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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 190

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
It's almost a shame that the not-so-sudden transformation of Ronda Rousey from UFC champion to cultural figure totally obscured what looks to be the end of the career of one of the legends of a very different era.

When asked about the future of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, 39, who suffered his third consecutive loss on Saturday night, UFC President Dana White suggested that we've seen the first Pride heavyweight champion compete in the cage for the last time.

"I don't want to see Nogueira fight ever again," said White.

"I love Big Nog, and I think everyone loves Big Nog.  He's such a good guy.  He's respected by everybody, and he and I actually talked tonight. I'm done. I don't want to see him fight anymore. He doesn't disagree. He and I are going to get together, and we're going to talk. I'm probably going to give him the Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes and Forrest Griffin deal. I'm going to bring him in and make him an employee."

Nogueira's loss at UFC 190 to Stefan Struve was his 46th pro fight in a career that dates back to small shows in the U.S. in 1999, and almost immediate stardom as the largely acknowledged best heavyweight in the sport during its infancy.

Nogueira became a star in Japan in the old RINGS promotion, and a far bigger star as one of the big three heavyweights, with Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop, of the Pride era. Known for his submission skills and durability in his heyday, he was realistically past his prime when he first came to UFC in 2007 with a 29-4-1, 1 no contest record, but still won a championship and had eight more years of high-profile fights.

Nogueira was largely considered the best heavyweight in the sport after a 2001 win over Mark Coleman. Coleman had won Pride's 16-man Open Weight Grand Prix tournament, a monumental event in the sport's history, the year before. That win made Coleman "the man" on the Japanese scene. Nogueira submitted him in 6:10 of a 10-minute first round with a triangle from the bottom.

Beating the guy who had just won the tournament acknowledged Nogueira as unofficial champion. It was in his next fight, on Nov. 3, 2001, where he defeated Heath Herring, where he officially became Pride's first world heavyweight champion.

He was considered No. 1 in the world until his loss to Fedor Emelianenko on March 16, 2003, at the Yokohama Arena in Japan. Pride was a Wild, Wild West style of fighting, unregulated, and with a different rule set, but acknowledged to have most of the best heavyweights in the sport at that time. From 2003 until 2008, Emelianenko was considered the king of the heavyweights, but a strong argument can be made Nogueira was No. 2 for that entire period.

During his heyday, Emelianenko was the one obstacle he was never able to overcome. A strong favorite against the widely unknown Russian when they fought the first time, Emelianenko was able to beat on Nogueira and maintain top position on the ground for 20 minutes in their first meeting. It was the first time Nogueira had faced someone with that level of takedown ability combined with that level of submission defense.

A rematch on Aug. 15, 2004, the finals of a 16-man tournament held over four months, was ruled a no-contest in 3:52 when the two bonked heads and Emelianenko suffered a deep cut. The fight had to be stopped. Nogueira in later interviews claimed he felt that was the night he would have beaten his biggest career rival, as he was threatening him from the bottom with submissions.

But Emelianenko clearly won another decision in their Dec. 31, 2004, rematch with both the Pride title and the 2004 Grand Prix tournament championship at stake.

It was a career that saw Nogueira first gain fame by winning a 32-man tournament in RINGS that took place from late 2000 and finished in early 2001. That led to a Pride deal, a run that included both a Pride heavyweight and interim heavyweight title, as well as a UFC interim heavyweight title.

His Japan run included one of the more amazing spectacle fights in history, against 360-pound Bob Sapp. While Sapp later became a joke as a fighter, as he stopped training after becoming a major celebrity in Japan, he was a muscular monster with surprising agility for his size and a one-time college football star at the University of Washington.

Nogueira was the Pride champion when the two met on Aug. 28, 2002, at Tokyo National Stadium, before what is still the largest crowd to witness an MMA event, approximately 71,000 fans in an 80,000-seat stadium. It was one among the most memorable fights of the Pride era. Nogueira charged after Sapp, who picked him up and spiked him, almost like a pro wrestling piledriver. For the next nearly 14 minutes, Nogueira was on his back taking blows, until Sapp tired, and fell victim to an armbar.

While a strong guy getting tired and losing in come-from-behind fashion happens every weekend in modern MMA, in those days of usually quick and explosive fights, those type of comebacks after a prolonged beating were the exception. And today, with weight restrictions, you aren't going to see a fight with a 130-pound weight differential. But that set the template for many of Nogueira's biggest wins, including his Mirko Cro Cop win in 2003 and his UFC interim title win over Tim Sylvia in 2008.

Unfortunately, having a reputation for being able to survive major beatings and find the opening for a late submission may be great for short-term popularity, but it catches up with everyone. With Nogueira, it seemed like he got old right in front of everyone's eyes instantly.

It was at the time considered a shocking loss on Dec. 27, 2008, when he dropped his UFC interim title to Frank Mir, a heavy underdog. Nogueira was not himself, as he was moving in slow motion, being nowhere near fully recovered from a staph infection. At the time, at 32, he appeared to be a shot fighter. But he rebounded with a win over Randy Couture in a thrilling fight. But age clearly caught up to him when he was knocked out in the first round by next era star Cain Velasquez, and won only two of his final seven bouts.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of Saturday night's stars:

RONDA ROUSEY - There isn't much left to say about Rousey past the point that more than any fighter of this era, if this sport is around in another century, people who look back on her like this era's version like a modern day Babe--that is, Babe Ruth, the enduring baseball legend whose power game was decades ahead of its time, or Babe Didrickson Zaharias, arguably the greatest American female athlete of all-time.

The record speaks for itself, not just 12 fights and 12 finishes, but winning nine of those fights in 66 seconds or less.

As a fighter, she came in as the champion, was expected to leave as champion in a quick fight, and did just that. But as a mainstream sports star and cultural figure, she seems to have taken a major step upward.

Her next fight with Miesha Tate should be even bigger, and the sky is the limit for a fight with Cris Cyborg Justino, if that fight is ever to happen. As big as that fight looked in 2012 when UFC first started working on it, from a business standpoint, it's probably for the best it hasn't happened yet. When Dana White threw out a prediction of two million pay-per-view buys if they fight, people largely thought he was either crazy or it was just promoter hyperbole. Now he's upped that prediction to 2.5 million, a number that only one event in history, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, has ever done.

While that still sounds awfully high, after four years in this sport, it's well established that when it comes to fight outcomes, or business success, you'll go broke betting on Rousey to fail.

BETHE CORREIA - Rousey's latest B-side victim fell to 9-1, but in her position, there is no end to prospective opponents. The name of fellow Brazilian Jessica Andrade (13-4) came up in the press conference, but Correia has enough name recognition to be in a main card fight against other former Rousey victims like Cat Zingano (9-1), Alexis Davis (17-6), Liz Carmouche (10-5) or Sarah Kaufman (17-3).

But this past week will almost surely be her five minutes of fame, because it's almost impossible to conceive of a Rousey vs. Correia rematch.

MAURICIO "SHOGUN" RUA - Rua (23-10) took a close decision over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, the twin brother of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in a rematch of a classic 2005 fight in Pride. In those days, they were two of the most amazing fighters of the era. Today, Rua was coming off two knockout losses, and this was only his second win in his last six fights.

Even in a light heavyweight division that lacks depth right now, Rua's role is as a familiar name who will either be fed to people on the way up, or put with contemporaries. In the post-fight press conference, the name Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (36-11) came up, and it's really the right fight for both men at this stage of their careers. Like with Nogueira, this would be a rematch of a 2005 fight that Rua won in the first round of the Pride middleweight (205 pound) Grand Prix tournament. It was that tournament win, a decade ago, that with hindsight is going to be one of Rua's two crowning achievements, along with his 2010 UFC light heavyweight title win over Lyoto Machida.

CLAUDIA GADELHA - Gadelha (13-1), scored a clear win over former World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar (18-5) in what was a battle for the No. 1 contender spot in the women's strawweight division.

This sets up a title match with champion Jonna Jedrzejczyk (10-0) next, a rematch of the Dec. 13, 2014 fight that ended up as a very disputed split decision loss for Gadelha. Right now it appears these two women are a step above everyone else in the division, and could end up being career rivals. It's the classic grappler vs. striker battle, but things have changed since their first meeting. Gadelha's striking has improved, although she doesn't appear to be at Jedrzejczyk's level. Jedrzejczyk's takedown defense has improved as well, so we may be in for a different style of fight.

DEMIAN MAIA - At nearly 38, Maia likely doesn't have much time left, but he completely dominated Neil Magny (15-5) on Saturday, breaking Magny's seven-fight winning streak.

Maia is either the bottom guy on the top rung, or the top guy on the second rung, positioned behind champion Robbie Lawler and the key contenders, Johny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley.
He's already fought and lost to MacDonald via decision, and the other four names look to be facing each other later this year.

Given the situation with none of the top contenders open for him, the best bet may be to put together a test for hardcore fans, against Gunnar Nelson (14-1-1). If that fight goes to the ground, the level of Jiu Jitsu would be some of the highest-level in modern UFC. If Maia can win that, hopefully for him he can get a top contender fight next.