By , Elias Cepeda
Published April 28, 2016
For a moment, let us cut through our disappointment as spectators that the UFC's Super Bowl weekend card won't include a heavyweight title fight. Looking through a dispassionate lens, we are left with a very simply situation:
The reigning and defending heavyweight world champion, Fabricio Werdum, says he was trudging through training camp a bit injured (as fighters usually do), in order to make his big immediate title fight rematch against Cain Velasquez happen. Velasquez pulled out of the fight with injuries, with only about two weeks before the fight.
Now, the fight is off. Of course it is.
Two weeks before his scheduled title defense, Fabricio Werdum was left without an opponent. That should have meant it was time for the fight to be rescheduled for a later date when both fighters were healthy enough to compete.
Instead, the UFC jumped the gun and decided to tell Stipe Miocic that he would finally get the title shot he's long deserved, and step in for Velasquez, against Werdum. You can't blame them for trying, but someone should have run things by Werdum a bit better.
You also can't blame Werdum for deciding not to suddenly fight a brand new opponent, at the last minute, especially if he's already a bit banged up. No high-level fight sport should ever seriously consider bringing in an underprepared surprise challenger with just two weeks' notice to force a contest to go on.
UFC fighters simply don't make enough money, yet, to warrant that type of risk. And, without pensions and the like, the only way they can come close to financial security is to keep winning and to be smart.
Let's be real, two weeks is really one week of training. No real work, other than weight-cutting and media obligations, gets done during fight weeks.
As I wrote on Monday, though a Werdum vs. Miocic fight is probably the one we should have had all-along, and it is a fascinating matchup, stylistically, we were unlikely to get either man at their best, with short notice.
There's a lot that goes into preparing tactics and strategy for a particular fighter, in the big leagues. It is not a simple math equation like, "Well, Cain Velasquez is better than Stipe Miocic, so why not just fight Miocic, instead?"
Coaches train their fighters to react to their opponents' tendencies, instinctively, through weeks and months of drilling. Fights are often decided by the smallest margins, and so there is little room for error in the UFC.
A new opponent at the 11th hour could through a fighter completely off. Sure, some guys and gals sometimes fight anyone, on any notice.
That type of dauntless attitude is admirable, to be sure. But so is being a professional and protecting what you've earned, as Werdum says he's trying to do.
It is one thing to fight injured against the man you signed on to, but a whole other risk to put your title on the line at less than 100-percent capacity against a new foe in a hastily assembled scheme for a promotion to not lose out on pay-per-view buys.
"It took me a long time to get here and win this belt, be the champion," Werdum explained to MMA Fighting.
"To throw everything away because I'm not 100 percent. I have to think about everything, now. I can't think and act like I did when I was 20. It's not like that, anymore. Everything changed. I'm 38 now, and I feel I'm at the best moment in my career. I can't risk my career because of pride."
One big reason Werdum has been able to peak at near 40 years old is because of his smarts. He's been able to adjust his training and fighting to fit his age and needs. Only he and his team know what it has taken to become world champion, and so they are in the best positions to decide how to give him his best chance to hold onto his title.
A couple weeks ago, when he was still expecting to fight Cain Velasquez, I spoke with Werdum and he explained how he was maintaining his motivation while preparing to fight someone he'd just beaten, soundly. "I want to prove to everyone that I'm the best fighter in history," he said.
"I've beaten Fedor [Emelianenko], [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira, and Velasquez. If I beat him, again, and keep winning, I can do that."
Werdum may be in his prime, but he doesn't have much time left as a competitor. He has to make the most out of every fight, to keep the money coming in and to continue to build his legacy.
To those ends, he can't afford anymore losses. So, every risk needs to be mitigated by preparation and anything else he can muster.
Of course, that isn't Stipe Miocic's concern, and he's in a much different position as a hungry challenger. He's the lone victim, here.
He was promised something that he should have gotten long ago, but in a way that was still somehow premature. This is a new age of professionalism in MMA and the UFC.
Professionalism means more than uniforms. In sports, it also means elite champion athletes having the agency and ability to make decisions in interest of their health and careers.
Disappointed fans, at least we've got a great fight with title implications like Hendricks vs. Thompson, now, at UFC 196 for free on FS1. That ain't too bad.
Hopefully Werdum vs. Velasquez II and/or Werdum vs. Miocic happens soon. More importantly, I hope they all have an appropriate amount of time to prepare for a title fight and head into it as healthy as possible.