For the last three years, MMA’s heavyweight division has been dominated by two men: UFC champion Cain Velasquez and former UFC champion Junior Dos Santos. With the trilogy between those two men now complete, the division is open for the rise of a new set of stars. Perhaps the most intriguing new contender of the bunch is the towering Hawaiian knockout artist Travis Browne. Saturday night on Fox, he has the opportunity to earn a title shot against Velasquez if he can beat Fabricio Werdum, also a top contender.
At UFC 168 in December, the biggest MMA event of 2013, Browne had one of the night’s most impressive performances. He became the first man since 2001 to cleanly knock out one of the heavyweight division’s all-time best in Josh Barnett. It was his third straight first-round knockout and all three were deemed the knockout of the night by UFC.
Perhaps as striking was his post-fight interview, where Browne dedicated the fight to working people and passionately declared that he was fighting not for the high rollers in the first rows but for the fans up in the cheap seats. Although there likely weren’t a lot of impoverished individuals at a card where the three lowest ticket prices were $300, $200 and $100, the declaration spoke to Browne’s approach to fighting and life.
Browne’s life has been a struggle from a young age. His father passed away when Browne was 10, leaving his mother scrambling to support for the family. They were forced to sleep on the beach when things got their worst.
“I’ve grown up with a lot of adversity in life,” Browne says. “I’ve always had to overcome. I don’t make excuses and that’s helped me in the fight game. I went from not having anything to providing for my family and making a name for the Browne family. Anything that happens in the cage is only temporary, not permanent. The worst that can happen in the cage is not the worst that can happen in life.”
Browne was blessed with one key gift as he grew into a man: a 6-foot-7 frame uniquely suited for the MMA game. The former basketball player has a natural height and reach advantage that allows him to maintain range and land big shots while avoiding those of his opponents. It’s an asset that Tim Sylvia rode to multiple heavyweight title runs even though he lacked the natural athleticism that Browne possesses.
With that natural physical ability and elite training at the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp in New Mexico, Browne has developed into a devastating finisher. Twelve of his 16 wins have come via first-round TKO or submission. Only three times has he fought to a decision. Though some fighters in that position would worry about not accumulating much ring time, that’s no concern for Browne.
“I pride myself off not being in the cage too long,” Browne observes. “We don’t get paid by the minute in this sport. We get paid on whether we win or lose. I like to keep my fights short and to the point and my dedication to training shows in the cage because I am finishing fights.”
Getting a quick finish will be no easy task Saturday night as he battles the tough and durable Werdum. Werdum has been stopped only once in his 12-year career, and that was to Dos Santos. Werdum is a submission grappling world champion, one of the best heavyweight jiu jitsu artists in the world. He has become only more dangerous in recent years, showing marked improvement in his striking game and taking it to opponents on the feet where he was previously the weakest.
For Werdum, there is also a growing sense of immediacy in his title hopes. Werdum, a veteran of the Pride Fighting Championships in 2005, is 36. This could be his last chance at a heavyweight title opportunity that has always eluded him. He’s a formidable challenge standing as well as on the ground, and one that Browne recognizes.
“He’s an athlete and he has one of the best coaches in the world at striking so there’s nothing to take lightly about the guy,” Browne notes. “His standup is world class and of course he’s one of the very best on the ground. That gives him confidence in the standup. He’s a very strong competitor.”
Whereas Werdum has branched out into a wider array of offense, Browne plans to stick with his bread and butter in his striking. In the world of MMA, there are fighters who switch up their game plans greatly depending upon the opponent and those who rely on one particular strength while improving their other tools in a complementary manner. Browne views himself more in the latter camp and says that he sees no reason to move into close range with opponents when he can stay outside and pick them apart.
Saturday night, Browne will be tested by one of his most dangerous opponents yet. But if he can pick up another win, it could be just the start of bigger things for a man who embodies and is proud to represent the hard-work struggle.
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