Shogun lost, Cro Cop lost, Wanderlei lost. Fedor never came. Rampage was Dana’s man. The PRIDE boys were falling apart. Accusations everywhere: a gangster-run promotion, champions with puffed-up records, steroid users.
What was it they said about him? He doesn’t lose fights, he just runs out of time. You could expect a rollercoaster consistency from Nogueira. He didn’t look so good in the UFC, not at first. He was supposed to trash Herring, a man he’d beaten twice, and instead Herring nearly knocked him out. Then it was time to fight for UFC gold, and his backers weren’t so sure of him. Randy Couture even picked Sylvia to stop the former PRIDE champion.
Main event of UFC 81. Earlier in the night, Frank Mir chased out the pro wrestling pretender Brock Lesnar. If Nogueira could take home Sylvia’s arm, all would be right in the mixed martial arts world.
Gimme Shelter. Could you ask for a more appropriate song? Mick Jagger could’ve written it for him. Japanese hero out of Brazil, Nogueira walked out to fight the UFC’s most hated and arguably most dominant heavyweight. A man who jabbed his way to safe shores met a man who threw himself into the fire.
In the first round Nogueira came out and got hit. Came forward and got hit. Again. Again. Sylvia knocked him down, but you weren’t worried yet. He’d get up. Isn’t that what Nogueira does? He got up and so it went. He swung his fists at Sylvia, he dove for singles, and he was not winning. But at the end of the round he dragged Sylvia down and slid to side control. The bell rang and a threat hung heavy in the air: I will get you down again. We are not done here.
Already there’d been whispers: slow, old, over the hill. Slight tremors in his image, but they were there. He’s gained weight. His reflexes aren’t there anymore. How could Herring do that to him? This was not the man who’d walked through fire to bring Cro Cop’s arm back to Brazil. Not the man who’d stared unflinching while Fedor swung fists like anvils.
The second round came and Nogueira went in again. Shot after shot, stuffed. Outboxed and outmuscled. A drawn out takedown attempt that had Sylvia staggering one-legged across the cage and Nogueira straining and slipping inefficately to his knees and nothing. He had nothing for Sylvia. Nogueira fans groaned and Nogueira – well. He had the same look in his eyes: looking, looking, looking for that one moment. As if expecting an old friend. Every moment preceding it was a test. A distraction. The one was everything.
Sylvia threw and snapped his head back, again, again. The second round ended and they walked to their corners and he was still not winning.
His name is Minotauro and he has a twin you’d never mistake him for. A scar with a story and a fistful of heart because of it. When you’re asked who’s the better Nogueira, you don’t say “the little one.” You say Big Nog.
They came out and Sylvia hit him hard and stopped a shot, easy. The clock seemed to tick faster in the third round. Closer to the end now. Maybe he wouldn’t lose, but he was going to run out of time. He closes in like lightning and yanks Sylvia into his half guard. He grabs wrist control and traps Sylvia’s leg and he sweeps. This is it. Nogueira is in side control. This is the moment. He baits Sylvia and Sylvia tries to scramble and stand and Nogueira wraps his arms around Sylvia’s neck and the guillotine and he rolls and Sylvia’s already tapping. It’s done.
Nogueira stood and raised his arms, his face swollen and smiling. He’d fought his fight. An easy win wouldn’t have been half as satisfying. It was not easy and every minute belonged to him. He was PRIDE’s horseman riding into an American cage, that era’s stalwart, its torchbearer.
In the months and years to come, Nogueira would fall and fall badly. Sylvia would be shoved out of the picture. Lesnar and Mir, the earlier freakshow, would be champion and champion. Things would change and PRIDE would fade, DREAM would fall to the wayside. Puppeteers of the Japanese scene would be exposed for the liars and hustlers they were, and all champions would be called into question. Some would declare PRIDE’s heroes a fraud, their dominance illusory. Their reigns the result of a trick. Maybe they were right, maybe not.
But on that night, on UFC 81, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira hoisted PRIDE’s banner high and claimed his prize in gold. On that night he was more than Nogueira, more than a champion. He was Minotauro. He was PRIDE.