Gabriel Gonzaga is no stranger to the deeper waters of the UFC heavyweight division.
Over a span of the past eight years, "Napao" has experienced all facets of the fight game while competing under the most visible banner in mixed martial arts. The 34-year-old has seen the fruits of his success materialize into title contention and later a championship opportunity, but the Brazilian grappling ace has also experienced the rapid fall that comes with a nasty backslide.
After losing back-to-back fights against former champion Junior dos Santos and Brendan Schaub in 2010, Gonzaga was released from the organization. While he started his time inside the Octagon with a four-fight winning streak and earned a title fight against future Hall of Famer Randy Couture at UFC 74 in 2007, once he came out on the business end of his bout with "The Natural," things began to come apart at the seams.
While there was no doubting his versatile talents, elements of his game appeared to vanish against high-profile competition. He easily defeated relative unknowns like Josh Hendricks and Chris Tuchscherer but struggled to perform against Shane Carwin and Fabricio Werdum.
By the time the UFC released Gonzaga, he had lost five of his last eight, and the next wave of rising talent had seemingly passed him by. That said, he believed he had much more than he was showing and set about earning his way back to the sport's biggest stage. Fortunately for the jiu-jitsu black belt, it only took one win outside of the promotion for him to rejoin the UFC, and he vowed to make the most of the second chance.
And he has by all measurable standards.
Since returning to the UFC in 2012, Gonzaga has found victory in four of his five showings, finishing every opponent but one along the way. The only setback came at the hands (and elbows) of current contender Travis Browne when the two heavyweights squared off at The Ultimate Fighter 17 finale last April.
While the loss stunted some of the momentum he had built, Gonzaga picked up what he had lost and then some by scoring back-to-back first-round knockouts over Dave Herman and Shawn Jordan. With the Brazilian dishing out punishment against top-level competition, the UFC tapped him to face another rising talent in Stipe Miocic.
The former Cleveland State University standout has quickly risen through the ranks of the division and will face a stern test in Gonzaga next Saturday night at UFC on Fox 10 in Chicago. The Ohio native has built an impressive resume during his short time in the UFC and has shown a versatile game that revolves around striking, footwork and a solid wrestling base.
Gonzaga knows Miocic will present some interesting challenges, but he's planning on stopping the Croatian-American's momentum at the United Center.
"I think it's an interesting matchup," Gonzaga told Bleacher Report. "[Miocic] is tall and fast and has long arms. He likes to exchange, but I like to exchange too. I will bring my striking and my ground game and let's see where this fight goes. Wherever it goes, I will be prepared. When a guy moves, it's very important that you move together. If you make the mistake of following him, then you are always going to be a step behind and right where he wants you. But I feel confident in my stand-up game and I have prepared to handle his movement.
"I've put a lot of work into my striking. I've been training my boxing since 1999 and I've put a lot of time into developing those skills. I'm getting better in that part of my game and I will look to keep improving those skills."
While both fighters have a proven ability to level the opposition with a single clean shot, one area that separates them is the ground game. Gonzaga has ended several fights by submission, while Miocic has yet to test his jiu-jitsu under the UFC banner. That of course is a credit to Miocic's defensive wrestling, but Gonzaga believes he'll have a clear advantage if the fight hits the mat.
"I definitely believe the ground game is a place where my skills are ahead of his," Gonzaga said. "But he has shown he is not easy to get on the ground, so I have to be ready with my striking and my wrestling. When a guy moves well, it is hard to put him down. But I don't care if I'm able to put him on the ground or not because I'm ready for anything."
This fight will impact the landscape of the heavyweight division. Coveted spots in the upper tier are up for grabs, and Gonzaga is eager to get back into title contention.
That said, his motivation comes from more of a personal perspective, which outweighs what ambition brings to the table. He is confident he will get where he's looking to go as long as he puts in the hard work.
"When I go there to the fight, I go there to finish my opponent and win my fight," he said. "I do that for myself, my family and my fans.
"I think I'm getting close," he added in regard to a future title shot. "But if I keep putting in the hard work and winning my fights, I'm going to get another opportunity to fight for the title."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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