Las Vegas, Aug. 25, 2007, was the night that Gabriel 'Napao' Gonzaga was poised for greatness. The young Brazilian stud was headlining UFC 74 and fighting Randy Couture for his Heavyweight title. It would be one of the defining moments in the fighter's UFC career to date.
Fresh off the biggest win of his career with a highlight reel head kick KO of Mirko Cro Cop, Gonzaga was surging and fancied by many against the older Couture. As we all know, the night would not end well for the younger fighter, who would lose a close fought fight of the night via TKO in the third round.
Gonzaga would go 2-1 in his next three fights, with some strong showings, eventually leading him to another defining moment, a fight with Shane Carwin. Carwin was himself a rising star with an undefeated record and would end the fight via KO at 1:09 of round one.
At UFC 102, Gonzaga bounced back by defeating Tuchscherer. The fight was scrappy, with a stoppage for a low blow, but Gonzaga would still display his KO power and remind fans of his presence in the division.
Fast-forward to the present and the UFC Heavyweight division looks very different to when Gonzaga first burst on the scene. It is now one of the more competitive UFC divisions, with a number of contenders all vying to get a shot at current champion Brock Lesnar.
Shane Carwin will meet Frank Mir for an Interim title fight at UFC 111, Antonio Nogueira and Cain Valasquez will lock horns at UFC 110, and then there is fast rising Junior Dos Santos. However, no one is talking about the former No. 1 contender Gabriel Gonzaga as being in contention. This could all change on Mar. 21, when Gonzaga will face Junior Dos Santos on the Fight Night debut on Versus.
Many commentators, including myself, rate Dos Santos very highly and consider him a future champion. Are we all looking past 'Napao?' Gonzaga is more than just a stepping stone for Dos Santos. He is a fighter that carries a threat in all aspects of the game. A win for Gonzaga would catapult him right back into the mix and steal his fellow Brazilian's momentum.
I recently went back and watched both the Couture fight and the Carwin fight. Gonzaga was just overworked, out maneuvered, and looked over awed when fighting Couture. Was this just a case of nerves and the occasion getting to him?
Against Carwin, he dominated all of the fight apart from the one punch that Carwin landed. Yes, it KO'd him, but he did serious damage to Carwin's face before hand; did he just get caught with a lucky punch?
There are numerous questions to still be asked of the Brazilian, but come 11.00 PM on Mar. 21, people might just have to start talking about Gabriel Gonzaga once again being involved in the Heavyweight title picture.
There is no doubting he has the tools to succeed: KO power, world class BJJ, and now having tasted the big stage maybe the experience to get back to the top of the mountain.
I, for one, get the feeling that we may not have seen the last of 'Napao' as a force in the UFC. We might yet see him emerge from the shadows to rise up the ladder again.