Retired legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira recaptured his passion for MMA over the last few months after going all over the planet filming a reality show.
Nogueira's recent travels took him to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Russia and the U.S., filming a show called "The Third Degree," which debuts in early April on UFC Fight Pass.
The series concept is that in each episode, he spent time in a major camp for a different specialized discipline — judo, karate, Muay Thai, sambo, and wrestling — focusing on nothing but that discipline and training with the best in the world at it.
The show itself isn't new. The original show was hosted by Kyra Gracie, but Nogueira was chosen to replace her as host for a second season. The change was likely not for cosmetic reasons.
"She's much better looking than I am," he joked.
Nogueira, along with his twin brother Antonio Rogerio Nogueira — who is still active in UFC — trained in just about every discipline at one time or another during his 16-year-career. During much of that period, certainly from 2000-08, he was regarded as the first- or second-best heavyweight in the world. Even today, in any discussion of the best heavyweights in history, "Big Nog" would be one of the first names to come to mind.
But this training was very different. When he trained in the past, it was always about the nerve-wracking process of getting ready for a fight, and trying to apply a number of different skills to his next fight. Now retired, Nogueira was able to sit back, take it in, and concentrate on nothing but learning technique and specialization.
"For sure, when you don't have a fight, you don't have the pressure," said Nogueira, the only man ever to hold the heavyweight championship in both the UFC and Pride. "Without the pressure, your mind is more open to learning. I learned a lot of good things."
While he didn't want to rate one experience over the other, the one Nogueira talked about the most afterwards was going to Stillwater, Oklahoma a few months ago, and spending time under coach John Smith as Oklahoma State was preparing for the current wrestling season. It looks like it turned out well, as Oklahoma State finished third in the NCAA team championships at the Division I finals this March in St. Louis.
"The wrestling camp impressed with me with how athletic they are," said Nogueira. "It was my last camp. I had injured my knees so I couldn't do too much. The kids were at such a high level. They were getting ready for the new season. I couldn't train too much, but I was really impressed. The Cowboys from Oklahoma were the best athletes of everyone.
"Even their easy training day was crazy," recalled Nogueira. "He (Smith) said one day was easy training and he was still killing people."
Nogueira also loved returning to Japan, where he first made his name by winning a 32-man RINGS tournament then signing with Pride. Aside from a controversial split decision loss to Dan Henderson under different rules, which he later avenged under Pride rules, Nogueira didn't lose until his 22nd pro fight, against Fedor Emelianenko, who was the only fighter he faced until 2008 who beat him that he never avenged.
"I fought in Pride for many years, but to get inside of those camps, they were very closed camps, the people are very particular in Japan, they don't let people in," he said. "But they let us into the best training camps, the best coaches. I was there for ten days and that was an amazing experience."
But overall, Nogueira can't stop talking about how much fun filming the show was.
"When I was younger, I went to wrestling camps," said Nogueira, who actually started in judo at the age of four, then jiu-jitsu, and then MMA with his first pro fight in 1999. "We'd fly in wrestling guys from the U.S. to Brazil. I did a lot, but I've been in martial arts since I was four years old, so 36 years. Judo, Muay Thai, karate, sambo and wrestling; to stop and look at them that way, that was by far the best time of my career. I got to get so close to the best fighters in the world at each particular martial art. I was sitting with judo guys, three-time Olympic champions, two-time Olympic champions. I thought, 'if I died that day, I would die happy.'"
He noted that with his experience in Brazil, Japan and the U.S., he sees the fans in each country as different.
"The American fans, they follow the sport very much," he said. "They know the news. The know the guys who are coming up. There are a lot of new fans. In Brazil, UFC is the second (most popular) sport right now. People are very excited. They show UFC in soap operas, and on the evening news. They talk about the UFC a lot. There are a lot of new fans who like it because we have a couple of champions. Japanese fans are more about martial arts. They know everything from the past 15 years. They know what happened before. But they all love the sport and we're nothing without those fans. I appreciate the fans in each country and what they do for us."
Having faced nearly every top heavyweight in history, Nogueira said that at their respective peaks, four guys stand out to him.
"Mirko Cro Cop, back then. Sergei Kharitonov, a Russian guy. I fought Fedor (Emelianenko) when he was in his best shape. I came to UFC, but by then I had some injuries. My hip injury, my labrum was broken. I had to fight against the guys but I also had to fight against my injuries, for sure, in the UFC. My biggest challenge then was (Cain) Velasquez. He was at his best when he fought me. I thought for sure, those were the four biggest fights of my career."
Still, in Japan, probably Nogueira’s most memorable fight was with Bob Sapp. Today, that sounds like a joke, but in 2002, it was anything but.
"I fought him in the biggest stadium, National Stadium, a lot of people were watching," said Nogueira about the show, which drew 71,000 fans, which is still the largest crowd ever to witness an MMA event. "At this time he was undefeated. He was beating champions in K-1. He beat Ernesto Hoost twice. He had decent wrestling. He wasn't much on the ground but he was so heavy, it was a big challenge. At the beginning of the fight, he power bombed me on the back of my neck. In the second round, I got him down. It was an amazing, nice fight. It was in 2002 and people are still watching that fight today on YouTube a lot. It changed my perception of fighting. I'm not a small guy, but that night, I was a small guy. I still remember that fight. I have pain in my neck and whenever I think about my neck, I think about this fight."