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UFC 102 Fight Breakdown: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Randy Couture

Antonio Rodrigo NogueiraOnce upon a time, Randy Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would have been the biggest fight in the MMA world. While time has changed the perception of the bout, which fans will finally get to see at UFC 102, the matchup still offers two of the most decorated heavyweights in history.

For years, the stylistic clash has made for great debates, and finally it will be settled in the cage. But how will it all go down?

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

Coming into fight week, one of the most popular storylines has centered around Nogueira, and whether at 33 years old and with 37 fights on his ledger, he is over the hill. The former PRIDE champion has been involved in a memorable series of physical battles over the years and at times seemed indestructable. Then, at UFC 92 last December, Nogueira (31-5-1) was shockingly TKO'd by Frank Mir, a fighter who had only one other knockout win on his career record.

The book on Nogueira suddenly became that he'd taken too much abuse and was damaged goods. But think about this for a second: right now, Nogueira is younger than Couture was when "the Natural" made his UFC debut back in 1997. Think about how many times Couture's been written off between now and then, and ask yourself if Nogueira's fighting obit has been prematurely penned.

MMA fans and observers are notorious for jumping to conclusions based off single performances, but in this case, you can almost excuse them for it. Nogueira has looked slower in his last few outings. He's taken beatings, been dropped mulitple times, and finally finished. Aside from the last note, none of the rest of it seemed so unusual for him. After all, in typical Nog style, he'd found ways to win. The Mir match, however, has really planted doubt in the eyes of many.

Couture, of course, does not have the luxury of going into the fight with the belief that Nogueira has slowed down. He has to prepare as though Minotauro is in his prime.

When people wonder how Couture can be so competitive at 46, it is because of a few factors including his intelligence, technique and strength. Unlike lighter weight classes that put more emphasis on speed, the heavyweight division has enough lumbering behemoths that Couture can find ways to avoid their power and then put them into uncomfortable situations that capitalize on his strengths.

Against Nogueira, this will not be easy. The Brazilian is the most experienced and savvy competitor Couture has faced in years.

After seeing Nogueira's succeptibility to the striking game, Couture is likely to mix up his game plan, utilizing his footwork to get inside of Nogueira's reach advantage, occasionally looking for the Greco-Roman clinch into a takedown, and from there look to ground-and-pound his way to victory.

Nogueira will of course present Couture with his most dangerous situations when they find themselves on the mat. Nog is a master at setting up opponents into mistakes (19 of his 31 wins have come via submission). The question is whether he can bait Couture into a fight-ending faux pas. Not likely.

Couture has not tapped out to a choke or joint lock since 2001, and in 2006, he fought highly decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza to a draw in a submission wrestling match. In addition, Couture had the advantage of training with jiu-jitsu coach Neil Melanson. The Xtreme Couture trainer, who nearly mirrors Nogueira in height and weight, has said that he patterned his ground game after the Brazilian legend. What better preparation could he ask for?

Nogueira, meanwhile, has spent the last several months re-sharpening his game. He told FanHouse last month that he spent two months training in Brazil before even coming to the U.S. and starting his fight camp in San Diego. He chalked up the Mir loss largely to his surprise that Mir, also known for his jiu-jitsu, was so intent on keeping the fight standing. Nogueira had prepared for a ground battle and was never able to adjust.

He also told FanHouse that he expects Couture to push the fight standing, but anticipates it will end up on the ground at some point.

That said, the main question for the main event becomes, Which man is more likely to impose his will on the ground: Couture and his patented mashup against the fence, or Nogueira and his vaunted guard play?

It's unlikely that Couture at his level of experience will be caught in a submission. And with Couture infinitely more likely to be the man on top, that stands to be Nogueira's best hope for victory. The fight is relativey even in the standup department, but Nogueira's recent trend of being knocked down does not bode well, and Couture is solid enough to make his chin a factor.

Most likely, we'll see Couture hold his own standing until he scores a takedown, and that's when the fun begins. Will he carefully choose his spots and elect to conservatively win rounds, or will he go for broke and invite danger? Unlike many fighters, Couture won't be scared to stay on the ground with him, and the drama could be riveting as Nogueira looks for submissions while Couture aims to finish.

It might be eight years too late, but these two masters are every bit as capable as ever of putting on a technical showcase. In the end, however, Couture is likely to put the fight on the ground and fend off any submission attempts, so it's probable that we'll see the ageless legend walk out of the octagon with yet another victory

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