There's much to be learned from Jean Jacques Rousseau, even for the fashionable, rugged and 'Merican cage fighting set.
At first glance, there is little to connect Rousseau, an 18th century philosopher, and the men who enter a cage to do the dirtiest work imaginable. But Rousseau, Parisian dandy that he was, believed man was happiest and at his best as a savage.
Everything else we learn, all the constructs of civilization, simply served to weaken the race. Rousseau believed, though, that a man was shaped in his childhood, that the events that unfolded there would very much decide who he would become.
"Plants are fashioned by cultivation, man by education," he wrote in his book Emile. And if a man is formed by the experiences of his childhood, is there any wonder that Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira became a cage fighter? That he was so good at it? That he shrugged off, routinely, the kind of blows that would fell a bull elephant, let alone a man?
Nogueira's is a fascinating history, a researcher or philosopher's dream. After all, one of the 10 best MMA fighters of all time has a twin brother. Rogerio, who also competes in the UFC, is Rodrigo's double in all ways that matter genetically. One went on to a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. The other a respectable, but ultimately forgettable one.
Physically, the two were the same man. So any differences in their performance and career trajectory are a matter very much of nurture, not nature. And that brings us back to Rousseau, Jean Jacques and a truck that shaped a legend.
Rodrigo Nogueira, perhaps, was driven to greatness, and his brother Rogerio content to stay on the margins because of the events that unfolded in an instant. It was 1986, a birthday party. Eleven kids playing in the street, carefree, laughing. None of them saw the truck until it was too late.
“The tires went over me. My brother, he tried to pull me out, to escape from under there, but I couldn’t get out," Rodrigo told me in a 2007 interview. He spent four days in a coma, clinging to life. The remembrances a blur, likely shaped by what he heard later from others. But some things he still recalls.
"A lot of pain. A lot of pain in my legs. The tires going over me. My belly. My shoulder. The pain. I thought I was going to die."
The accident wrecked his liver when a broken rib punctured the organ. Both legs were broken, his left Achilles in shreds. He could breathe only with the help of machines, his diaphragm crushed. According to doctors, he might never recover.
Rodrigo spent 11 months in the hospital. Eleven months with only his thoughts and a doting grandmother. They were 11 months that shaped a man.
"It was the hardest time of my life," Nogueira said. "But I think this is what makes me strong today. Nothing that happens in a fight could ever be as bad. It can not be worse than that time."
Pain and adversity became a part of Rodrigo's life that day. He mastered them, slowly but surely, over the course of those 11 months. Many men fear pain. Even the toughest cage fighters fear being struck.
Nogueira looks at oncoming blows differently than most. He knows it is in his bones, that he can take it. To him, an opponent's punches aren't obstacles. They are opportunities.
I asked him that day, in 2007, about his contention that sometimes being punched is the better course of action for a fighter, even better than landing blows of his own. To me it was nonsensical. For most people, I suspect. But if you'd lived Rodrigo's life, what is a punch really? It's certainly not a truck.
Again, that day defines him.
"Getting punched is less exhausting than to (throw) your own punch," Nogueira said, explaining how he uses his own legendary granite chin and endurance to bait the man across the cage from him. "Sometimes I let my opponent hit me. Not because I like it. To get him tired."
He's no masochist. Nogueira went on to detail how he uses discrete movement, especially on the ground, to diminish the effect of his opponent's punches. He doesn't like getting hit. He just knows he can take it. It's the story, not just of his life, but of his career.
Against Bob Sapp, he survived. Tim Sylvia hit him with his best shot. He walked away with the interim title. Cro Cop, the great Fedor—he's faced them all and lived to tell the tale.
"If you watch closely a highlight of my fights, you will see armbars and everything," he said in a UFC promotional video. "But if you really watch, what you'll see most of all is me getting back up. The power of getting back up. And to try again. It's all about overcoming."
At 36, Nogueira knows his time in the sport is coming to an end. There are only so many times he can get back up and keep coming forward. Though he told me fighting is a mental game, not a physical one, at some point, the limits of the human body come into play. He's already faced serious back issues, hip surgery and most recently a broken arm courtesy of Frank Mir.
For now, though, he's content just to face Dave Herman, a young fighter insistent that Nogueira's brand of human chess, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, won't work against him.
“I know it works. I believe it works. Some of my last fights I tried to fight standing more, but for this fight especially I trained lots of BJJ. If I have a chance of getting a submission on the ground, I’ll go for it,” he said in a recent UFC conference call. “...I’m feeling good. I’m feeling strong in my arms. I feel totally recovered in the shoulder and ready to go. I’m hungry to fight and I’ve been asking the UFC to fight in Brazil, and now I have the chance to represent and fight in Brazil.”
It's possible that Herman is right. The aging legend may not be able to impose his will, his game, on the younger fighter. But Herman should beware. Anyone can knock Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira down. It's the rebound, what happens next, that should concern him.
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