Poor Little Nog.
I'm not being a smart-ass wise-cracker either ... my heart sincerely goes out to lovable Brazilian Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (20-5). The light-heavyweight is a sibling and mirror image of former Pride and UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira but, despite his best efforts and intentions, he's been unable to mirror his brother's greatness. Don't worry -- no one could ever really do that. You might find legends with better records or bigger wins throughout the history of MMA, but you won't a find a legend with a bigger heart than Big Nog.
Unfortunately, you might not find a fighter who's endured a longer list of more stylistically unfriendly opposition than Rogerio has in the UFC. The brawl-prone southpaw cemented his rep as an ultra-exciting fighter overseas, mostly in the Pride FC ring, with electrifying wins, such as his genuinely epic war with former UFC 205-pound champ Mauricio Rua, which is still a staple on "Best Fights Ever" lists, or his arm-bar win over top UFC light-heavyweight contender Dan Henderson, or the TKO stoppages over UFC heavyweights Alistair Overeem and Vladimir Matyushenko.
UFC match-maker Joe Silva has been a consistent behind-the-scenes catalyst for the organization. The man is brilliant. Yet, beyond his debut opponent, Luiz Cane, Little Nog hasn't seen an inch of daylight from the man shuffling the cards, who stacked the deck with stiff wrestling competition in the following order. D2 college wrestler Jason Brilz: ehh, do-able. (Nogueira was out-wrestled but won a controversial split-decision.) 2-time D1 All-American wrestler Ryan Bader: sheesh, OK. Don't make it a habit. (Nogueira was out-wrestled and lost a semi-controversial decision.) 4-time D1 All-American Phil Davis: c'mon son. Seriously? (Nogueira was out-wrestled and lost a unanimous decision that few had the basis or energy to dispute.) Hall of Famer and record holding (most consecutive light-heavyweight title defenses) ground-and-pound master Tito Ortiz: thanks for the shotgun instead of the bazooka. (Nogueira exhibited ideal wrestling defense by stuffing a takedown and finishing with a 1st-round flurry of punches and elbows.)
The icing on the cake is that, in the phone book of stellar wrestlers Nogueira's encountered, "Suga" Rashad is the most polished and threatening on the feet of the whole bunch, not to mention the most fluid in blending his striking and takedowns. And with the best submission defense. And with the most experience, against better competition. Oh, and he might get a title shot at untouchable middleweight champ Anderson Silva a weight class south with a win on Saturday, so this is also a quasi-title-shot for the loftily elevated Evans.
So, while Noguiera's plate was already quite full with youthfully exuberant, up-and-coming wrestling phenoms with average to good striking, he'll have to make room for the smartest, the most complete, the most accomplished and, overall, the best and most formidable wrestle-boxer he's ever faced.
The significant advantage in striking that Nogueira, a bronze and gold medalist boxer at the South American Games, enjoyed over his previous opponents will shrink too. Regardless of technique or fundamentals, Evans is shockingly silky on the feet for a wrestling-based fighter, enough so that "wrestling-based fighter" might no longer be an apt description. Since the footwork and stance of MMA striking contrasts sharply with that of wrestling, adding functional striking prowess to the ol' arsenal can be a tedious chore for a wrestler, and few have made the transition as fluently as Rashad.
Evan's boxing finesse could be good or bad. On one hand, it could mean Rashad won't be as desperate to force predictable takedown attempts, and will spring with well-timed and explosive level changes to catch Nogueira by surprise. Or, it could also mean that Nogueira will finally have an opponent willing to trade with him, which will offer more opportunities to connect with his scorching overhand left, or hooks with either hand that are violently delivered in rhythm after an artful slip or parry.
Nogueira is a heavily experienced and highly polished boxer as well, and the only fighter to ever finish Rashad by TKO -- or really even out-strike him on the feet besides "Bones" and a 3rd-round spurt by Thiago Silva -- is Nogueira's stablemate and fellow southpaw Lyoto Machida. I don't expect Nogueira to mimic the quantum physics of Machida's movement or footwork, but wreaking some of the same havoc Machida did by rifling straight lefts down the pipe is a viable reality. The interplay of lead-foot position between an orthodox-stanced fighter and a southpaw can be crucial.
The key for Machida was the way he harpooned his straight left down the pocket but bolted off in a hard-right pivot upon the release rather than planting his feet and staying centered. Machida was also successful with left kicks: he landed a few low kicks, but mixed in some of his voodoo trickery on occasion by turning the kick into more of a foot sweep that off-balanced Evans when he checked it; this ploy later opened up the door for Machida to go higher and blast Rashad's body with mid-range kicks. Evans has a distinctly heavy front-leg stance, which could also be a target for inside low kicks. The catch is that Evans' front leg protrudes that way because he's crouched low and ready to launch for a takedown when his opponent plants his feet and commits to a strike, which makes any type of kick a risky option.
Overall, Nogueira is a tough-as-nails veteran with extremely potent boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. His grappling has been geared almost solely on defense against strong wrestlers, as he has trouble threatening with legit submissions without the ability to control posture and most opponents respected his grappling skill and didn't engage him for too long on the mat. Evans has been excellent on top, he's never been submitted and he definitely isn't easy to sweep (even though Little Nog has one of the best half-guard sweeps around).
It's no surprise that Evans, for all the reasons listed herein, comes in as a hefty favorite on the betting lines. However, even though I'll end up giving him the nod, the odds don't reflect how dangerous and diverse Nogueira still is. He's a technical and powerful boxer, his clinch knees and dirty boxing can be hazardous, he's tough to hold down and he can end the fight on the feet, in the clinch or on the floor. And even though takedowns have been his downfall lately, he still definitively warded off more than he allowed and his takedown defense is quite sound.
My Prediction: Rashad Evans by decision.