When the book finally closes on the career of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira he will go down as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.
The former Pride and UFC champion stood shoulder to shoulder with the very elite of his weight class during an era widely regarded as the "golden age" of the heavyweight division. The Brazilian submission artist became a legend in mixed martial arts on the strength of a high-level grappling game and an unbreakable will which he showcased time and time again in some of the grittiest fights in MMA history.
Nogueira was never the biggest man in the cage nor the strongest, but when it came to immeasurable intangibles like heart and determination, "Big Nog" found an advantage difficult to match.
Nevertheless, in a sport as physically unforgiving as MMA, the tides eventually shifted and the toll of battle began to show on Nogueira. Where "Minotauro" had once appeared unstoppable, a rash of injuries and a rough skid where he traded wins and losses at every turn, suddenly made the 37-year-old's armor appear to be wearing thin.
Following his devastating loss to Frank Mir at UFC 140 in December of 2011, retirement talk swirled around the MMA legend. He had suffered a brutal fracture at the hands of the former two-time champion and it was unclear if Nogueira would ever return to compete inside the Octagon.
But as he's proven so many times throughout his career, Nogueira is an extremely difficult fighter to put away and he refused to let a rough night in Toronto be the closing chapter to his career.
The Team Nogueira leader made a triumphant return to the sport's biggest stage when he submitted veteran Dave Herman during their tilt at UFC 153 last October. In front of a raucous crowd in Rio de Janeiro, the hometown hero put an end to the retirement talk with a definitive display of show and prove.
The victory brought his career back into focus and he will be looking to keep the resurgence alive when he squares off with Fabricio Werdum in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 10 in Fortaleza, Brazil. The bout is a rematch nearly seven years in the making, and Nogueira will be looking to once again claim victory over Werdum.
"I'm a much more experienced fighter now," Nogueira told Bleacher Report. "I learned how to fight in the Octagon. My wrestling improved. My boxing improved. I got bigger, stronger and my skills got sharper. I know Fabricio improved as well. His stand-up has gotten better and he's a very dangerous opponent with his knees and kicks. His striking is good and he's strong on the ground as well. I knew I had to train really hard for this fight but I believe in myself and I'm very confident I can do well. I know it's going to be a really tough fight and I'm ready for it.
"This competition will be better than my last fight because I had more time to train and get in shape. I had almost four months to camp. I'm doing well. I have great motivation. We put a lot of big guys together to do my camping for this fight. We just came off a good season of TUF: Brazil and we had a lot of good guys to spar with. Some of the guys were smaller than me and it really pushed my physical conditioning in training. I feel great. I feel very motivated. I'm ready for Saturday.
"I'm going to put a lot of heart into this fight," he added. "I'm going to use my best skills. I'm going to use my hands and my jiu-jitsu. I'm going to unleash knees and everything I have to win the fight. I want to win this fight so bad."
In addition to their upcoming tilt this weekend, both heavyweights took up coaching duties for the second installment of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. Throughout his career Nogueira has coached and mentored some of the best fighters to ever step inside the cage, so making his second go as head coach on the reality show was a natural fit.
While two months is hardly enough time to make a tremendous impact on the fighters under his tutelage, Nogueira used the eight weeks to focus on the smaller details of fighting inside the Octagon.
"It was a great experience to coach the fighters," Nogueira answered when asked about TUF: Brazil. "It was great to work with them and teach them some things. I taught them some boxing, wrestling and even jiu-jitsu to some of the fighters. We focused on details because we aren't going to teach them how to fight in two months. But we could make them sharper and better fighters by showing them a few things and explaining why certain things need to be done and why there are things they shouldn't do.
"We spent a lot of time showing them how to work against the cage. How to wall walk, get the best position and what do when they are in those positions. We did a lot of cage work. I think we did a great job and really motivated them. They were a great group and really easy to work with because they worked together as a team. It was a good season."
Alongside countrymen Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort, the Nogueira name is an institution on the Brazilian mixed martial arts scene. He's easily one of the country's most well-known fighters and takes tremendous pride in representing the passionate fanbase.
That element will be amplified on Saturday night as he helps bring MMA and the UFC to a different part of the country—one where Nogueira believes the people deserve relief from the grind of their every day situations.
"Having the UFC in Brazil is a great thing," Nogueira said. "This fight is different and special because it's in a different part of the country where people are really struggling. It's a poorer part of the country. People here suffer more and make less money than in other parts of the country. That makes fighting here very special for me.
"It's a great time for MMA in Brazil. To go around and see the fights on T.V. and people gathering in places to watch them is great. I think it has to do with how good the Brazilian fighters are doing in the UFC. The Brazilian people are so proud of their fighters. It's great to go out on a Saturday night and see everybody getting together everywhere to watch the fights on T.V. People are so proud of the fighters."
For a fighter who as accomplished as much as Nogueira has, diminishing motivation would certainly be understandable at this stage of his career. Multiple championships across multiple organizations and a resume filled with a collection of legendary names would be enough for most fighters to rest upon, but then again, Nogueira isn't like most fighters.
He's proud of the work he's done in the past, but the Team Black House fighter is focused on the here and now. While he may have chased championships before, his current mindset isn't locked on a gold belt as much as it is in knowing he's still one of the best heavyweights on the planet.
"This sport is at a really good moment right now and I want to be a part of it," Nogueira said. "I'm very happy to be among the best fighters competing right now in the UFC heavyweight division. Whoever wins this fight will be in a very good position in the weight class and I'm very excited about that. I want to be one of the best guys in the world in my weight division. I can see myself fighting for the title again one day.
"If I have the chance to fight for the title again that would be great. I just don't want to fight my buddies like Junior dos Santos or Pezao (Antonio Silva). Those guys are my friends and I have no interest in fighting them. But if I had to fight someone else for the title I certainly would."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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