PFL 2021 heavyweight preview: Does Fabricio Werdum still have what it takes to win a championship?

Fabricio Werdum used to own a UFC championship belt. No one else in the PFL's heavyweight division can say that.

The jiu-jitsu black belt from Brazil has a half dozen gold medals from the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships and Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Championships. The other nine PFL heavies don't have even a single gold between them.

Werdum tapped out Fedor Emelianenko back when Fedor was Fedor, halting the Russian legend's decade-long unbeaten streak. That's something the rest of the heavyweights in the PFL can only dream about.

But the UFC title win came in 2015, the grappling golds between 2000 and 2009, the conquering of "The Last Emperor" in 2010. That was then, but what about now? In 2021, Werdum is a 43-year-old with just one victory in nearly 3½ years. He has the credentials, for sure, but does he still have the game?

That's the $1 million question as the PFL heavyweights -- including the newly signed Werdum -- begin the 2021 season on May 6 at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The first test for Werdum will come in that night's main event, when he faces countryman Renan Ferreira, whose key statistic is 6-8. That's not his MMA record, it's his height, and from the little I've seen of his fights -- he has eight as a pro, most recently in the Texas-based Legacy Fighting Alliance -- Ferreira has shown that he knows how to use his size. He maintains range and connects with punches from distance.

But Ferreira has never had someone at the level of Werdum at the end of those punches. And while it's reasonable to question whether Werdum is still the fighter he once was, his most recent performance was a strong one. Last July, in his UFC swan song, Werdum submitted Alexander Gustafsson in the first round.

This PFL heavyweight season is going to revolve around Werdum. The Brazilian recognizes that this is the last stand for his career, and when he signed with the fight promotion last fall he was already reveling in what he now is about to live.

"I want to enjoy the moment, because it's so hard for us to stop fighting," Werdum told my colleague Brett Okamoto in November. "Imagine, all my life I have fought, and one day I have to stop. For sure, I know that. Maybe two years. But imagine I'm the PFL champion at 44? I know I can."

Let's see if he can.

Season favorite: Fabricio Werdum

Who else? He has not looked like his old self in several of his last few fights. But Werdum did make quick work of Gustafsson in his final UFC outing, and before that he went to a split decision with Aleksei Oleinik. So the decorated former champ does appear to have something left -- certainly enough to, at the very least, be competitive with this group of heavyweights.

The leading contender: Ali Isaev

It's between Isaev and Willis. As a UFC alum training at American Kickboxing Academy, Willis has a strong pedigree. But Isaev's Olympic-level wrestling should nullify Willis' ground game if they meet, and the 9-0 Russian has sustained power in his hands. He won his most recent two PFL fights by knockouts -- in the fourth round, and then in the final second of Round 3. That proves he's dangerous, right to the final horn.

Heavyweight division at a glance

How to watch the PFL fights

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PFL 2021 Night 3: Thursday, May 6

ESPN, 9 p.m. ET
Fabricio Werdum vs. Renan Ferreira | Heavyweight
Kayla Harrison vs. Mariana Morais | Women's lightweight
Mohammed Usman vs. Brandon Sayles | Heavyweight
Larissa Pacheco vs. Julija Pajic | Women's lightweight

ESPN/ESPN+ simulcast, 7 p.m. ET
Ante Delija vs. Bruno Cappelozza | Heavyweight
Cindy Dandois vs. Kaitlin Young | Women's lightweight
Genah Fabian vs. Laura Sanchez | Women's lightweight
Denis Goltsov vs. Mohammed DeReese | Heavyweight

ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET
Olena Kolesnyk vs. Taylor Guardado | Women's lightweight
Magomed Umalatov vs. Kyron Bowen | Welterweight new fighter showcase (non-season fight)