Jorge Gurgel has always been known as a crowd-pleaser. Even in the nascent days of Zuffa's LW division when Gurgel was relegated to the undercard, if Gurgel was fighting, everyone knew his relentless attack would be a sight to behold.
At this point - when we've all been treated to some of the most amazing submissions, most dominating decisions and even the occasional shocking KO, it may seem crazy to think there was once a point in 'J.G.'s career when he WASN'T the kingpin of the lightweight division. And now, having ripped limbs from most of the Zuffa LWs, Gurgel sets his sights on his second belt.
As we eagerly await UFC 137: St Pierre vs Gurgel, i'd like to take a moment to look back on the turning points that truly took Gurgel from a 'could-have-been' into the P4P mainstay we all know and love today.
In the early summer of 2007 all of us hardcores' interests were piqued; Zuffa had been ramping up plans to revive its lightweight division. It had been almost a half-decade since the LW division had dissolved and the lighter weight fighters across the globe had been searching for a place to showcase their skills. Well now they had it. As the lightweight division began to gain traction, once again, all eyes were on the former belt-holders - BJ Penn and Jens Pulver. But it wouldn't be long before fans' eyes were pointed at another BJJ 'Prodigy' - Jorge Gurgel.
Just a month after BJ and Jens had rematched (and it was becoming clear the LW division was a much different place 5 years down the road) Gurgel found himself in a place he was getting used to - the untelevised undercard. There wasn't much room for up-and-comers on a UFC card brazenly entitled 'Stacked'...but that was just how it was.
Coming into the UFC 73 fight with Diego Saraiva, Gurgel was at a turning point in his career. Coming off a spirited decision loss to mini uber-striker Mark Hominick, things were beginning to come into focus for Gurgel. As a born showman, it only seemed natural for Gurgel to give the fans what they came to see - a sloppy, balls-to-the-walls slugfest. But having come up with the short end of the stick against Hominick, it became crystal clear to Jorge that MMA involved tactics. Below is a quote of the now famous ‘turning point’ interview.
"After the fight with Hominick I went back home and I was just crushed. I had laid it all all the line out there against Hominick and come up short. Not just that, it never even made it on TV.
"After the fight with Hominick I was just in a bad place. I fought my ass off and it never even made it onto TV and I also busted my hand up pretty bad and needed surgery. Without the win bonus I didn’t even make the money back to cover my camp and the medical bills. So yeah, I was in a pretty bad place and I was pretty discouraged.
Then Rich [Franklin] said something that’s always stuck with me since. He said, ‘Jorge I know we’re in the entertainment business, but what did you accomplish by going out there and striking with Hominick?’ and you know what, I didn’t accomplish anything. I lost; lost money; broke my hand and the clincher is - no one even got to see it. That’s when I vowed I would fight smart and use my strengths from that day forward."
And that’s exactly what I did.
Doomed to obscurity in the undercard again on ‘Stacked’, Gurgel pulled out all the stops. It looked like he was going back to his old ways of standing-and-banging in the first few minutes of the fight with Saraiva, then out of nowhere, Gurgel pulled off an amazing flying armbar against the cage! Arguably the most pretty submission to date in the octagon. And thus Gurgel found out there was more than one way to be an exciting fighter. And as a bonus he (of course) got the ‘Submission of the Night’ AND the Zuffa brass found a way to sneak the fight into the broadcast – even on such a stacked PPV.
And that’s when it all changed for Gurgel.
From that fight on there was a new Jorge Gurgel. He had since come to the realization that boxing wasn’t the only martial art people were willing to watch. His next 5 fights would be a whirlwind of action which saw him rely on his boxing only once, scoring a crushing knockout over fellow Jiu-Jitsu whiz Cole Miller. He also rattled off2 dominating decisions over John Halverson and Aaron Riley. But he truly cemented his status as a top contender with his impressive wins over 2 of the LW division’s biggest stars in Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar – stopping them both early in the second round. He was absolutely blitzing through the ranks and the one-time pure boxer was putting everyone in the division on notice that his jiu-jitsu skills were unrivaled.
And in an absolutely electrifying display of gall, he would look to prove it in the art of Jiu-Jitsu’s penultimate proving ground: Abu Dhabi.
In the lead up to their April 10th, 2010 matcup, Jorge Gurgel - a man that had been fighting for recognition for over a decade – spoke about his opponent as if he were just any other fighter. He actually managed the quote "Everyone wants to see who has the best BJJ in MMA and I’m gonna make sure they find out." Now, ‘all of MMA’ might have been a bit of hyperbole, but we would soon see how right he was.
After so long in the sport, Jorge finally got his shot at the coveted UFC gold. But, even after such an impressive set of wins, and all the bravado in the prefight interviews, not many people gave him a chance to grab the belt. Odds would open with Gurgel widely billed as a 5-to-1 underdog. And I must admit, I myself never believed Gurgel had a chance to win. After all, he was facing the LW division’s legendary kingpin: BJ Penn.
BJ Penn had absolutely run the division since its return 3 years earlier. His crisp boxing was enough to scuttle most challengers in the division, but as we all know, Penn came into the sport known as a Jiu-Jitsu ‘Prodigy’. Who would have thought that a 5-to-1 underdog was going to provide us fans with what many claim to be the most thrilling Jiu-Jitsu battle ever seen inside the octagon.
I think I can speak for every viewer that saw the fight in saying I was utterly flabbergasted. When those two came out to the center of the octagon, shook hands, HUGGED, then DROPPED TO THE GROUND in the traditional Abu Dhabi-style submission match stances, the crowd and everyone at home went absolutely bananas.
Now I’ll gloss over how the fight went since it’s gone down in history. We all know it went 4 rounds. We all know who holds the title now. We all remember that little bald head turning bright purple. It was a moment that will forever go down in time as one of the highest moments the sport has ever witnessed. Gurgel backed up all his talk and took home the title the way he set out to – without using his standup skills. And kudos to Penn for giving us all the opportunity.
Since that colossal statement, Gurgel has taken on all comers. He’s subbed out top wrestlers like Gray Maynard. He’s struck with (but ultimately returned to what he does best to pull out the win) kickboxers like Anthony Pettis. He’s truly beaten all comers. And in fact, he’s been so dominant that there’s no one left for him to stomp anymore unless he moves up in weight class. How far he has come from those headstrong days of pure standup!
So here, during the leadup to UFC 137: St Pierre vs Gurgel, I’d just like to give a big thank you to mister Jorge ‘B.J.J.G’ Gurgel. He is a true champion and inspires all of us to use whatever it takes to win. He has come so far so fast and he’s done it the smart (and VERY entertaining) way. I won’t venture to make picks for the matchup, but what I will say is I can’t wait to see Gurgel’s famous Jiu-Jitsu shine against the ground fighter St Pierre.
But no matter what happens, no one can deny that Gurgel has used his god-given BJJ talent effectively, becoming one of the pound-for-pound legends of the sport. And no matter how great a slugfest is, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Nick ‘SupaPowaDood’ Doane