On February 2 at UFC 156, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira will face off against his most high profile UFC opponent to date in the form of ex-Light Heavyweight champion Radshad Evans. Armed with natural athleticism, a suffocating top game, and some of the smoothest striking-to-wrestling transitions in mixed martial arts, its safe to say that Rashad is a horrible stylistic match up for Nogueira. A loss to Evens would leave Antonio 1-3 in his last four fights, and at the not so young age of 36 would effectively shut the door on him ever breaking into the upper echelon of the division. But not so long ago, it seemed that the UFC was grooming Nogueira for a quit trip to title contention.
When the UFC finally acquired the smaller half of the Nogueira duo in 2009, he was riding a nice five fight win streak (against admittedly questionable competition) and had already cemented his name as an elite fighter in PRIDE with wins over Dan Henderson and Alistair Overeem (twice). In his first outing in the UFC, Rogerio absolutely smashed Luis Cain's three fight win streak (which included a tko win over Sokoudjou) with a first round tko, and threw himself into the proverbial 'mix' as a contender.
This is where it all gets interesting.
After having to pull out of a fight with Brandon Vera at UFC 109, Nogueira was finally booked for a fight against none other than former Light Heavyweight champ Forrest Griffin as the co main event for UFC 114, which was headlined by the blockbuster Evens vs Jackson grudge match. It is here that a little historical context really sheds a great deal of light on Lil Nog's story. On May 8, 2010, 21 days before UFC 114 would be taking place, Maricio Shogun Rua dropped the curtain on the "Machida Era" and pried the status of number one 205er in the world from Lyoto's unconscious hands. With Shogun as champ, UFC 114 took on a completely new level of importance.
Several compelling story lines had been thrown at the feet of Dana and co, all thanks to a well timed ducking right hand courtesy of Rua. 114 went from sorting out the next victim for the dragon to devour to, in my eyes, a 4 man mini tournament that would produce a sellable new title challenger regardless of who came out on top. The headlining feud between Rampage and Suga was billed as an official number one contender match, which made perfect sense. If Rampage came back from his big screen appearance and claimed the win, a rematch with Shogun after both men had had years to change their respective games would be deservedly hyped. If Rashad won, well, Rua wasn't Machida and Evans would be the man that beat the fan loved Quinton. But if the headliner somehow failed to deliver, if Rashad wall n' stalled Jackson (cough cough) or some other horrendous action took place, Dana had a fail-safe one fight earlier in the night. Forrest griffin held a definitive win over shogun, while Nogueira had engaged the champ in a thrilling candidate for best fight ever back in the same PRIDE tourney that saw Maricio butcher Jackson via DEATH CLINCH. Jackson, Rashad, Noguiera, Griffin; at the end of the night the UFC would have their choice between 3 possible rematches and 1 compelling fresh match-up for Rua from a pool of 3 former UFC champs and a former PRIDE star, no matter what.
Armed with the knowledge that Rashad vs Rampage would indeed be the definition of anticlimactic, Lil Nog's title aspirations were looking quite vibrant and healthy. Now don't get me wrong, Forrest Griffin is a live dog in any fight, as his wins over Rua and Jackson will attest to. But measured up against Rogerio, it was clear that Forrest had his work cut out for him. With credentials like a bronze medal in the Pan Am's and a Gold in the South American games for boxing, combined with his world renowned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu arsenal, its safe to say that Antonio held an advantage in every aspect of mma against the gritty mr. Griffin. A finish-heck, even just a dominant and exciting decision win- over Forrest on the night of May 28, 2010 could very well have earned lil Nog a shot at Shogun or, due to Rua's knees, a set of favorable match-ups to keep him warm for the champ. (possibly even an interim fight with Rashad that Fall, depending on how crazy Dana was feeling that day...weird)
But Nog didn't beat Griffin, because Griffin pulled out due to a shoulder injury. Instead, Antonio faced off against late replacement Jason Brilz (at the time also known as "who?") with somewhat unexpected results. I love the crucifix position as much as any other mma enthusiast, but it goes without saying that Brilz more or less succeeded in controlling the pace of the fight while simultaneously making one of the UFC's hottest new signings look like shit. Rashad was guaranteed a title shot after turning in an abysmal (but brilliant) performance against an out of shape Rampage, while Rogerio would go from being favorably matched up with flawed strikers to being used as a stepping stone for jiu-jitsu smothering power wrestlers to make a name off of (do your thang Bader and Davis, do your thang) and here we stand, two days away from what may very well be Antonio Rogerio Noguiera's last relevent fight in the UFC. I hope that his busy hips keep Evans guessing and defending. I hope that he avoidsRashad's clinch game by staying off the cage. And I especially hope that he catches Sugga with a right hook in the 2nd and swarms for the finish. But if the most likely outcome takes place and Rashad comes out with his hand held high, its enlightening to look back on Rogerio's amazing career and contemplate what could have been.