The countdown comes to a close. In the main attraction of the UFC on FUEL TV 10 card in Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil, elite Brazilian heavyweight grapplers Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fabricio Werdum will treat fans to a sequel of their 2006 Pride FC meeting. With a cumulative experience of 25 years and 61 professional fights between them, the highly respected and gentlemanly veterans have persevered through what seems like a lifetime of indelible victories, demoralizing defeats, and character defining wars to earn main-event status tonight in their homeland.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (34-7), aka "Minotauro" or "Big Nog," might be the most unanimously beloved icon in MMA history. I simply cannot imagine the slightest substantial reason for anyone to dislike the inaugural Pride heavyweight champion, and the mere thought of such a blasphemous atrocity turns my stomach and twists my panties. Much of the adoration surrounding the 37-year-old warrior stems from the outrageous display of heart and toughness he's exhibited over the years, such as the classic WWE-style pile-driver he endured from Bob Sapp, who out-weighed Nogueira by nearly 100 pounds, or when a prime Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic, who'd virtually borrowed a choice collection of heavyweight craniums for field goal practice, booted Nogueira around the lustrous Pride ring like an empty tin can.
Those adversaries, along with Tim Sylvia in the UFC a few years later, dominated Nogueira thoroughly for the gist of the fight, but inevitably cried uncle when Nog conjured up a miraculous come-from-behind submission to snatch the victory away. And MMA fans, whether Brazilian, Japanese, American or Klingon, cartwheeled out of their seats in some outrageously dramatic celebration. Thus is the legend of "Minotauro."
Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum (16-5) hasn't left such illustrious footprints in MMA but, then again, no one else has either. Though governed by different circumstances, Werdum is responsible for one of the most unbelievable upsets of all time via submission, which is the unforgettable triangle choke he laced up on prestigious Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko, who overtook Nogueira's throne in the Japanese fight league, handing "The Last Emperor" his first legit defeat in the process.
While some don't care for Werdum -- maybe it's just because I was fortunate enough to stumble upon these videos from MiddleEasy.com's Layzie the Savage a few years ago, but I've always found him to be extremely likable, humble and humorous in his own way. It started with this short clip revealing that Werdum's rug was eerily similar to Fedor's infamous sweater ...
... strengthened with this stunning, Grand-Theft-Autolike display of Werdum's driving prowess ...
... and was consummated in full by Fabricio's spiel about his favorite MMA fighters, in which he lends much respect to Nogueira and does a priceless imitation of Nick Diaz' unorthodox boxing.
Or, if you're still not sold and open to crude humor, Werdum also coined a solid meme-phrase in a Sherdog.com interview when describing his perception of 2-time opponent Alistair Overeem's arrogance as "a cock guy ... so much cock." Good times.
Though Roger Gracie is commonly referred to as "the best grappler on the planet," that accolade only pertains to sport BJJ while wearing a gi, as, along with Frank Mir and catch-wrestler Josh Barnett, Nogueira and Werdum have long cemented themselves as the cream of the crop for heavyweight MMA submissionists.
However, while Nogueira has a steep edge over Werdum as far as legacies and prestigious history are concerned, Nog's surplus of years (3) and gritty performances (20 more fights) now translate to frighteningly high mileage. Whether we're talking about Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva or Kazushi Sakuraba -- or any early great in any sport -- MMA pioneers who thrived in the past can't duck Father Time. Their joints creak wearily from eons of rugged implementation, the spring in their step dwindles, and they ultimately cannot perform with the fire and exuberance of the glory days. And, particularly for the MMA competitors whose indestructible chins carried them through troubled waters like a life preserver, strikes don't simply bounce off their beards unnoticed like they used to.
Werdum's no spring chicken at age 35, but having undergone half the debilitating wars of attrition with a third-less tenure in such a grueling sport presently translates to the shining benefits of savvy experience, while Nogueira's tumultuous track record stands as more of an eyebrow-raising disadvantage. In plain terms, heaps of high-level experience and emerging from soul-tempering clashes on countless occasions is an undeniable asset, but one with a definitive shelf life: I imagine Werdum is at the ideal trajectory in his career to reap those benefits while Nogueira is, for the most part, heavily burdened by them.
Egads! How about some hardcore fight talk already?
Secondary to his electric submission arsenal, Nogueira is known as a skilled boxer. This compliment comes with many disclaimers: Big Nog has, at times, displayed phenomenal offensive boxing -- such as the tight, 3-4 punch combos he floored Randy Couture with or the maelstrom of whirring leather he employed to part Brendan Schaub from consciousness -- but it's tough to give Nogueira high marks in boxing across the board, and specifying his "offensive" boxing was an intentional caveat.
As you might have derived, his striking defense leaves a little to be desired. In fact, Nog's modus operandi for dealing with incoming punches can be attributed almost solely to his bank-vault of a chin. His hand position is ideal for landing crisp hooks and uppercuts from low and wide-arcing angles, but the tradeoff is that his hand position is far from conducive to effective defense. Nogueira's head doesn't stay totally stationary, but the bulk of his head movement is when he's on the attack and bobbing and weaving in the pocket in order to exploit openings. His balance is sound but his footwork is altogether average, as Nog typically stands rather flat-footed, rarely uses any in-and-out motion, and often retreats in a straight line when pressed.
Compared to the standard collegiate wrestler, Nog's takedowns are below average but his unbreakable will and determination supplement his takedowns well enough to result in a fairly functional wrestling acumen. As a Judo black belt (just like Werdum), most of Nog's takedowns come in the form of trips and throws from the clinch, ideally with double underhooks or a full body-lock; he does have single- and double-leg takedown abilities but they've been the least prevalent and the easiest to defend. The same applies for Werdum so I don't perceive an advantage for either there.
I don't feel it's a stretch to assess that Nogueira doesn't fight much differently than he always has -- he's become more aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and made moderate adjustments in order to exploit those strengths and protect those weaknesses, but I don't think we can say that he's evolved tremendously over the years. Werdum, on the other hand, has.
He debuted in Pride as a one-dimensional submission grappler, then gradually showed improvements with his boxing. The noticeable advancement came under the tutelage of Master Rafael Cordeiro, the former coach of the widely feared Chute Boxe squad who later started the Kings MMA fight team in California. Werdum hasn't achieved the status of a top-level striker in MMA, but his fairly awkward and plodding boxing has methodically been hammered into the semblance of a legit Muay Thai striker with a dash of Capoeira influence from his brother.
As a nearly unparalleled submission grappler, however, Werdum's stand-up enhancements have made him much more complete as a fighter and serve as a trusty and reliable tool to take the focus off his intentions of forcing a grappling match. When you know your opponent wants the fight on the floor and his striking isn't worthy of your attention, you can simply tailor your defense to staving off takedowns. By notching his striking up a few levels, Werdum's opponents could no longer retain a careless attitude toward his standing attacks.
Werdum's sharpened kickboxing and more robust physical condition are likely behind his lead on the betting lines for this fight, and his nasty ground-and-pound could seal the deal (just ask Gabriel Gonzaga or Brando Vera) if he can get on top. In essence, I think that's mostly what this match up boils down to, which leaves "Vai Cavalo" as the sensible pick.
Given that line of thinking, allow me to play devil's advocate -- none of those advantages hold a ton of sway in what is an extremely even comparison of their submission grappling, nor do they endow Werdum with the fight-ending punching power he'd need to put Big Nog away. On the flip side, that statement does not apply to Werdum's deadly close-range knees, which are exponentially more fearsome because they're uncorked with the Thai plum or single collar-tie (or with no hands at all), and he's become quite comfortable throwing them in rhythm. Additionally, Nog has a bad habit of just lowering his head down to evade incoming strikes or, when his opponent comes in firing, dropping a level to attack the hips with takedown attempts -- both of which will place his melon directly in the sweet spot for Werdum's knee strikes.
I have no idea what may transpire between them in heated grappling encounters. As we saw with Nogueira vs. Frank Mir, it's a technical chess match decided by millimeters and fractions of a second, with enormous momentum swings or the entire difference in the fight hanging in the balance with each instinctual decision.
My intention with every Dissection is to lay out a fair and unbiased analysis of the key elements in a match up, and I hope I've done that here. As always, having presented an objective list of pivot points, I fully retain the right to pick whoever the hell I want to conclude the piece, and that's precisely what I'm doing.
My Prediction: Big Nog by unanimous decision.