Emelianenko-Werdum a study in contrasts

SAN JOSE, Calif. – There was a stark contrast between Fedor Emelianenko and opponent Fabricio Werdum at Thursday’s press conference hyping their Saturday night battle.

There is no official championship at stake in the three-round main event at the Strikeforce/M-1 Global co-promoted event at the HP Pavilion, which will air live in the U.S. on Showtime and be seen live in nearly three dozen countries.

But to many, any Emelianenko (31-1, 1 no-contest) fight is an unofficial championship match since he’s generally ranked as the best heavyweight on the planet and is a subject in every pound-for-pound rankings debate. He is currently ranked No. 3 in the Y! Sports poll.

Few argued that status eight years ago when he defeated Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, at the time the world’s top heavyweight, to capture the PRIDE championship. And he hasn’t lost it since. Aside from a rematch with Nogueira and one fight with Mirko Cro Cop, he hasn’t even been to a decision since 2002.

Emelianenko’s demeanor is as different from most fighters as his look. The native of Stary Oskol, Russia, is soft-spoken and quiet. He is not a physical monster like so many of the top heavyweights – although he is clearly a thick, powerful man. When he says he isn’t the slightest bit nervous going into a fight, his demeanor tells you those words aren’t hiding any weakness.

He’s a businessman who wound up in a sport that entails beating people up in cages, and he happens to be exceptionally good at it. Based on his career as a whole, he’s the best in the sport’s short history. He certainly doesn’t run from this image, nor does he publicly embrace it.

He doesn’t seem to care all that much whether his dream match with Brock Lesnar, or whoever ends up as the top dog among the new breed of heavyweights in UFC, happens. He doesn’t seem to feel any need to prove to those skeptics that he’s as good as his fan base – who view him as a almost a god – believes him to be. Werdum, on the other hand, is in a festive mood. It’s the biggest fight of his life, and he’s never trained harder. The 6-foot-3 Brazilian expects to weigh in at about 240 pounds, a few pounds heavier than his shorter, stockier rival.

Werdum proudly lifts his shirt to show a tight waist, very different from the 16-pound heavier and softer fighter who was knocked out in the first round by a then-unknown Junior Dos Santos in Chicago on Oct. 25, 2008. That loss led to him being cut from UFC, where he compiled a 2-2 record.

Werdum came to the U.S. for the fight with an entourage of trainers, family members and friends from both Brazil, where he was born, and Spain, where he moved as a teenager with his mother. Before the press conference, the whole crew was laughing, joking and even singing songs together.

“I’m a Fedor fan,” Werdum said, remembering the first time he saw him fight, against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Japan. “I think we’re going to have the best fight of the year, or at least one of the best fights.”

But when it came to talking about the fight, Werdum (13-4-1), stopped being so open.

“Of course I had a strong camp,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m confident. I’ve worked my whole life for this.”

The lower weight was not part of a strategy for fighting Emelianenko, insisted his trainers. It’s just the consequences of a change in training, which he refused to give any specifics on, other than the obvious increase in the amount of work.

Emelianenko is listed at 6-feet, but when the two men squared off, there was clearly more of a height difference between the two than the listed statistics indicate. It looks like Werdum has a big edge, and he said he’s looking to take advantage of it.

But it would be foolish to give the size difference too much credence since Emelianenko, a 6-to-1 favorite, is almost always the shorter man in his matches.

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker claimed that ticket sales for Saturday’s show are ahead of the pace of last summer’s Gina Carano vs. Cris “Cyborg” Santos fight in the same building (which drew 13,976 fans) and are on par with the 2006 Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie fight (which drew a then-MMA record in North America with a sellout 18,265 fans). He threw a knock in at UFC president Dana White, without mentioning him by name, since White claimed they had only sold 4,000 tickets for the show.

But the more important number would be 2.17, the television rating of the Carano vs. Santos fight, the best MMA number ever recorded on Showtime. They are hoping to break that record with Emelianenko’s first appearance on the premium network.

Emelianenko’s skill level in 2010 isn’t the only thing being hotly debated. His popularity and drawing power are as well. As with the arguments over where he stands as a fighter today, the truth is probably somewhere in between the opinions of his skeptics and worshippers. Emelianenko was never one of the biggest-drawing stars of the Japanese MMA world that he dominated in the ring during the past decade. And in the U.S., and for that matter most of the world, he is not nearly as well known as Lesnar or Georges St. Pierre.

But his only U.S. television fight, on Nov. 7 against Brett Rogers on CBS, gained 1.49 million new viewers over the previous fight on the broadcast, the second-biggest viewership gain for an MMA fight in U.S. television history. He is a star in this country and does sell tickets.

The promotion around the event has been based around it being the first time the top male fighter (arguably Emelianenko) and the best female fighter (Santos, who defends her Strikeforce women’s middleweight title against Jan Finney) appear on the same show. While there have been attempts to bring a revenge aspect into the promotion, as Werdum submitted Emelianenko’s younger brother Alexander in a 2006 match in Holland, neither fighter brought it up this week.

“It’s like being able to bring Babe Ruth to my home town,” said Coker, who was raised and lives in San Jose and started his career promoting kickboxing events in the city in the ’80s.

Emelianenko also appeared to be in better condition, at least visually, than in some recent fights.

While Werdum is a quality fighter, probably tenth to fifth place in the division, the odds on him are long because he doesn’t appear to have the style that would exploit any weaknesses in the Russian’s game.

The standing advantage goes to Emelianenko because he hits so hard, even while giving away considerable reach. A strong heavyweight wrestler can put Emelianenko on his back, ground and pound and cut him, but Werdum doesn’t fit that bill.

Emelianenko looks to have the power edge here. Even if Werdum gets the fight on the ground, his usual edge on the ground as a two-time world submission champion may not mean much, since Emelianenko has never been in danger of being submitted in his career.

However, it is also unlikely Emelianenko will submit Werdum. While it’s been years since he really showed it – mostly because he hasn’t had to – one of Emelianenko’s best weapons when he was younger was his powerful short punching while in the opponents’ guard. But in MMA, when top guys go at it, there is no such thing as a lock.

An Emelianenko win will do exactly zero in the endless debates on where he stands today. His supporters will claim Werdum is at the level of or even better than UFC’s top heavyweights based on his strong jiu-jitsu background, but that’s not the case. His detractors will claim Werdum was yet another UFC washout and that he hasn’t faced a true No. 1 contender since Cro Cop in 2005.

And the arguments go on and on.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 25, 2010