As fans, we judge fights from a variety of perspectives: Technical, social, promotional, historical, and others. How much has a fighter's striking improved? Which combatant is favored? Who talked the most trash? Sometimes, though, we don't care about any of that. Sometimes we have connections to a contest that run deeper than the superficial. Sometimes a fight just moves you, and you don't care about anything else. It is those perspectives, the emotional ones, that can be the most powerful ways to experience a fight.
In recent memory, Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson’s epic title clash fits the bill. The invincible champion tested by an indomitable challenger, momentum swinging to and fro like a pendulum. By all means, that was a fantastic fight. But for now, lets travel back a few years and examine other bouts that provoked emotional reactions. These are my picks.
Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson - July 5th, 2008 – UFC 86
Photo via MMAOnTap.com
Forrest Griffin is the first fighter I ever truly rooted for. When I started watching MMA around 2005, he had just won the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and put on one of the best fights in history against Stephan Bonnar. I liked his everyman, self-depreciating personality, I liked how passionate he was as a coach on TUF 7, and despite his pillow-fists, overrated jiu-jitsu, and post-fight meltdowns, he was actually pretty good.
UFC 86’s main event was back-and-forth. Jackson rocked Griffin early on with an uppercut, dropping the TUF 1 champion to his back. The challenger kept his composure, though, and roared back in the second, hobbling the champion with leg kicks. The rest of the match was a nail-biter, and the two men went tit-for-tat for a rousing 25 minutes.
The fight was memorable, but I can remember many that were better. Mauricio Rua vs. Dan Henderson at UFC 139, "The Korean Zombie" vs. Dustin Poirier on Fuel TV, or even the aforementioned UFC 165 title match rank higher for me - as fights. But rarely have I been farther off my seat as I was that night in June.
Forrest is retired now (Rampage might as well be), and despite an uninspiring last outing against Tito Ortiz, I still look back on his career fondly. Was it his brutal honesty, or his reputation as a hard-worker that garnered him such adoration? Was it his snippy interviews or his exciting style? Maybe Forrest himself can explain. This is what he said after beating Jackson and winning the title:
"If you look at UFC champions: BJ Penn – terrifying! GSP – terrifying! Anderson Silva – terrifying! But I'm not terrifying. I am not the super-submission guy, I am not the one-punch KO guy, so I am not the most feared guy in the world. But I will not quit, I will not break and I will fight you like a dog for every second of every round."
Every dog has his day.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Brendan Schaub – August 27th, 2011 – UFC 134
Photo via MMAFighting.com
When I decided to write this piece, as I tried to figure out which fight moved me the most, I honestly couldn’t decide between Forrest vs. Rampage and this one. I found it best to include both, because they were so amazing is such different ways. Forrest was a blue-collar warrior and Nogueira is a goddamned legend, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
Most fans familiar with the Brazilian heavyweight known as "Minotauro" have heard the story by now. At the age of eleven, Nogueira was run over by a truck at a friend’s birthday party and was subsequently in a coma for 25 days. He spent eleven months in the hospital recovering and lost a rib and part of his liver; he still carries a large scar on his back to this day. Fourteen years later, he won the Pride Heavyweight Championship. He is a man defined by overcoming the odds.
During his tenure in Pride, "Big Nog" defeated the unstoppable knockout machine Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, a 350lb Bob Sapp, a 6ft 11½ inch kickboxer by the name of Semmy Schilt, and the tough veteran Heath Herring in 2001 to win the first Pride Heavyweight Championship. In the UFC, he took a hellacious beating from a 265lb Tim Sylvia for three rounds before finally submitting him with a guillotine choke, winning the Interim Heavyweight Championship. His uncanny ability to absorb damage and come back to win fights is part of his legend.
At UFC 134 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, "Minotauro" shocked the world yet again, knocking out Brendan Schaub in the first round. Most pundits, fans, and bookmakers (who had Nogueira as roughly a 2-1 underdog) picked his opponent to win. And with good reason: Schaub was bigger, faster, had a more extensive athletic background, and Nogueira was coming off an 18 month layoff due to major hip and knee surgeries. He’d even admitted to rushing his rehab just to fight at home in Brazil.
To make matters worse, Nogueira’s last fight ended in a knockout loss to current UFC heavyweight kingpin Cain Velasquez. Schaub, however, had knocked out 3 of his last 4 opponents, and had only tasted defeat once. It didn’t look good for Rodrigo.
Nogueira held his own with the younger fighter through the opening minutes, slipping the majority of Schaub’s strikes and stalking his opponent around the cage. Still, "The Hybrid" was landing on Nogueira, and he seemed just one overhand right away from victory in Rio De Janiero. But then Nogueira lunged forward at his foe, a left hook-straight right combo leading the charge. They connected, and a few follow up punches later, Nogueira had knocked his opponent clean out in just over 3 minutes. The Brazilian crowd, naturally, went nuts. I remember jumping out of my seat and doing the same.
On his way to the octagon that night, Nogueira looked like a man on a mission. He was fighting in Rio, in front of his friends, family, and countrymen just one mile from his home. And with his back up against the wall, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira went out and beat a dangerous heavyweight in the first round at his own game. He took on the odds and smashed them. Again.