The countdown to UFC 200 is in full swing, the landmark event now just two pay-per-view stops away. Before the Ultimate Fighting Championship heads back to its Las Vegas home in July, the promotion must focus on the business at hand. UFC 198 “Werdum vs. Miocic” on Saturday in Curitiba offers the strongest lineup to ever emanate from Brazil. It comes at a unique time, too. The UFC’s South American hub is currently embroiled in a political corruption scandal echoing through Brazil’s highest corridors of power. Though more important issues are at hand for the vibrant country, the UFC will touch down with its best foot forward. The charge is led by a champion trying to stake his claim as the top heavyweight of all-time, as Fabricio Werdum will headline the event in what he hopes will be a memorable homecoming.
HOW WE GOT HERE: When Cain Velasquez bested Brazilian rival Junior dos Santos in their heavyweight title trilogy, it appeared that the Mexican-American fighter had an iron grip on the division. That was until Werdum -- who had already submitted Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- beat the brakes off Velasquez at UFC 188 and caught him in a guillotine choke to claim the UFC heavyweight championship. Werdum was set to grant Velasquez and immediate rematch in February before the American Kickboxing Academy ace suffered an injury. Not wanting to jump into a short-notice situation following Velasquez’s departure, Werdum cited a back injury and declined a matchup with replacement Stipe Miocic. The immediate rematch then fell apart for Velasquez, as Miocic retained the opportunity to challenge Werdum next. Miocic benefits from a full training camp ahead of the UFC 198 main event opposite Werdum, rather than a far less desirable short-notice situation. The downside? He has to take on Werdum in his home country. At 38, Werdum’s Rafael Cordeiro-inspired muay Thai has complimented his world-class jiu-jitsu and allowed him to get better with age. He has an unblemished record since returning the UFC in 2012. Werdum can keep that run going and preserve a number of compelling rematches by defending the heavyweight title for the first time and extending his current winning streak to seven fights. Now, about those rematches. Alistair Overeem, the last man to defeat Werdum, called for a trilogy bout with the Brazilian after he knocked out Andrei Arlovski in the Netherlands on May 8. Meanwhile, Velasquez aims to secure a return engagement with Werdum if he impresses against Travis Browne at UFC 200. Miocic hopes to render those plans moot. The 33-year-old No. 1 contender has won five of his last six fights over the last four years, falling only to dos Santos in a spirited five-round affair. Miocic stymied Arlovski’s resurgence with a 54-second knockout to kick off his 2016 campaign; and with one victory over a onetime UFC heavyweight champion already under his belt, he looks to add a second in Werdum. Despite Werdum’s age, he is in his prime. Miocic carries stellar talents, and there is nothing to suggest he lacks the tools to become UFC champion. Still, his seizing a signature win and the title from Werdum would qualify as one of the year’s most unlikely overthrows.
SOMETHING LEFT IN THE TANK: The turning point that energized the relationship between Brazil and the UFC was Anderson Silva’s first-round front kick knockout against Vitor Belfort in February 2011. Much has changed since. Silva was booked for a homecoming bout against Uriah Hall before doctors determined during fight week that he was in no condition to compete. Abdominal pain forced the 41-year-old former middleweight champion to withdraw and resulted in surgery to remove his gallbladder. What comes next for Silva -- he was searching for a much-needed victory after a failed PED test and a decision loss to Michael Bisping in February -- remains to be seen ... UFC 198 was to have featured Silva and Belfort on the same card in Brazil for the first time in history. Belfort will stick to his scheduled matchup with former Strikeforce champion Ronaldo Souza. The 36-year-old “Jacare” is only three years younger than Belfort, but his prospects at 185 pounds seem far brighter. His jiu-jitsu skills rank among the top one percent in the world and have helped him compile a 5-1 record inside the Octagon. However, Souza has yet to receive his first crack at UFC gold. His lone UFC loss came in his last outing, a controversial split decision defeat to 2000 Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero. It was later revealed that Romero tested positive for banned substances. “Jacare” now has his chance to post a signature victory over Belfort, who knocked out Dan Henderson at a UFC Fight Night event on Nov. 7. “The Phenom” is a perfect 6-0 on Brazilian soil.
SURPRISE POP: Do not be shocked if Cristiane Justino’s long-awaited Octagon debut draws the loudest crowd reaction at UFC 198. To find a decision on the “Cyborg” resume, one must scroll all the way back to 2008. Her propensity for stopping opponents in spectacular fashion has made her a fan favorite, along with the fact that she has not been defeated in 10 years. Rather than marketing those traits, however, talk surrounding Justino has been off-kilter. Citing a failed PED test under the Strikeforce banner in 2011, the UFC repeatedly buried “Cyborg” during to negotiations to bring her to the Octagon. During a press scrum at an MMA award show in 2014, UFC President Dana White said Justino looked like “Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels.” He went on to mock her gait. “Cyborg” contended that she was being bullied, even after she rattled off five straight wins and captured the Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight title in wake of her PED suspension. That disconcerting disconnect has faded into the past. Justino will meet Leslie Smith in a 140-pound catchweight attraction. Smith has hovered around being a 10-to-1 underdog. She could play the role of massive spoiler, but her toughness at the very least could extend “Cyborg” further than most expect.
NO BOUNDS FOR JIU-JITSU: While Werdum and Souza are in the spotlight at UFC 198, do not forget about Demian Maia. Needless to say, Brazilian jiu-jitsu will be well-represented at UFC 198. Maia has put together a 7-2 mark since dropping to 170 pounds and currently finds himself on a four-fight winning streak. In his way stands Matt Brown and his non-stop, cutting offense. Maia has been a consummate sportsmen, dedicated more to technique than trash talk. At 38, he has wondered aloud what it would take to make one last run at a title in an organization where rankings are at times determined more on a whim than on merit.
AWARDS WATCH: “Fight of the Night” can erupt from anywhere on this card. John Lineker typically produces body punching-friendly slugfests, making his bout with Boston-based finisher Rob Font a frontrunner. Look for “Cyborg” to snag a “Performance of the Night” bonus, along with Mauricio Rua -- maybe the Smartest Guy has had one too many nostalgic shots -- in his light heavyweight clash with “Ultimate Fighter” winner Corey Anderson.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.