Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira refuses to fade into irrelevancy. The guy has enough tales in and out of the ring to regale his future grandkids for days. In the history of MMA, you’d be hard pressed to select a fighter that has taken more damage and still kept fighting. Now, if you’d never heard of Rodrigo Nogueira, you might look at that last sentence as a subtle plea to Nog to hang them up. Nonsense! I would never say that about a guy who has examined his shortcomings, reinvented himself as a destructive boxer, inexplicably got tatted up in his late 30′s, and stayed in the heavyweight division’s top 10 longer than Family Guy has been on the air. He just wont go away. So why do people keep expecting him to?
I wrote that paragraph before Rodrigo lost to Fabricio Werdum via second round armbar last Saturday, and my thoughts towards him haven’t changed. I mean, realistically, he shouldn’t even be fighting at all. Who would have thought that, examining the fabled “big three” from the PRIDE days (Fedor, Cro Cop, and Nog), Nogueira would be the last man standing? It’s unfathomable.
Before I go off on an overly grandiose tangent about how highly I view Nogueira (who I somehow have never written a piece about, and I’ve been writing about MMA on and off for like 6 years), let’s recap the Werdum rematch. Their first fight in 2006 saw Nogueira best Werdum with better standup, dropping the bigger man twice with punches. Werdum was also perplexed by Nog’s ability to scramble, as he was unable to hold any sort of advantageous ground position. In one of the best performances of his career, Nogueira won by unanimous decision.
More than anything else, Werdum is much better as a standup fighter now. He’s never going to box guys up like Junior Dos Santos or anything, but he can at least throw heavy kicks and knees without fear of defensive liabilities coming back to bite him in the ass. He did this well against Nogueira, as he thwarted any real success by kicking his legs and taking him down from the clinch (where Werdum is an excellent wrestler).
The beginning of the end for Nogueira was when he inexplicably dropped for a guillotine against one of the greatest submission grapplers who ever lived. He has a bad recent habit of going for submissions that lead to him getting a limb ripped off. Back in the day, he might have been quick enough to scramble out of trouble, but not now. He got beaten by a better grappler.
After all the damage and all the beatings, and after he finally got stopped a few times, there still aren’t 10 heavyweights better than Rodrigo. What I find so interesting about the way his career has unfolded is that, at various points, he’s been a completely different fighter strategy-wise. He’s had like 3 separate careers.
The first was the “I’m purely a jiu-jitsu guy and I’m going to submit you immediately, and what the hell, it’s RINGS, what am I going to do, ground and pound you?” era (1999-2001). This stretch saw him submit a bunch of jokers from a pretty archaic time in MMA history (David Dodd, Achmed Labasanov, Nate Schroeder), culminating in him tapping Valentijn Overeem twice. Remember, Overeem was considered a top ten heavyweight at the time, but has since been submitted roughly 395 times by worse grapplers than me. Rodrigo went 11-1-1 in RINGS.
The second phase was the PRIDE era, which began with watershed performances against Gary Goodridge (never got off a punch), Mark Coleman (punched him in the face then tied him up in a sailors knot), Heath Herring (a drubbing), and Enson Inoue (choked him sleepy as one of Inoue’s cornermen ran into the ring and pushed the referee out of the way for absolutely no reason at all).
After these 4 fights, Nog’s battles began to take a different tone. Even though he kept winning and winning, he developed a knack for making subpar fighters look better than they actually were. The main reason was that he would essentially allow guys to take him down because he believed in his jiu-jitsu so much. While this belief was ultimately warranted, it did lead to him taking unnecessary punches and slams from Bob Sapp (on an 11 fight losing streak) and Hirotaka Yokoi (who is Hirotaka Yokoi). This dynamic admittedly lead to some of the greatest displays of resiliency we’ve ever seen (I still can’t believe some of the punches he took from Fedor Emelianenko didn’t knock him senseless), and one of the best comebacks ever (the Cro Cop armbar). But still. Antonio was never knocked out in his stretch, which meant that he was getting hit tons and tons of times without the fight being stopped. It’s unclear to me whether or not this has more serious long term effects than just getting knocked out over and over, but still. It can’t be good. Nog went 17-3 in PRIDE.
The third phase of his career is, without question, the one most resembling a roller coaster ride. His tenure in the UFC has seen him suffer his first knockout loss, his first submission loss, and his first “I was winning that fight, right up until I lost it” loss. It has seen him experience incredible highs (winning the UFC heavyweight title against Tim Sylvia, destroying Randy Couture in front of Couture’s hometown crowd, knocking out Brendan Schaub in Brazil after most people had written him off), and devastating lows (getting flattened by Cain Velasquez, having his arm ripped off by Frank Mir in a fight he was winning handily).
Here’s a theory. Doesn’t it seem like, since he’s been through a few stoppage losses and ego-shattering tapouts, that he’s just going for broke? The only real success he’s having in these recent fights is with his boxing, both inside and outside. It’s gotten to the point that going for submissions is probably a bad idea for him, unless it’s against a novice like Dave Herman. I just wrote that it’s a bad idea for Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to go for submissions, and you kept reading without batting an eyelash. It’s true.
Minotauro is 37 years old. He’s coming off a loss, and the loss had nothing to do with the damage his head has accumulated throughout his career. He lost because his opponent is a better fighter than him. Then again, Werdum also might be next in line for a title shot. So the question is this: How much longer can Rodrigo fight at a reasonably high level? His jiu-jitsu is no longer his saving grace, and he’s slowing down noticeably.
He’s fighting on borrowed time, but he’s making the most of it. I could never imagine him fighting the Sean McCorkle’s and the Pedro Rizzo’s of the world, so the hope is that he walks away with dignity. I realize that this article is little more than a gushing, rambling piece of pro-Rodrigo propaganda, but I wanted to write about him before he hangs them up, to capture this specific moment in his career. I love the guy.