When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won his first major title in PRIDE Fighting Championships while competing in Japan back in 2001, the roster of heavyweights over in America fighting in the UFC was a much different list than it is today.
At that time, future UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture was champion, and the list of contenders included Pedro Rizzo, Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett. A young future champion named Frank Mir was actually the opening fight on the card where Couture defeated Rizzo for a second straight time to retain his title back in 2001.
During that same period, Nogueira was ruling the heavyweight world in Japan as the new PRIDE champion after defeating Heath Herring.
Now more than 11 years later, Nogueira is still in the top 10 of the division and fighting in main events like the one coming up this weekend at UFC on Fuel 10, while most of the heavyweights that were relevant back in 2001 are long gone.
"A lot of guys came in after me and they quit before me," Nogueira told Bleacher Report. "I've seen that a lot. That's motivation. That's teamwork, I don't do that myself. I'm hungry, but I have a good team around me. Good coaches and good sparring partners. When you wake up in the morning and have good training and learn something, have good adrenaline and you're going to face some good guys in the gym, that keeps you warm. I keep good people around me to keep that motivation."
Nogueira works on a daily basis with a murderer's row of MMA talent, including former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and a host of other top fighters from Brazil.
The talent in the room helps to keep Nogueira feeling young, although he admits his body sometimes feels a little older, especially after a rough couple of years that saw him on the doctor's table as much as he was on the mats.
A lifetime of fighting can catch up to a person's body, and Nogueira found that out all too well with knee injuries, hip injuries and a broken arm suffered in his bout against Frank Mir in 2011.
Now as he enters his next fight this weekend against Fabricio Werdum, Nogueira says he's let his body heal up instead of pushing through injuries for once. It's resulted in the best condition his body has felt in years.
"Coming off of the last two or three years, I was coming off a lot of injuries. My ACL, my hips and now I feel I'm in the best shape," Nogueira stated. "I couldn't do my best performance in the last few years. I've improved a lot of things. I've improved a lot of my hands. It's given me motivation to fight the best."
Nogueira will get a chance to prove he's back to full health when he faces a top-three heavyweight this weekend in his native Brazil. The former UFC and PRIDE champion is very familiar with Werdum because he actually fought him once before in 2007 when both were competing in Japan.
"I was a more experienced fighter than he was, I strike much better than him, and I used more of my experience. But the biggest thing in the fight was I put him to fight my fight, that's how the fight worked," Nogueira said when remembering their first fight. "He was dangerous a couple of times. He was a new jiu-jitsu guy coming up in PRIDE with a lot of good submissions. We worked a lot on how to avoid the submissions, the triangles and the armbars. But my boxing was better, my timing was better, and I made him fight my game. He was a tough opponent."
Nogueira knows that a lot can change over the course of six years, but fundamentally, he believes there are still advantages he has over Werdum now the same as he did before.
The plan is to make Werdum fall into those same tendencies, and Nogueira believes he can walk away victorious.
"I know that's going to give me an idea of what's going to be in the next fight," Nogueira said. "My hands are better. I'm going to try to make him fight my fight like we had before."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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