At UFC 134: Rio, one of the greatest heavyweights in the history of MMA pulled off yet another improbable win. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is more than just another fighter in my eyes, he is a living representation of what this sport can be at it's best. His penchant for drama has made for a long list of amazing fights and his well-rounded style has allowed to collect wins in most of them.
In the wake of his amazing knockout win over Brendan Schaub, let's take a look back at some of Nogueira's greatest hits.
vs. Mark Coleman - Beating "The Man"
Mark Coleman burst onto the scene at UFC 10, crushing the competition in the night's eight man tournament. He would win another tournament and eventually the UFC heavyweight championship before experiencing a four fight losing streak that seemed to signify a quick end to his reign of terror.
Coleman would come raging back with an unexpected and amazing tournament win in the PRIDE Grand Prix 2000 to once again become the #1 heavyweight in the world. When the unassuming looking Nogueira faced off with "The Hammer" it was expected that the Brazilian would be a tough test, but one that Coleman would pass.
Instead, Nogueira shocked the world, dominating the fight on the feet with surprisingly technical boxing before locking in a combination triangle choke/armbar that forced Coleman to tap out and reach for the referee to save him.
It was a surprising moment that signaled Nogueira as a major heavyweight player, but no one could predict the heights to which he would rise.
vs. Heath Herring 1 - Winning the Title
It's easy now to forget how highly regarded Heath Herring was in 2001. His win over then undefeated Tom Erikson was a very surprising moment for the MMA community. Other than a controversial decision loss to Vitor Belfort, seemingly predicated more on the rule applications due to the size difference between the fighters, Herring had been a major force at heavyweight.
With Nogueira having defeated Coleman and Herring losing his mind and crushing Mark Kerr with knees in response to Kerr's lay and pray tactics, the two men were set to meet and crown the first ever PRIDE heavyweight champion.
Nogueira would dominate the fight but Herring's ability to avoid tapping out to seemingly deep submissions and both men displaying impressive cardio led to an unusually action packed heavyweight scrap that saw Nogueira have his hand raised after a unanimous decision victory.
vs. Bob Sapp - Slaying the Giant
Bob Sapp had not yet learned just how much he hated being punched in the face. His incredible look and massive strength meant that, while he hadn't the credentials to prove he could be a threat, Nogueira was expected to be in for a war.
And a war is exactly what fans were treated to. The massive Sapp would give everything he had, nearly slamming Nogueira on the top of his head at one point before Nogueira was able to secure the arm of the now exhausted beast and force him to submit.
While Sapp didn't represent the highest level competition in the world, the fight showcased Nogueira's ability to take tremendous punishment and still find a way to win. It also was a beautiful display of the principles of jiu-jitsu. You don't win a fight by simply being bigger and stronger, Nogueira proved that by taking Sapp's arm.
vs. Fedor Emelianenko 1 - Losing the Title
It's hard to view a guy losing his heavyweight championship as a "greatest hit" moment, but Nogueira displayed such incredible heart in losing to the then unstoppable Russian that it only served to cement him as a fan favorite. Nogueira would spend much of the fight on his back eating massive shots while not getting knocked out and never stopping his search for a submission or way to win.
The rematches with Fedor would prove that Emelianenko was the better man, but the fact that Nogueira never stopped wanting another shot to prove he could beat "The Last Emperor" served as proof of his drive to be the best.
vs. Mirko Filipovic - One for the Ages
Having crushed the orbital socket of Kazushi Sakuraba, stopped the durable Heath Herring with strikes, knocked out Igor Vovchanchyn and making the left high kick the most feared weapon in the sport, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic was an undefeated wrecking machine. One of the first men to truly round out a high-level kickboxing attack with takedown defense and find sustained success in the MMA world, Cro Cop was only one win away from a shot at Fedor's heavyweight crown.
Many didn't see a way for Nogueira to defeat the Croatian. After all, takedowns had never been Nogueira's strong suit and, while in possession of a decent boxing attack, Mirko was simply several levels better in the striking department.
For the opening ten minute round, all looked lost for Nogueira. Mirko repeatedly landed huge punches and kicks, coming close to finishing the Brazilian in the final moments of the frame. Nogueira simply appeared overmatched by the man who seemed to represent the future of heavyweight mixed martial arts.
In the second round, Nogueira managed to drag the fight to the ground, where he was able to transition and lock an armbar, leaving Mirko no choice but to tap out. It was improbable, dramatic and one of the best fights in the history of mixed martial arts.
Once again, Nogueira stunned the crowd with his ability to survive the worst scenarios and find a way to win. As some ringside observers wept, Nogueira was carried around the ring by his teammates in a moment that will forever stick with me as the reason that I love this sport.
vs. Tim Sylvia - Wearing the UFC Belt
Nogueira and Sylvia met for the interim UFC heavyweight championship at UFC 81. Sylvia had won seven of his last eight fights and was still a legitimate top end fighter in the heavyweight division.
Sylvia would tag Nogueira with hard shots in the first round, knocking him down but not finishing him off. Nogueira had trouble dealing with the length of Sylvia as the fight continued into the third round when the old Nogueira magic came through again. Rather than try for a takedown, Nogueira pulled Sylvia into his guard, quickly swept him and pulled guard again after locking in a tight guillotine choke, forcing Tim to tap out.
Once again snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Nogueira became the only man to ever hold both the PRIDE and UFC heavyweight championships.
vs. Brendan Schaub - Proving Something
If fans weren't already doubting Nogueira, they certainly had to be after seeing a heavier than usual version of him step onto the scales at the UFC 134 weigh-in. Nogueira admitted to rushing back from multiple surgeries as he wanted to fight in Brazil for the first time in his career.
Antonio entered the ring as a +230 underdog and having been stopped in two of his last three fights, it simply made sense to see this as a chance for the UFC to build up Schaub's name by using the aged and faded body of Nogueira.
Instead of fighting like a man on his way to a loss, Nogueira came forward, bringing the fight to his younger opponent. When Schaub landed flush combinations that seemed to hurt Nogueira, the old man's chin held up like it had for so much of his career. "Big Nog" was landing some punches of his own and had Schaub backing up before he unleashed an uppercut and right hand that buckled the legs of Schaub.
The follow up strikes were too much and Schaub crashed to the ground, it was over and for that brief moment Nogueira was back on top of the game.
Once again, Nogueira had defied the odds, survived the scare and delivered the dramatic moment as he has done so often in his great career. It's just one more chapter to be added to one of the greatest stories told in this fantastic sport.