While the fans in Mexico City are some of the most rabid of any arena UFC travels to, for a UFC fighter, Arena Ciudad de Mexico looks to be the most difficult place on Earth.
The 7,800-foot elevation was hardly just a talking point on the broadcast. It was the key point of Saturday’s show, and played a major part in most of the key fights.
It turned “Cardio Cain,” once-lauded by Herschel Walker
as the best conditioned heavyweight he had ever seen in any sport, into a man whose game plan to push the pace completely backfired on him as he was completely spent by the second round.
It turned Gilbert Melendez
, whose five-round nonstop wars with the likes of Josh Thomson
, Clay Guida
and Benson Henderson were the hallmark of his career, into a man with his mouth wide open and breathing heavily in the third round, where he had nothing left for his traditional big finishing burst.
It caused Nate Marquardt
to sit on his stool after the second round and tell his corner, “I’ve got nothing left,” as they mercifully stopped the fight for him.
Even 115-pound Tecia Torres
, the “Tiny Tornado,” known for her constant motion, became a drizzling rainstorm. She reverted to just keeping opponent Angela Hill
on the ground. Torres after the fight noted that she wasn’t herself because of having trouble dealing with the altitude, and hoped she could bring back the tornado for her next fight.
All in all, Dana White
estimated a half dozen or so fighters threw up backstage after their fight. One, Yair Rodriguez
, actually did so while doing his post-match interview. Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, 22, showed signs of potential superstardom. He may be just what UFC needs in its quest for a new signature stars to build around in that country. He tore the house down with his win over Charles Rosa
, even evoking comparisons to Jon Jones
and Anthony Pettis
at the same age.
Clearly, with the kind of response the Mexican locals have given UFC, setting a new building record gate and drawing a sellout 21,036 fans, Arena Ciudad is going to be a regular stop. Dana White couldn’t say enough positive about the crowd. Even when asked about how quick and vociferous their booing was, he defended them by saying they never booed unless it was warranted.
But it can’t be denied that it’s the one location that, in a sport where a ridiculous level of conditioning is a necessity, that may soon to known by fighters as hell on Earth.
The star of the night was new heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum. Werdum gave the training blueprint of how to fight in Mexico City. He spent 40 days at an even higher altitude, and in doing so, didn’t seem affected at all but what was killing so many others. In doing so, was able to beat Velasquez at the game he made famous, and in doing so became heavyweight champion for the first time less than two months before his 38th birthday. But while the blueprint doesn’t sound difficult, only the highest-paid UFC fighters can afford bringing a specialized camp to Mexico for that length of time.
Werdum didn’t just win the heavyweight title on Saturday night, but he put himself into the running as a candidate for the greatest heavyweight fighter of all-time. The two names most would have answered going into Saturday for that mythical title, Velasquez and Fedor Emelianenko
, are fighters he has tapped out. While he never had a ten year unbeaten streak like Emelianenko, his victims list over the last six years, where he’s only lost once, is of better fighters than Emelianenko beat–Bigfoot Silva (who beat Emelianenko), Emelianenko, Roy Nelson
, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
, Travis Browne
, Mark Hunt
and Velasquez. Plus, unlike most, he has seemed to get better with age and has become almost Jones and GSP-like in beating people at their strengths.
He outconditioned Velasquez. He knocked out Hunt standing. He destroyed Nogueira on the ground and Nelson standing. He outbrawled Browne. And he outslicked Emelianenko.
He also broke open the heavyweight division, and gave UFC a slew of matchmaking options. That sounds good on paper, but as hard as it is to believe, the heavyweight title now, for the first time in history, doesn’t look to be as big a money championship as the women’s bantamweight title. There are all kinds of potential fights to be made, yet none scream big box office.
Let’s look at some of the options in Fortunes Changed For Five:
FABRICIO WERDUM –
After the fight, Dana White gave no indication what direction would be next for Werdum. It would seem to come down to a choice of four fighters, Junior Dos Santos, Stipe Miocic
, Velasquez and Andrei Arlovski
At first glance, Dos Santos (17-3) makes the most sense. He sent Werdum packing from the UFC in 2008 with a first round knockout. He just beat Miocic in his last fight. Until Saturday, he was widely considered the No. 2 heavyweight behind Velasquez, but wasn’t in the running for a title shot because Velasquez had beaten him twice.
But that choice isn’t as easy, since business concerns are always a huge factor in UFC championship matchmaking. That puts Velasquez in the running. Arlovski has a sentimental story of a guy who, like Werdum, was gone from the UFC for years. Arlovski, the champion in another era, has run off a series of wins years after most people considered his career as a contender long since over. Miocic was thought to be in line for the next title shot, but that was also when it was figured Velasquez was champion and Dos Santos wasn’t in the running. Miocic lost a close fight to dos Santos, and then destroyed Hunt.
Werdum vs. dos Santos doesn’t feel like a big pay-per-view draw, title or not. But perhaps two Brazilians who have been top fighters for years, battling for the title can be strong in Brazil, which is UFC’s current No. 2 market.
CAIN VELASQUEZ – Of the big five at heavyweight, Velasquez’s next fight is unlikely to be dos Santos, since they’ve met three times. So, if not Werdum, it would be either Miocic or Arlovski. Miocic may be the better test, but Arlovski in that situation has a better-known name and a story that will connect better.
The key in his case is that no longer having the title, he needs to stay healthy. If he does, he would almost surely be one victory at most away from a shot.
It’s ironic that for his entire career, the goal was for him to be the guy to open up Mexico for UFC, which had been a tough nut to crack. He did, and it ended up his undoing.
EDDIE ALVAREZ –
Things didn’t look good for Alvarez, with his left eye nearly shut at the end of the first round, and coming off a loss to Donald Cerrone
in his UFC debut. But he rallied to beat Melendez and moving his momentum in a forward direction.
With Pettis, Khabib Nurmagomedov
and Benson Henderson all hurt, Alvarez against who heals first from that group could be a viable next direction. Nurmagomedov works for both men as a next fight. For Alvarez, it gets him into serious title contention with a win. Nurmagomedov, by all rights, with a 22-0 record and a win over current champion Rafael dos Anjos
, has earned a shot at the dos Anjos vs. Donald Cerrone winner.
If none are available in time, there is always Nate Diaz
, who, in spite of his 17-10 record, is a fighter that people gravitate toward more than most.
GILBERT MELENDEZ – At 33, and with nearly 13 years in the sport, and consistently fighting top guys for more than a decade, Melendez (22-5) has lost two straight for the first time in his career.
The question becomes if it’s just the altitude that beat him, or is the combination of the stress and time of running a business (a gym in San Francisco) taking its toll, or just the wear-and-tear of all the wars.
Melendez finds himself, for the first time in nine years, completely out of the championship picture. He’s at a real crossroads. With the size of his contract, he’s far more expensive than UFC pays for mid-card fighters. And right now, there doesn’t appear to be a big name ready that he’s in a position to face.
An intriguing fight would be Dustin Poirier
. Poirier isn’t even ranked at lightweight, but has two straight knockouts wins and a lot of momentum. Melendez would be a huge leap up for him, but one that would jump him into the top 10 with a win. For Melendez, it’s a fight that will test whether it was a bad night or if his days at the top are limited.
HENRY CEJUDO –
With the flyweight division badly in need of somebody to basically take the bull by the horns and declare themselves the top contender for champion Demetrious Johnson
, the ball was in Cejudo’s court.
While he won the decision over Chico Camus
, he didn’t come out of it with people clamoring for him to get the next title shot. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling only managed one takedown, late in the fight, after 14 failed attempts. He barely won striking exchanges. He won the fight, but it was they were three close rounds. Cejudo admitted not looking good, blaming it on food poisoning that led to a bad weight cut, resulting in him not having his normal energy.
At 9-0, and with his gold medal, Cejudo feels like the best prospect in the division. But he still needs more cage time. Johnson’s next foe will now likely be either John Dodson
(18-6), Joseph Benavidez
(22-4) or Jussier Formiga
da Silva (18-3). Dodson would feel like the favorite for that next title shot.
Inevitably, Cejudo is going to be put in with Benavidez or Formiga. But it still may be early for that because of the experience difference. It’s still preferable to go with Ian McCall
(13-5-1) or former title contender Kyoji Horiguchi (15-2) , and go with one of the top four as a follow-up.