt of Reebok where he shared a photoshopped picture a Nike logo onto his fight kit. He also made homophobic comments several times, against Daniel Cormier (on Instagram) and Tony Ferguson. It was all topped off last year when he entered a well-publicized altercation with Colby Covington in which he threw a boomerang at the welterweight contender, and was subsequently charged with assault. The entire incident came off as much juvenile as confounding.
Which is why when the UFC saw fit to re-instate Werdum as an analyst, the move was met with some surprise. Regardless of whether it or not it appeared that Werdum had learned his lesson publicly, the fact is he continues his road back to prominence in the MMA world.
Back-to-back victories on short notice against Walt Harris and Marcin Tybura punctuated his 2017. The former was under extremely unusual circumstances. Harris was a replacement at the eleventh hour when Derrick Lewis failed to weigh-in due to health issues. The fight with Tybura was most telling as the surging contender had reeled off three straight before being subject to a five round clinic from Werdum. If “Vai Cavalo” can also turn back Volkov, he would all but lock in a heavyweight title shot with the current state of the division.
Alexander Volkov is relatively new to the UFC, but he has traveled the world fighting outside of the Octagon. He spent the early years of his professional career in his native Russia, competing in the country’s largest MMA organization: M-1. He made his American debut in 2012 when he joined Bellator. He had an impressive 6-3 record in the promotion that included winning the heavyweight title. Despite this, he lost his final two bouts with the company in 2015 and would make his UFC debut in 2016.
He notched his first UFC victory against Tim Johnson and was immediately thrust into a bout with perennial contender Roy Nelson. Volkov had his hand raised in what some felt was a questionable decision but would leave no doubt in his following outing against Stefan Struve. “The Battle of Giants” as it was promoted, lived up to the hype as Struve controlled the exchanges early before Volkov was able to rally back and finish “Skyscraper” in the third round.
Stylistically, the bout looks to pit Werdum’s versatile game against Volkov’s dangerous striking. On the ground, Werdum’s elite BJJ should allow him to threaten with submissions and create opportunities to land devastating ground-and-pound. Volkov did not have an answer when he was on bottom against Roy Nelson and Werdum figures to be an even tougher test for the Russian striker than “Big Country.”
On the feet, Werdum has improved immensely in his striking as displayed by knockouts over Mark Hunt and Mike Russow. The key for him will be to use forward pressure and to strike first, not allowing Volkov to use his height and range to get into a rhythm. On the opposite side, Volkov is a dangerous striker who diversifies his attack between punches, kicks, knees, elbows and the like. He should look to work behind his jab early and be the aggressor, not allowing Werdum to set up a takedown. It should be noted, the strategy has worked for Alistair Overeem twice against Werdum and he did not need a knockout for a victory in either instance.
The bout comes at a critical time in the heavyweight division. Miocic has a super fight on tap with Daniel Cormier, but he has also virtually cleaned out the division. Werdum is hoping that by capitalizing on the shallow competition, he can negotiate his way to a title shot despite having already been brutally stopped by the man currently on the throne. A win for Volkov would put him in a UFC title fight likely sooner than expected as those ahead of him have already lost their shot at gold. With Cain Velasquez’s return yet to be scheduled, Saturday’s winner stands to be the obvious choice for the belt. Considering the exciting bouts that have taken place in London, Werdum and Volkov could well add to the list.