Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga is back.
This Saturday, Jan. 14, Gonzaga will return to the UFC Octagon for the first time in nearly 15 months. Replacing the injured Rob Broughton, Gonzaga will face Edinaldo Oliveira at UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Gonzaga was cut by the UFC following his Oct. 23, 2010 loss to Brendan Schaub at UFC 121, his third loss in four outings. After defeating Parker Porter for the Reality Fighting Heavyweight Championship a year after his loss to Schaub, Gonzaga was able to ink a four-fight contract with the UFC.
He now begins his campaign to regain his old form that saw him challenge Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship in 2007.
However, Gonzaga's road back to glory is a long and arduous one, filled with menacing opponents from the very start.
Oliveira, a 6'7" Brazilian perhaps known best as a good friend and training partner of Junior dos Santos, presents a formidable challenge with his reach and striking ability. In dos Santos' words, "[Oliveira is] a very distinct fighter and his reach is a great tool he has. He and I spar a lot and his reach definitely makes things a lot harder for me. I think that will be the same for any opponent they put before him."
Gonzaga's recent track record against strike-first fighters—losses to Schaub, dos Santos and Shane Carwin—isn't a promising one, especially in light of Oliveira's relative youth and flawless record.
While this is admittedly an imprecise pseudo-science (at best), if Gonzaga was unable to handle dos Santos, his chances against dos Santos' highly regarded training partner don't look fantastic. If he should lose this weekend, Gonzaga may very well find himself out of a job again.
But assume for a moment that Gonzaga makes it past Oliveira (which, for the record, I don't think he will), let's even assume that he styles on Oliveira like he did Mirko Cro-Cop in 2007...where does he go next?
Will he do what he couldn't last time against Fabricio Werdum? Carwin? Schaub? Could he then get past Matt Mitrione, Roy Nelson, Cheick Kongo, Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem, dos Santos??
The talent at heavyweight has only gotten bigger and better since Gonzaga last entered the Octagon. While he may be able to add another win or two to his record, I can't imagine a possible scenario that sees Gonzaga bringing his dreams of attaining UFC gold to life.
Will we see Gonzaga end his career "on his shield"? Probably not. But don't expect to see him breaking into the Top 10 rankings anytime soon.