Often overlooked, perhaps because he played second fiddle to the great Fedor Emelianenko for so long, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira remains on the short list of the best heavyweights of all time. As he prepares to hit the cage for what could be the final time this weekend in his native Brazil, let's journey back in time to hit the highs and the lows of what will surely go down as a Hall of Fame career.
While Nogueira actually made his pro debut the previous year, it was this win over established star Jeremy Horn that caught the attention of hardcore fans globally. It was one thing to win a couple of fights in Japan's Rings promotion, where the action was often fixed and the fighters were not always world class competitors.
But Jeremy Horn was the real thing, and beating him for Jamie Levine's old World Extreme Fighting promotion meant Nogueira was a young fighter worth watching closely.
After losing an awful decision to Dan Henderson the previous February, Nogueira got a second chance to win the Rings King of Kings tournament. This time he left nothing to chance, choking out Hiromitsu Kanehara in the semifinals and Valentijn Overeem in the finals to win the prestigious tournament that featured Horn, Randy Couture, Kiyoshi Tamura, Volk Han and Fedor Emelianenko among others.
Nogueira beat Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Mark Coleman with a triangle armbar in the first round. Before the fight, Nogueira told the Japanese press he was excited to join the big leagues of MMA:
It was my long wish to enter Pride. It is one of the best Vale Tudo competitions, and it is great to be able to fight with the best Vale Tudo warriors. Of those, Coleman, one of the best fighters, was chosen as my opponent. That is what I wanted. I am ready physically and mentally. I can fight with anybody. I have already studied Coleman's fighting style. I am looking forward to fighting with him.
The dominant win catapulted the Brazilian jiu jitsu standout to the top of many pundit's heavyweight top 10 lists.
Before an injury to his orbital bone turned him into a laughingstock, former NFL and pro wrestling prospect Bob Sapp was one of the scariest men in the sport. More than 300 pounds of solid muscle with bad intentions, Sapp guaranteed a bad night for even the best fighters. Inexperienced, but in a good way that allowed him to ignore dangers that might have slowed smarter fighters, Sapp ran roughshod over professional kickboxing and MMA in Japan.
"I didn't know anything about fighting. So I was confident I was going to win. The best way I could win is to do what I could do naturally. I just came from pro wrestling so I only knew mainly pro wrestling moves. So, you can see during the fight, I used it," Sapp told me in a 2007 interview. Sapp tossed Nogueira around like the proverbial rag doll, once even "power-bombing" him right on his head, a pro wrestling move that Sapp had worked on with training partner Josh Barnett.
"Josh was like 'Bob you don't know anything about MMA so just do it. Man you can do that. You're strong enough to do it. Do it and you'll hit every highlight reel, I'll tell you that much.' I said 'I'll do it, whatever.' What happens with kickboxing, what happens with MMA is that everyone follows a rule of thumb and gets used to doing the same stuff all the time. And there's a million different moves in there that you can do. And nobody really wants to do them. But when you don't know anything, you
can do everything and let your mind go crazy and utilize the essential parts of MMA. Use the basics and the rest is up to the individual."
Nogueira was actually briefly unconscious after the Sapp slam. But he awoke long enough to tame the beast in one of the most legendary bouts in MMA history. The fight was one of three main events that drew a reported 91,107 to Tokyo's National Stadium. Though that number is likely inflated, it remains the largest crowd ever to witness an MMA show live.
Nogueira is outfoxed by rising Russian star Fedor Emelianenko, who beat him to the punch on the ground and on his feet to become the new Pride champion. Nogueira went into the fight with a serious back injury, an ailment he kept quiet until Sam Sheridan wrote about it for A Fighter's Heart.
"For like two months I was not walking well," Nogueira told Sheridan. "I was coming down in my shape, and he was in the best shape he's ever been in."
More than 60,000 fans packed the Tokyo Dome to see Nogueira take on fearsome kickboxer Mirco "Cro Cop" Filopovic for the interim heavyweight title. Before the bout, Nogueira went to Wanderlei Silva, a fierce rival of his Brazilian Top Team teammates, for advice on how to survive the Croatian striker.
"I had thoroughly studied Mirko's fights by watching the videos. Among those, it was Wanderlei who did the best fight," Nogueira told Weekly Gong magazine.
"No matter how many times he got middle punches, Wanderlei never dropped his hands down from his guard for the head and kept on moving all the time. This became a clue for my fight to come. So when I met Wanderlei, I asked him 'How was a Mirko's body punch? Is it endurable?'"
Silva advised that you could survive Cro Cop's body shots, but not his high kick to the head. The right kick, famously, would send you to the hospital. The left? The cemetery.
Nogueira avoided those telling blows and eventually submitted the striker with a second-round armbar.
After a rematch with Fedor Emelianenko was stopped early after a cut from an inadvertent headbutt, Nogueira finally got an opportunity to avenge his loss and reclaim his spot as the world's best heavyweight.
Though he liked Fedor, the two were fierce rivals, pushing each other towards greatness.
"I'm much better than I was two years ago," Rodrigo told Sheridan on the eve of the fight. "Before I had him, I felt like 'I am going to train for what?'"
Nogueira's plan in the return bout was to box with the champion, hoping his superior technique could prevail. Instead, Fedor's blinding speed told the tale. He battered Nogueira for 20 solid minutes, forever establishing his place as the top heavyweight of his era.
In a career full of great fights, this barn burner with Josh Barnett stands out as one of the very best. It's the end that people will remember, Nogueira screaming in pain as Barnett finally locked in a kneebar in the closing seconds.
But the action was furious throughout. From a Barnett left hook that dropped him to the mat early to a scintillating ground battle over a Nogueira armbar, it was the kind of fight that showed fans and skeptics how scientific and multi-faceted this sport could really be.
Just months after the collapse of the beloved Pride Fighting Championships, Nogueira made his UFC debut against a familiar face. He and Heath Herring had gone to war back in 2001, a toe-to-toe battle that remains one of the best heavyweight MMA fights of all time. A 2004 rematch was nearly as good.
Would the third time be the charm for Herring, a consistent bridesmaid who couldn't quite vault to the top of the sport? Frankly, the UFC expected that answer to be no. It was a fight that promised to be exciting and fun, but it was also a contest Nogueira was supposed to win en route to a heavyweight title shot.
Instead, Herring creamed Nogueira with a high kick in the first round, sending him plummeting to the mat. If he had followed up immediately with aggressive ground and pound, it might have been Herring on his way to a title shot. But he made the decision to step back and make the referee stand the former Pride champion up.
It was a decision that will haunt Herring until his final days, but not one I'd call inexplicable. Nogueira was dangerous off his back, even when hurt. Clearly that was in the back of Herring's mind, the idea of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory an ever present danger. Jumping on a prone Nogueira is dangerous, even when he's knocked silly. Ultimately, however, it was a risk worth taking.
Inevitably, Nogueira recovered from the powerful blow. Inevitably, he does just enough to win a unanimous decision. And, inevitably, Herring descended back to gatekeeper status, his one opportunity to seize destiny in both hands squandered by a faint heart.
Nogueira again looked vulnerable, this time against the lumbering Tim Sylvia in a fight for the UFC interim heavyweight title. Sylvia dropped Big Nog with a left-right combo in the first and spent the better part of five minutes bludgeoning him.
Sylvia, using his size to keep Nogueira at bay standing and his bulk to avoid persistent takedowns, was in firm control in the third round. But it only takes one mistake against a submission artist like Nogueira, and when the chance came, he pounced, sweeping Sylvia and finishing the fight with a brutal guillotine choke.
A snapshot post fight would have been incredibly deceiving. Nogueira, the victor, was covered in blood. The only sign Sylvia had been in a fight was the haunted look in his eyes.
Despite early success in the Octagon, Nogueira was mostly a stranger to UFC fans who hadn't had the chance to see him at his best. He was a respected veteran—but not a star. Until, that is, The Ultimate Fighter propelled him into the limelight.
Nogueira and the cocky Frank Mir were excellent adversaries on reality television. The show made Mir, already the bad guy, a comic book level villain complete with long monologues espousing his own greatness and ever present sneer. By contrast, Nogueira looked like Mother Teresa.
Their eventual fight was highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing. Nogueira never looked quite right and was knocked out in the second round. Eventually an injury surfaced.
"I hurt my left knee very bad. I couldn't get the right shape," Nogueira told Fighter's Only. "Everybody could see that I wasn't a good fighter tonight. I didn't fight well. I think I can fight much better than this."
A pitched battle with fellow legend Randy Couture was Nogueira's last great fight. And, nearly four years and countless contests later, it's a bout that remains the best fight I've ever seen live.
The two aging warriors were able to hold off father time just long enough to put on a clinic in front of Couture's rabid hometown crowd. The 15 minutes were filled to the bursting point with superb standing exchanges, grappling, submissions and escapes. This was mixed martial arts at its very best.
Nogueira finally got his rematch with Mir—but things didn't go any better. He was submitted for the first time in his career, though referee Herb Dean was actually in the process of stopping the fight before the tap actually came. The valiant Nogueira didn't concede the fight until his arm was broken by a vicious Mir Kimura lock.
“I stopped it because I saw the arm break,” Dean told Sherdog. “The tap came after. I don’t stop it when I believe it’s locked on or even if I believe the guy’s in jeopardy because I don’t know what that person can take. I don’t know what their limits are, but if I see an injury that is too dangerous for the fight to continue, that’s when I’m going to stop the fight. Or if I see the fighter tap.”
Nogueira made a triumphant return, defying critics and refusing to retire after Mir's brutal submission snapped his arm. Dave Herman, the victim du jour, made the mistake of suggesting he was unsubmittable. A second-round armbar cured him of that delusion quickly.
June 8, 2013
Nogueira is once again being thrown to the wolves, this time against Fedor smasher Fabricio Werdum. Nogueira actually beat Werdum in 2006, before his steep decline, but he barely resembles the fighter who ruled the Pride heavyweight ranks, the crown prince to Fedor's king.
“We fought in 2006 and Nogueira was more experienced then and I got beat up in that fight,” Werdum told ESPN. “I’m much stronger now.”
After a season of reality television, the Brazilian crowd should be hot for this matchup, even if Nogueira has seen better days. Can the old warhorse, now 37, make one more run at the title? Or is he just a road block in the path of fighters like Werdum? This is a bout that should answer plenty of questions about Nogueira's future—and just might be the last fight of his legendary career.