It’s a sobering commentary on the UFC heavyweight division that Travis Browne is arguably its most intriguing young contender.
This is by no means a critique of Browne. As he readies for a nationally televised title-eliminator against Fabricio Werdum on Saturday, his status as a top challenger should be self-evident.
The Hawaii native and Greg Jackson product has duly earned his spot across the cage from Werdum, transforming himself from toolsy prospect to bona fide championship threat during a four-year tenure in the UFC. He sports an impressive 7-1-1 record in the promotion, and in his last three fights, he laid waste to Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett with varying degrees of extreme prejudice.
At 6'8", he’s tall and rangy even for an MMA heavyweight and possesses the sort of athleticism that leads us to halfway believe him when he proclaims himself part of the "new breed" of UFC big men.
No, the strangest thing about Browne isn’t that he’s come so far, it’s that at 31 years old and about to make his 10th appearance in the Octagon, he is what passes as "young" and "intriguing" in a rapidly aging 265-pound division.
Keep in mind that this is a weight class where salty veterans like Mark Hunt (40), Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (37) and Roy Nelson (37) still roam the Top 15. As of this writing, the average age of the UFC’s heavyweight Top 10 is a shade north of 34, and of the nearly three dozen heavies listed on the company’s website, just six are still in their 20s.
Werdum is nearly 37, and though his current UFC run began just two years ago, he has a decidedly old-guard feel about him. Chalk that up to his traditional Brazilian jiu-jitsu base (though he too has evolved) and the fact when he began his journey into MMA, Browne was just 19 years old.
After getting himself roped into coaching opposite Nogueira on a season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, Werdum fought just once during 2013. At one time he was thought to be the agreed-upon No. 1 contender, but his own inactivity and an injury to champion Cain Velasquez have forced him into action again this weekend.
Like the majority of the UFC’s top heavyweights, it’s hard not to look at Werdum and think the clock is ticking.
By comparison, Browne is still a spring chicken, and certainly some of his appeal stems from the fact that he’s one of the few elite fighters in the division whose career is on the upswing. It feels like he’s still evolving—like maybe we haven’t seen the best of him yet—and that alone casts him in stark contrast to most of his peers.
He’s more advanced in his title quest than Stipe Miocic (who is one month younger) and has already beaten Stefan Struve (who is just 26 but is working his way back from a career-threatening heart condition).
He’s almost exactly the same age as Velasquez, and if Browne can get past Werdum on Saturday, he’ll join the champ and Junior dos Santos (30) on the very short list of fighters who seem capable of leading the heavyweight division into the future.
To date, Browne’s only career loss came to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in a fight where he tore his hamstring in the early going. He also drew with Cheick Kongo during his second UFC bout, but a review of the tape reveals that back in those days (2010), Browne was really just an undisciplined pup—albeit one with awfully big paws.
Unlike most of the rest of the 265-pound class, there’s still an exciting air of mystery about him. His recent wins have been impressive, but it’s been more than two-and-a-half years since one of his fights lasted longer than four minutes and eight seconds.
Browne’s skills have improved dramatically since his UFC infancy, but occasionally he still lapses back into wildness, leaving himself open for counters. Overeem had him in dire straits last August, and if not for the good graces of a referee, Browne would have lost that fight. Instead, he battled back and showed off his versatility, flooring Overeem with a front kick to the jaw.
We still don’t know how he’ll react to a five-round bout (if it goes that far) or how he’ll respond if Werdum can get him on the ground (though one thing we do know is that the best way to make Browne angry is to imply that he’s just a striker).
In a weight class full of known commodities and diminishing skill sets, he’s very much on the march.
Add it all up and it makes Browne a captivating focal point for a division that badly needs youth and fresh storylines.
I just wish we had three dozen like him.