Conor McGregor is jumping from the biggest MMA promotion in the world to compete in boxing, but he’s not the first to do it.
With wins over the likes of Alistair Overeem and Kazushi Sakuraba under his belt, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira decided to try his luck in boxing when he was under contract with PRIDE in Japan. The Bahia-native, who held a 10-1 MMA record back in 2004, was invited to compete in an amateur boxing match in Bahia, and was victorious.
Nogueira's longtime boxing coach Luiz Carlos Dorea, who trained stars like former boxing world champion Acelino “Popo" Freitas and UFC champion Anderson Silva, approved of Nogueira's performance in the boxing ring and suggested that he signed up to compete in the state championship.
It all started as an fun experiment to test his skills, but evolved into something bigger after Nogueira won the state championship. In the midst of competing at PRIDE’s epic light heavyweight tournament in 2005, where he defeated Dan Henderson before losing to Mauricio Rua in the semifinals, “Minotouro” also won the Brazilian boxing championship.
"When people started talking about the 2007 Pan-American Games I thought it was an impossible dream,” Nogueira admits, "but I started to enjoy it and realized I had a chance."
Bouncing between sports like MMA and boxing wasn’t an easy task, though.
"I was using to clinching, so my reflexes were to always clinch and throw a knee or go for a takedown when I closed the distance,” Nogueira says. "You don’t fight like that in MMA, so close to your opponent, because you can either clinch or take him down. You don’t just stand there and throw uppercut and short punches. That was the hardest part to adapt early.
"I fought once in Cuba and took my opponent down,” he says with a laugh. "It was a reflex. I wasn’t disqualified, but the referee deducted a point. I still won, though."
The 2007 Pan-American Games would take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Nogueira decided to try out for the national team. “Minotouro,” who stopped Overeem via TKO the previous year, earned a spot in the Brazilian team to compete at the Games.
"I knew it would be tough, but I knew I had a chance because my results showed that,” he says. "I fought in Cuba and won. I was facing tough guys and winning, so I imagined it was possible."
Five months before competing at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio, Nogueira took a big hit. Back to the PRIDE ring after defeating Overeem, “Minotouro" lost in 23 seconds to Rameau Sokoudjou in one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, but didn’t let that affect him in the boxing ring.
In the Pan-Ams preliminary bout, Nogueira defeated Enoch Romeo by points. He came back to face Jonny Molina in the quarterfinal, and scored another win by points.
Nogueira’s run would end in the semifinal, where he lost to Cuba’s Robert Alfonso by points. Still, he went on to clinch the bronze medal, while Alfonso captured gold. (Alfonso currently holds a 12-0 record with five knockouts since debuting as a professional boxer in 2012.)
"It was cool,” Nogueira says. "We focused on it for a year and a half. I went from a black belt in jiu-jitsu to white belt in boxing and won a medal. It was amazing."
Nogueira exceeded his expectations in the boxing ring, and had decisions to make. With the 2008 Olympic Games around the corner, the Brazilian knew he was one step away from competing in Beijing after winning the bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro.
"I thought about the Olympics in China,” he says, "but the UFC purchased PRIDE and some athletes were signing with them. I had two careers, boxing and MMA. I was starting one in boxing, and was a top-10 (fighter) in MMA for years, so it was easier to focus in MMA and try to sign with the UFC. The purse in MMA was better, too.
"It’s hard to make money right away in boxing, unless if you’re doing like McGregor and fighting someone like Floyd Mayweather. If I was younger, maybe I would have decided to go to boxing instead of MMA."
Being one of the top MMA fighters to succeed in a transition to boxing, Nogueira breaks down the Aug. 26 clash between “The Notorious” and “Money" in Las Vegas, and doesn’t think his fellow MMA fighter will shock the world and become the first man to beat Mayweather as a professional.
"Mayweather is used to this, he won’t close the distance against McGregor,” Nogueira says. "He has the best defense, is used to the glove size. He won’t rush into McGregor, who is a great counterpuncher. McGregor forces you to attack and counters, but Floyd won’t do that. He won’t eat his first punch."
"Despite the age, Mayweather’s experience is the biggest factor,” he adds. "He has fought heavy hitters like Canelo and Cotto, guys with knockout power, and no one dropped him. He has the best defense. He won’t fall into McGregor’s game. McGregor has a good boxing, but it will be hard to catch Mayweather."
McGregor predicted a knockout victory in under four rounds, but Nogueira doesn’t expect that same outcome.
"This fight won’t end with an early knockout,” the Brazilian says. "Mayweather is used to long fights, 12 rounds, while McGregor isn’t. It’s his first fight. It’s the same thing of bringing a fighter from PRIDE and putting him in the UFC. The guys were used to one 10-minute round and two five-minute rounds, and now he has five five-minute rounds. It’s completely different."
McGregor, a 0-0 boxer facing a 49-0 legend at T-Mobile Arena, has many clear disadvantages in this contest, but “Minotouro" still won’t count him out him good.
“McGregor has a chance. He hits hard, but his resources are limited under boxing rules,” Nogueira says. "He’s a skilled fighter, but if he tries to beat Mayweather with his skills, Mayweather will kill him with the jabs. I think his chance is to go for all or nothing. Mayweather is faster and more skilled, so McGregor has to believe in his knockout power.
"My prediction is Mayweather wins, unless he’s not taking him seriously because he’s a MMA fighter. McGregor is a good kid, fast, but if Mayweather is training hard, I think he can knock him out."