At that stage, Emelianenko was 31-1, and his only defeat was a TKO via doctor stoppage on a cut that came from an illegal elbow. It was a bad call, and Emelianenko hardly deserved to lose.
At the time he’d met Werdum, Emelianenko had won 27 bouts in a row and was widely regarded as the top fighter in the sport’s history.
Werdum, on the other hand, was a talented but enigmatic athlete, one as equally prone to moments of brilliance as well as stretches of ineptitude.
For all his ability, he’d lost three of his previous eight fights when he squared off with Emelianenko. There was nothing to suggest that he’d dominate the fight the way he did.
Werdum submitted Emelianenko barely a minute into the first round. All the knocks against Werdum – he was soft, he lacked focus, he wasn’t disciplined – went away in the 69 seconds he needed to submit the legendary Russian with a triangle choke and arm bar.
It’s five years later and the topic of that victory never gets old for Werdum.
“It was a historic night,” he says.
On Saturday, he’ll have a chance at history again, against an equally fearsome opponent.
Werdum holds the UFC’s interim heavyweight title, which he won when he stopped Mark Hunt in November. But to keep it, he’ll have to get past the “real” heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez, when they meet Saturday in the main event of UFC 188 in Mexico City.
Even though Velasquez hasn’t fought since Oct. 19, 2013, when he decimated Junior dos Santos at UFC 166 in Houston, he’s a prohibitive favorite to defeat Werdum and retain his belt.
There was little reason for Werdum to be as calm and as confident as he was before the 2010 match with Emelianenko. He’d beaten Antonio “Big Foot” Silva in his prior outing, but he had done little in the previous years to suggest he’d pull off something huge.
But now, he has a much better track record. His game has clearly improved dramatically. True, he lost to Alistair Overeem in the fight after he defeated Emelianenko, but he’s 5-0 since that loss.
And it’s not that he’s won those five, it’s how he’s done it that suggests that perhaps the nearly 5-1 odds favoring Velasquez are at least a bit off.
Werdum’s striking was near flawless in a Fight of the Night victory over Roy Nelson at UFC 143. He easily dispatched Mike Russow with punches at UFC 147, then overcame a legend in his native Brazil, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in his next bout.
That sent him into a heavyweight eliminator bout with Travis Browne. Browne was heavily favored, but Werdum showed a shockingly complete game, with expert striking to go along with everything else he had in the arsenal.
Browne was never in the fight, and that led Werdum to the interim title fight with Hunt. Werdum was supposed to be facing Velasquez in November, but the oft-injured UFC champion couldn’t make it to the post again because of a knee injury, so Hunt stepped in.
Werdum took it in stride and blew out Hunt with a flying knee, setting up Saturday’s bout with Velasquez.
“I’ve gotten better and improved so much, and he hasn’t fought in two years,” Werdum said. “It’s going to be pretty hard for him.”
He has a point. UFC president Dana White frequently discusses the impact of ring rust, and admits it’s a problem Velasquez is going to have to overcome.
Not everyone buys the ring rust issue, but time in the cage makes a difference in terms of things like punching accuracy, timing and taking blows.
Werdum, though, seems to be concentrating on an area that is perceived to be Velasquez’s greatest strength: cardiovascular conditioning.
Werdum spent three months in Mexico preparing for Hunt, and he’s done the same this time around. He believes he’s fully acclimated and able to handle the 7,500-foot altitude in the city.
Velasquez trains in San Jose, which is at sea level. Werdum doesn’t see how Velasquez can be the same late in the fight.
“I understand [conditioning is normally his strength], but when you haven’t competed in two years and you’re fighting at [great altitude] like in Mexico City, it’s going to be difficult to be the same in Rounds 3, 4 and 5 as you are in Round 1 and 2,” he said.
Lightweight Eddie Alvarez, who meets Gilbert Melendez in a highly anticipated undercard bout, has also heard all of the talk about the altitude and its potential impact.
He isn’t having it. When he appeared at a news conference in Mexico City a few months back to announce his fight with Melendez, he went for a run to see what he was up against.
“I’m not sure what they’re talking about,” Alvarez said of those who suggest the altitude will be an issue. “It didn’t seem to be a problem for me.”
It could be a problem for Werdum if he’s expecting Velasquez to fade and he does not.
Werdum, though, insists he’s fully prepared and ready to once again shock those who expect him to be manhandled.
“I have a lot of weapons and I know I have the tools to beat him,” Werdum said. “I’ve had this team with me for a long time now and we’re working well together and it’s paying off. I’m a different fighter now. I believe in what I do and I think [fans] will, too, after this fight.”