Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: A Legendary Heart

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2008

The scar on his back serves as a reminder of the things he lost. 

He walks the earth with one less rib than his equals, the result of a horrible accident that happened when he was 10 years old. The young boy was run over by a truck, lapsing into a coma for four days. He lost one rib and part of his liver, and it felt like the ending of the boy's story had already been written.

The boy, however, was a fighter. 

Just 11 months after the horrible accident that took pieces of his body and nearly succeeded in taking his young life, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira went home. The first chapter in a remarkable story of guts, grit, and determination had been written, but this tale wasn't finished. No, it had only just begun.

Antonio was born in Vitoria da Conquista, Brazil on June 2, 1976. Founded in 1783, the town would eventually become known as a center of the Brazilian coffee industry. 

Though young Antonio began his fighting career by taking judo classes starting at the age of five, his first significant victory was over death itself. He nearly lost his life to a truck, and many people counted him out.

Antonio began his fighting career at the age of five, but his mixed martial arts education started at 14, when he was invited to train in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the tutelage of Ricardo de la Riva Goded. In 1999 he accomplished a very rare feat, and was awarded a black belt in both jiu-jitsu and judo.

He made his professional mixed martial arts debut at World Extreme Fighting 6, forcing David Dodd to submit to a crucifix in the very first round. He fought again at the next World Extreme Fighting show, this time submitting Nate Schroeder to an armbar. 

After the fight, Nogueira made his first foray into Japan, the country that would make him a superstar and a legend. 

He entered the King of Kings tournament for the RINGS promotion in 1999. King of Kings has attained mythical status among hardcore fans of mixed martial arts, and for good reason. The 48-man tournament featured names like Renzo Gracie, Dan Henderson, Jeremy Horn, Renato Sobral, and Gilbert Yvel.

It was the largest mixed martial arts tournament in history and a direct contrast to the ugly, no-holds-barred world of the 1990s Ultimate Fighting Championship. Held over three consecutive events, King of Kings 1999 was a test of endurance and heart, and Nogueira displayed it all.

He defeated Valentijn Overeem, Iouri Korchikin, and Andrei Kopylov with relative ease, setting up a semifinal bout with "Dangerous" Dan Henderson. He lost that match to Henderson by decision, who would go on to defeat Sobral to be crowned King of Kings.

In 2000, Nogueira entered the King of Kings tournament yet again, and won all five of his matches en route to his first major tournament championship. Nogueira had quickly become known as a submissions master and one of the best young jiu-jitsu players on the planet.

He made his PRIDE debut on July 29, 2001, with a submission victory over the much larger Gary Goodridge. His victory over Goodridge would set in motion a winning streak that would last until March 16, 2003, when, for the first time, he met his doppelganger and his greatest opponent: Fedor Emelianenko.

But first Nogueira would cement himself as a comeback kid, a fighter with unquestionable resolve and endurance.

Nogueira had won the PRIDE Heavyweight Championship by defeating Heath Herring on Nov. 3, 1991 at PRIDE 17. In perhaps his most legendary match, Nogueira would defend that belt against Bob "The Beast" Sapp, a gigantic cartoon of a man who was the most famous person in all of Japan.

Standing six feet and four inches and weighing close to 400 pounds, Sapp wasn't the best mixed martial artist in the world, but in a culture that favored big man versus little man freak show fights, he was most assuredly the biggest and most popular.

Sapp outweighed Nogueira by 150 pounds. The big man pounded on Nogueira without mercy, delivering countless punches that would have knocked out other men, or, at the very least, would have caused them to lose resolve. 

But Nogueira was not a normal man. His entire life had been a series of battles, starting from the time he fought his way back from death at the age of 10. Antonio ate punch after punch, sending the Japanese faithful into fits of delirium. Yet he never quit, never faded into unconsciousness, and refused to be overcome by the sheer strength Sapp exhibited.

Antonio was weary and wounded, and yet he somehow found a way to lock Sapp's gigantic arm into an armbar, forcing the man-monster to tap.

Nogueira's legend was born and cemented in the very same night. Here was a man who, when faced with impossible odds, simply weathered and overcame them, no matter the size.

At PRIDE 25, he would defend his belt against Emelianenko, the young Russian Sambo expert who had become known as one of the best heavyweight fighters in the world.

Fedor came into the fight with only one loss on his record, a questionable TKO due to a cut suffered in the King of Kings 2000 tournament—a tourney that Nogueira later won. If Fedor hadn't been eliminated due to the cut, there is a distinct possibility that he would've faced Nogueira for the championship.

And so Nogueira defended his belt against Fedor, and for only the second time in his career, and the first time in PRIDE competition, he would lose. Emelianenko won by unanimous decision due to his ferocious ground and pound, and he would continue to hold the PRIDE Heavyweight title until the company was purchased by Zuffa in 2007 and folded into oblivion. 

Nogueira went on another winning streak, scoring submission victories over Mirko Cro Cop, Hirotaka Yokoi, and Heath Herring, and moved on to face Fedor again at PRIDE Final Conflict 2004. The fight was halted in the first round when Emelianenko accidentally head-butted Nogueira and opened a cut over his own eye.

The rematch was scheduled for December at PRIDE Shockwave 2004, and there Fedor would once again best Nogueira. The story of the fight, however, is not Nogueira's loss, but the fact that Emelianenko simply could not finish him.

Fedor landed strike after strike and tried submission after submission, but the kid from Brazil simply would not, could not, give up. He'd been through too much, survived so many horrific things, that quitting in a fight simply was not an option to be considered.

In the middle of 2007, PRIDE had been purchased by Zuffa, and the UFC was in the process of signing former PRIDE superstars to compete against the top fighters under UFC contract.

Another stellar PRIDE heavyweight, Mirko Cro Cop, had come into the company with unprecedented hype. Cro Cop beat journeyman Eddie Sanchez in the first round of his UFC debut, and the hope was that the Croatian policeman would face heavyweight champion Randy Couture in August.

Gabriel Gonzaga had other plans, however, and he knocked Cro Cop out in the first round of their April 2007 fight with a nasty right high kick to steal his title shot and throw a wrench into the UFC title plans. 

In July, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira made his UFC debut. Perhaps sensing that hyping PRIDE superstars wasn't a wise idea on the off chance that the same thing that happened to Cro Cop would happen to them, Nogueira's debut was understated and under-promoted.

He faced Heath Herring, a man that he'd already beaten twice while in PRIDE. This was an easy win which could set up Nogueira for a title shot later in the year. 

Herring nearly disrupted those plans, however, knocking Nogueira down in the first round. 

Like so many times in his career, Nogueira fought back from the brink of elimination and won a unanimous decision. This wasn't the first time Nogueira's steel heart had been on display, but it was the first time it had been exposed to the massive audience that Zuffa had built on the back of Chuck Liddell knockouts and The Ultimate Fighter.

Nogueira was scheduled to face Randy Couture late in 2007, but Couture decided he wanted more money, and quit the company, leaving Antonio holding the bag.

By December, it was apparent that Couture wasn't interested in fighting Nogueira. He wanted to fight Emelianenko, and used that desire as a cover for his absence from the company that made him a star.

After months of offering Couture a fight with Nogueira, Joe Silva and Dana White finally relented and created the Interim UFC Heavyweight Championship. Couture had to remain the title-holder on paper. Keeping the belt on Couture, at least in the public eye, forced the "champion clause" in Couture's contract to activate.

As long as "Captain America" held the UFC title, he was bound by law to fight for them until he lost the belt. For legal purposes only, Zuffa continued to recognize Couture as the heavyweight champion, but decided to match Antonio up with Tim Sylvia, the hated former champion, to determine an interim champion.

Nogueira met Sylvia on Feb. 2, 2001 in the main event of a card that had major hype due to the UFC debut of former NCAA Heavyweight champion and WWE superstar Brock Lesnar

The fight took place in a different country, on a different continent, in a new company, and in front of new fans, but the end result was the same.

For almost three rounds, Sylvia beat Nogueira mercilessly, landing strikes at will. Nogueira was backed against the wall, and as the clock ticked down to the final moments of the fight, it was obvious that Sylvia would win a decision.

But the heart of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was still beating. 

The same heart that kept him alive after his horrific childhood accident nearly took his life. The same heart that kept him going in brutal PRIDE fights with Bob Sapp, Mirko Cro Cop, and Fedor Emelianenko. The very same heart that made him a legendary figure to mixed martial arts fans around the world.

At 1:28 of the third round, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira submitted Tim Sylvia with a guillotine choke to become the Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion. The comeback was once again complete, the foe vanquished. 

"It's what Nogueira does. He takes a beating and then pulls it out at the end," said a dejected Sylvia after the fight.

Nogueira pleaded with Couture to come back and fight him, perhaps sensing that his interim championship was merely a prop, a stopgap measure. But Couture wasn't interested in a fight with Nogueira, as if the man who took Fedor Emelianenko to the limit and defeated countless giants of the sport wasn't worth his time.

In August of 2008, Randy Couture returned to the UFC. He'll defend his belt against Brock Lesnar in November, a fight designed more to catch eyeballs and make money than to give an accomplished fighter his shot at the belt.

Nogueira will face former heavyweight champ Frank Mir in the traditional battle of Ultimate Fighter coaches. Both are jiu-jitsu experts.

By December, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will be well known to UFC fans. They'll know his story. They'll understand that his life should have ended 22 years ago, that he fought for his life and beat the odds. They'll understand that he's continued to beat the odds since that time, and they'll understand why he's considered one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is going to beat Frank Mir, most likely with a come-from-behind submission win just when it seems like all hope is lost.

And if he gets past Brock Lesnar, Randy Couture will find out why he never should've looked past Nogueira. Because even though Fedor Emelianenko stands in the distant fog of Randy Couture's future, Fedor's greatest opponent stands directly in front of him, his iron will refusing to bend and his legendary heart beating loudly.


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