Who Takes It? Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188

This week’s edition of “Who Takes It?” goes south of the border to Mexico for the main event of UFC 188, where two champions, Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum, will clash to decide the “undisputed” UFC heavyweight title tonight.

It’s the first title defense since 2013 for the Mexican-American Velasquez, who has described it a lifelong dream to fight in his ancestral homeland. He would seem both the betting favorite and the crowd favorite.

But, as in the popular choice among social media for “relationship status” — it’s complicated.

His opponent, UFC interim champion Fabricio Werdum, won his share of the title by defeating Mark Hunt last year in Mexico — as Velasquez continued to struggle with a knee injury. The 37 year old Werdum hails from Brazil, but spent a good deal of his youth in Spain, is fluent in Spanish, and assists the UFC with Spanish language commentary.

So he’s a familiar face to Mexican fans, and enjoyed leading the crowd in one of Mexico’s ballads, “Cielito Lindo,” after his win over Hunt.  In recent weeks he even taunted his opponent as “an American who thinks he’s Mexican” and implied he may even have the crowd’s support.

While his victory against Hunt was secured with a sudden ‘flying knee’ attack, a product of his more recent training under legendary Muay Thai and MMA trainer Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum is noted mostly for his foundation in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A BJJ black belt world champion back in 2002, Werdum has long been one of the best MMA’s submission artists — showing off everything from a rare sweep from deep half guard early in his bout against Travis Browne last year, to arm bar wins over the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Rodrigo Nogueira in years past.

At 32, Velasquez is the younger of the two, and may seem to better represent the “New School” of MMA athletes. He entered American Kickboxing Academy after a decorated collegiate wrestling career, earning All-American honors at Arizona State.

He doesn’t rely on an elegant boxing style or a nimble jiu-jitsu game. He’s a ferocious ground-and-pound fighter who blasts opponents to the mat and beats them down. His hard-punching combinations have earned eleven knockouts in fourteen career bouts; his lone defeat a knockout, which he would twice avenge, at the hands of Junior Dos Santos.

Velasquez hailed as the best MMA talent ever by trainers Javier Mendez and Bob Cook. (Strong praise from men who had worked with the likes of Frank Shamrock and BJ Penn.)

How does he match up with Werdum? Odds have him a healthy favorite (around four-to-one per our friends at bestfightodds), but it seems many observers are more conflicted.

Maybe they’re struggling to remember how dominant Velasquez has been, and who can blame them? He hasn’t fought since 2013, and here he has a very different opponent than Velasquez’s more recent opponents in Antonio Silva and Dos Santos.

For that matter, he hasn’t fought anyone other than Silva and Dos Santos since 2010. Why? Injuries — one to the shoulder and two to the knee. That’s why we’re here with two champions. And that’s why this bout is tough to call.

Dave Camarillo, Velasquez’s longtime jiu-jitsu trainer at American Kickboxing Academy, described what he called “a genetic envelope” in a recent podcast with BJJBrick.

Camarillo described cornering Velasquez against Rodrigo Nogueira, a bout Velasquez would win by a crushing first round knockout.

“Nogueira gets in the ring,” Camarillo recalled. “Nogueira’s awesome. But he’s not athletic compared to Cain… he had almost no chance to beat Cain. Of course there’s technique, but technique is just one variable… I saw Noguiera jump up and down before the fight, and I thought there’s no way he can beat Cain. I had to see it in front of my eyes, not on TV. He’s the champion not just because he’s good. He’s the champion because he’s the most athletic guy in his division.”

But how will Velasquez’s injuries — most recently, a torn meniscus — effect that genetic envelope? Is Werdum, who admittedly doesn’t show the same athleticism, catching the dominant champion at the right time, as, in many observers opinions, when he caught Fedor?

It’s something that’s difficult to quantify, but the guess here is… not enough, and no.

Cain’s style is a nightmare for any jiu-jitsu-based fighter. His superior wrestling dictates the pace of the fight, and whether or not it goes to the mat. His punching power shakes the best fighters up and gives him the chance to grind out a finish at any opening.

Werdum struggled with the pace of Mark Hunt. Unless Velasquez is totally hobbled, a la Sergio Martinez’s final bout last year, Werdum just can’t compete here and will need a miraculous submission. Expect a TKO within three rounds for Velasquez.

As always, enjoy the fights!