by Mick Hammond
Now that Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko has defeated Mirko Cro Cop and firmly planted himself as the best heavyweight MMA fighter in the world, the inevitable search begins anew to find him a worthy #1 contender. If performance is any indicator of who may become the next to challenge for Fedor’s crown, that position could very well be filled by the winner of the bout between Sergei Kharitonov and Fabricio Werdum at Pride 30.

Over the past year there have been few if any fighters that have quickly rose to the top of fan and media polls like Kharitonov has. His straightforward, technical and precise destruction of almost all opposition that’s faced him has made him the man to beat in the race for number one. If there is a heavyweight as complete as Fedor is, it’s Kharitonov, and it’s not hype, it’s fact, all you need do is look at his performances.

In his first seven fights it’s easy to discount his success simply because he wasn’t facing top tier talent. But what can’t be discounted is the fact that when he did take a big step up in competition, he not only succeeded, he got better and became a more complete fighter. Against Murilo “Ninja” Rua and Semmy Schilt he was even more dominating than he was against fighters of less stature (literally in the case of near 7′ tall Schilt).

Even in his only defeat against Minotauro Nogueira, he looked great and pushed the former champion to the limit, something his contemporary Cro Cop couldn’t. And then there is the icing on the cake so far, his total beatdown of former UFC contender Pedro Rizzo at Final Conflict 2005. If there was ever a time where you could see a fighter completely broken, physically, mentally and spiritually, it was that fight. It’s not often when a man is reduced to a total shadow of a former self, but Rizzo was at the hands of Kharitonov.

Striking or grappling, it doesn’t matter, Kharitonov has let his opponents take the fight where they may and he’s beat them to every angle nearly all of the time. If there is any doubt when it comes to Sergei’s road to Fedor it is the fact that he has been beaten by a world class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist, and that is what he again faces in Fabricio Werdum.

When he came into MMA few people had ever heard of Werdum outside the hardcore grappling world. He had the credentials, a BJJ black belt and multiple time world champion, but so what, others have had similar credentials and have failed to translate that success into the MMA world. So what was it that set Werdum aside from all others, well, for lack of a better term, he refused an offer that few if any could.

Let’s face it, if the Chute Boxe Academy came to any of us and asked if we wanted to be their representative in anything it would be like a dream come true and most wouldn’t have a second thought about accepting it. One of the elite fight teams in the world was so impressed by Werdum that they made that very offer to become their heavyweight star and he turned it down.

Instead Werdum took an offer that had less certainty, deciding instead to join Mirko Cro Cop’s team and help shape the Croatian into a complete fighter. Since then he’s helped make Cro Cop one of the most formidable fighters in the world and he himself has used the association to propel himself into Pride.

If you think however that Werdum’s game has changed since joining Mirko and that only now is Fabricio becoming a solid fighter, you would be wrong. So far in his career, Werdum has shown an ability to not only use his expertise on the ground but also surprisingly he’s been able to stand with his opponents and put them on their backs.

In five fights he’s finished off opponents with strikes, including very tough UFC vet Ebenezer Braga at Jungle Fight 2. Then in Pride, after having joined Cro Cop’s team, Werdum dominated long-time MMA fighters Tom Erickson and Roman Zentsov, outclassing them in all aspects of the game. If there are any dents in Werdum’s armor, then they are hard to find, because so far no one has come close to beating him.

While Werdum has shown proficiency standing, Sergei has gone up against pure strikers and has beaten then thoroughly. Kharitonov goes both to the head and the body with stiff shots and when it comes to taking abuse, he’s willing to get hit twice to land one, thus the advantage is his. On the ground both are solid fighters, but again Kharitonov couldn’t get past Nogueira’s defenses, and Werdum can be just as skilled on the ground as Minotauro is, if he gets into his comfort zone. So in that aspect of the fight, advantage Fabricio.

Both fighters are well-rounded and each excels at one skill more so than the other does, but still, many feel that Kharitonov is the man to beat in this fight. He has faced the better competition and is further along in his development as a fighter, but still, there’s always a chance that Werdum could pull off a slight upset if he is given the chance to be creative on the ground. Regardless of who wins though, a match with Fedor could be just around the corner for one of these fighters, but their task at hand right now is to get past each other, only then can they hope to get their championship shot.