06/28/2007

"Minotauro" Nogueira's Championship Heart

By Thomas Gerbasi

November 9, 2003. For almost ten minutes at the Tokyo Dome in Japan, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira went through hell. In a battle for the interim PRIDE heavyweight championship, the Brazilian was battered and bloodied by Mirko Cro Cop, forced to absorb the Croatian’s legendary left kicks
to the head and body, and thrown to the side like a bag of laundry with almost every takedown attempt in the round’s late stages.

Even UFC President Dana White, at ringside with Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta and current UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture, visibly winced at one particularly loud kick to Nogueira’s midsection, and just to add insult to injury, Cro Cop dropped Nogueira to the mat with a kick just as the bell rang, giving ‘Minotauro’ something to think about between rounds.

During that 60 second respite, Nogueira thought about what happened in the previous ten minutes. And perhaps he thought about his previous stay atop the PRIDE heavyweight division, when he was the undisputed best big man in the game, or about being dropped on his head a number of times by Bob Sapp, a fighter outweighing him by 100 pounds, before coming back to win. Most likely though, he thought about Bahia, the state he grew up in, and where at ten years old, his life almost ended.

“I remember everything,” Nogueira says today, 21 years later. “It was the hardest time I had in my whole life.”

At a neighborhood party, Nogueira along with his brother Antonio Rogerio and 11 other children, played in the street without a care in the world. Soon though, everything would change when a truck parked on the street backed up and over Antonio Rodrigo.

“I was talking with someone and when I saw the truck, it was on my side, so I couldn’t escape,” he recalled. “The tires went over my body, and I remember my brother tried to pull me to escape from there, but I couldn’t get out. I remember a lot of pain in my legs, and then the tires went over my belly and then my shoulder. I felt like I was going to die.”

Before passing out, Nogueira remembers just wanting to talk to his family, and then everything went black. He would stay in a coma for four days and in the hospital for almost 11 months with broken legs and serious internal injuries. A broken rib perforated his liver, forcing removal of part of the organ and of one of his ribs. His diaphragm was injured as well, forcing him to breathe from machines.

“It was a hard time of my life,” said Nogueira in the understatement of the century. “I was by myself a lot, but my grandma was with me too, praying, and I know how important it is to have family.”

After finally being well enough to be released from the hospital, Nogueira still couldn’t walk for two more months, and if anyone one would have told his family that this child would one day be one of the greatest heavyweight mixed martial artists of all-time, they would have been either laughed at or smacked for telling such a cruel joke.

But they would have been right.

“I think that time makes me strong,” he said. “I feel when I fight that nothing’s gonna be worse than that.”

By the age of 14, Nogueira added boxing to the judo he had been taking since the age of four, and at 18, he began studying Jiu-Jitsu. Five years later, he was in Deland, Florida, making his professional mixed martial arts debut with a submission win over David Dodd.

Nogueira would fight twice more in the States in the next six months, defeating Nate Schroeder and Jeremy Horn, but for the budding MMA fighter, his future was in Japan, first with the RINGS organization that he fought for in 1999-2000 (going 8-1-1 with his only loss coming to Dan Henderson), and then with PRIDE.

It was in PRIDE that Nogueira became a superstar, and from his debut there in 2001 until his decision loss to Fedor Emelianenko in 2003, he was unstoppable, avenging the loss to Henderson and defeating Mark Coleman, Heath Herring, Enson Inoue, Sanae Kikuta, Sapp, and Semmy Schilt.

The loss to Emelianenko made him human in the eyes of many though, and after a close decision win over former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez in August of 2003, many wondered if they had seen the best of ‘Minotauro’, a sentiment that got even louder after his first round with Cro Cop.

But fighters like Nogueira don’t lie down for anyone, and at this level, everyone’s good. So it’s not all about what you can do with your hands and feet – it’s what you can do with your head and your heart.

“Most of the fighters think that everything is physical,” said Nogueira. “I think the mental part is everything. You’ve got to keep it right. Sometimes a fighter’s stronger than me or has better skills, but it’s hard to find a fighter who’s stronger mentally than me. I know that.”

And when the bell rang for round two, Nogueira showed it. Forgetting what happened just moments ago, the Brazilian shot in on Cro Cop almost immediately and took him to the mat. He quickly transitioned into the mounted position, and after a series of punches to the head, he got the Croatian’s arm, secured an armbar and got the submission victory.

It may have been the sweetest and most memorable win of his PRIDE career, which saw him go 8-2 with 1 no contest in the final three years of his stay in Japan (he most recently avenged a previous defeat to another former UFC heavyweight champ, Josh Barnett, with a decision win last December).

Now there are new mountains to climb, beginning at UFC 73 on July 7 when he will make his Octagon debut against old rival Heath Herring.

“I’m very excited,” said Nogueira. “When I started in MMA, I started here in America and I saw how the sport has been growing since the last time I was here in 99. The UFC’s marketing made this sport big in the whole world, so I’m very excited to fight in the cage again and show my skills to the American fans. The UFC’s the biggest event in the world, and I’m very proud to be among the best fighters in the world. I’ve got a goal here to be the UFC heavyweight champion, and I’ll try my best.”

And for fans who have never seen Nogueira fight, you’re in for a treat, as he can definitely give Cro Cop a run for the title of most exciting heavyweight of this era. He doesn’t come into the Octagon with the same fight ending power that Cro Cop does, but ‘Minotauro’ can more than hold his own on his feet, and on the ground, he’s a wizard with the type of exciting variety in his game to make instant fans out of those who prefer standup over grappling.

“I will show them good boxing, a lot of Muay Thai, and they’re gonna see the best techniques on the floor in the heavyweight division,” said the 31 year old. “That I can promise them. I will also show a lot of heart and every fight will show different things.
I could see when I walked in the airport that I’ve got a lot of fans here that have seen Pride on TV here. But I know I’ve got a lot to do and a lot to show to the American people and I think they will like my technique and my style. I’ve always been good with my fans and I look forward to giving good attention to them and showing good techniques in the ring.”

With his arrival
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also comes the frenzied matchmaking of fight fans who can now picture Nogueira with the elite of the UFC heavyweight division, most notably, current champion Randy Couture.

“He’s a great fighter,” said ‘Minotauro’ of Couture. “Actually, he started his career before me, so before I became a fighter, I always looked at his career and his example. So it feels great to be in the same event as him.”

What about a division many used to call thin, but which has changed dramatically in the last six months?

“Before, the heavyweight category here wasn’t the best one, but the UFC has been bringing the top fighters in here, and now I can say the UFC heavyweight category is the best one,” admits Nogueira. “Of course, we’ve got Tim Sylvia, Randy Couture, (Gabriel) Gonzaga, Mirko Cro Cop, myself, Arlovski, so the UFC’s got the best heavyweights at the moment.”

And Nogueira’s right in the middle of it. Of course, there’s the little matter of a fight with Herring (who ‘Minotauro’ decisioned in 2001 and submitted in 2004), and we all remember what happened to ‘The Texas Crazy Horse’ in January when he came into the UFC with a lot of fanfare and was subsequently upset in his first fight by Jake O’Brien. The Octagon is a different animal than PRIDE fighters are used to (Cro Cop will also attest to that), but Nogueira’s taken the proper precautions, and even likes fighting in an enclosed space as opposed to a ring.

“I’ve been training in the cage every day,” he admits. “In the beginning, six months ago, I felt a little bit different, but I fought in the cage before, in 99 and 2000, so I know how to fight there. You don’t want to be in the corners, because that’s the dangerous part, and finally, I put my game in the right position. I really like fighting in the cage because the fight doesn’t stop. In the ring, they sometimes stop the fight to pull the fighters to the middle, and in the cage, I feel like I’ve got good endurance and I feel I can show very good techniques there.”

He’s not overlooking Herring either, despite his 2-0 record against him.

“I’m not overconfident,” said Nogueira. “I beat him, but I know each fight is different. I know he’s been training with a different coach and training a lot of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so I know he’s changed his strategy for this fight. I’m confident that I’ve got better skills than him and that I can beat him standing or on the floor. He’s got dangerous kicks so I’ve been working on that, and he’s a very good fighter. In 2001, he fought for the world title with me, and he’s the type of guy that will make a good fight. It feels good to fight an opponent who can give me a hard time and he’s done that in all his fights with me.”

Considering all Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has been through in his life, if a fighter can give him a hard time, he must be pretty good. But Nogueira has never settled for being pretty good. As blues great BB King put it, he’s ‘paying the cost to be the boss’, and those sacrifices have been the secret to a body of work any fighter would love to have and have set him up for the next phase of his storied career.

“I’ve dedicated all my life to fighting,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t have time to be with my daughter or my friends or to travel and do things I like to do because of this. But the secret (to success) is dedication, training hard, and keeping focused because every time we have a different challenge. When I changed to the UFC, I think it was a good time. It was an extra motivation to be in a different event with different goals and a different title. The UFC belt gives me a lot of motivation.”
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