After a pair of Brazilian legends, Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva, helped catapult the debuting Brazilian version of The Ultimate Fighter to monstrous countrywide ratings, UFC heavyweight contender Fabricio Werdum never expected to follow in their footsteps.
Yet despite the laundry list of Brazilian stars who call the UFC home, Werdum now finds himself coaching opposite another legend, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, on the show's second season.
"It was a surprise for me," Werdum admitted through a translator on Thursday's media conference call. "When I was in Brazil people were mentioning I might be the coach on The Ultimate Fighter. I didn't think I was as known in Brazil as Nogueira and Shogun [Rua] and Lyoto [Machida], so I really didn't believe that it was going to happen."
For Werdum, the shock of the announcement has yet to wear off, especially since he and Nogueira have clashed once before in the quarterfinals of PRIDE's 2006 openweight grand prix. Werdum was still a newcomer to mixed martial arts back then, and not surprisingly, he dropped a unanimous decision to the former PRIDE heavyweight champion.
"It's obviously a great honor for me to fight Nogueira and to have a chance to fight him again after seven years," Werdum explained. "I think that I've evolved a lot of my game. Back then I was pretty much just a jiu-jitsu fighter.
"It's changed a lot. Within the past few fights in the UFC I've been able to show that I have knockout power. I am able to put on ‘Fight of the Night.'"
Like many of his Brazilian countrymen, Werdum's reverence towards Nogueira is unmistakable, even in spite of the pair's bloody past.
"I've definitely always looked up to Nogueira to this day," said Werdum. "His ability to overcome things and all the adversity from his injuries and everything else, to be able to come back into the game.
"Even back then I would tell my friends that I wanted to reach that level."
The latest injury Werdum speaks of is also the one that nearly crippled Nogueira's career last year, when Frank Mir cranked on a deep kimura until Nogueira's right arm visibly and gruesomely shattered. The slow crawl to recovery was an often torturous 10-month process, but after submitting Dave Herman via armbar in a successful UFC 153 homecoming, Nogueira finally feels comfortable proclaiming himself "back."
"That fight, for sure, was a challenge for me," Nogueira reflected. "It was really big amount of damage I had in my last fight before that one. I broke my arm and put in a plate, 16 screws in my arm. And now I had to prove to myself, to go back into the cage and fight, fight in Brazil for the people.
"It was a big challenge and a big step."
And it couldn't have come sooner. At the weathered age of 36, with more than a decade of unforgiving battles behind him, the rumblings have already begun calling for "Minotauro's" retirement.
He's not done yet, that much is sure. Nogueira would like to end his career his career with one last run at the belt. But given the current state of the UFC heavyweight ladder, he's not willing to pursue that option at the cost of a dear friendship
"[There's] no chance I'd fight Junior dos Santos," Nogueira vowed. "He's my friend, he's my partner in training. I saw this guy train since he [started].
"I've been seeing each step, he's getting a lot better. He's got the title. If there's any chance any day he [doesn't] have the title anymore, sure, I'd love to fight for the belt in the heavyweight division."