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Opinion: Big Nog runs out of time

Following Big Nog's retirement, Phil Mackenzie looks back on the career of Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira and asks what it was that made Big Nog so special.

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by Phil Mackenzie
by Phil Mackenzie

Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira looks like one of the oldest 39-year-olds you've ever seen. Twenty years of the cage and the ring trampled his face into a duvet of tissue and incised permanent creases in his skin, like a timeline mapped out in glyphs of scars and breakages. Big Nog retired today, but he was a fighter. He sometimes gets called the Rocky of Mixed Martial Arts, because when he fought he'd get beaten down and then miraculously struggle back to victory. It's a lazy comparison, but back when he knocked out Brendan Schaub at UFC 134 in Rio it almost felt right.

Coming back after a long layoff and injuries, he was a heavy underdog to the bigger, younger and stronger fighter. To the surprise of almost everyone but Big Nog himself, Minotauro the famous submission artist pinned Schaub against the cage, countered a lazy uppercut with a one-two, and followed with a stream of punches that had the American slumping to the floor. It was the first UFC event in Brazil for eleven years, and the people in the crowd lost their minds for the hometown hero. They whooped and shouted and didn't know what to do with their hands so they pelted the octagon with plastic cups of beer as Nogueira climbed the cage. It would have been a good fight to end a career on.

However, the bad old Rocky comparison holds true again, because like the films about the Philly boxer, Nogueira didn't seem to know when to stop. In Abu Dhabi, the UFC's tubby gatekeeper Roy Nelson stalked Nog around the cage before clubbing him with an overhand, and Nogueira fell and bounced off the mat more like a straw dummy than a big man. Nog's countryman Fabricio Werdum was someone Nog had beaten a long time ago. They rematched at the close of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil, and this time Werdum was a couple of years younger in age and a couple of decades younger in fight time, and he cut Nogueira's outdated and athletically underpowered grappling game to pieces and tapped him out.

Those bouts were hard to watch; the kind which have friends and family awkwardly trying to convince the fighter that they should be looking for a way out, and leave the promoters wondering how to book them, and fans clamoring that they should retire, and Big Nog still insisted that he was able to fight, and after yet more injuries and surgeries he went in and fought again against Stefan Struve, and he lost again and... what else would we have expected? This is who he is, what he does.

After years in this sport, a short and exhaustive list of Nog's afflictions includes multiple hip, knee and hernia surgeries and at least one hospitalization for a staph infection. He reportedly went up against Dave "Pee Wee" Herman with a fractured rib; Sapp and Fedor both broke his nose; a metal plate and 16 screws held his humerus together after Mir snapped it with a kimura, and Werdum tore the ligaments in his elbow. Back at the earliest visible damage, a scar dents his back and flank where he was split open by a truck's wheels when he was a boy. Some say he's been blind in one eye for years and that he manages to get it past athletic commissions and the fight doctors. It's one of those self-perpetuating rumors which you have to hope is bullshit. Through this, Nogueira has a tangible good nature, a warm smile undiminished by the notches and crags of his face.

Intangibles

This old-before-his-time progeria that Nogueira embodies feels indicative of something about MMA itself. It's a hard, brutal, wearing sport, one which has aged (if not quite "matured") incredibly quickly. It exploded over the course of a few decades, and transformed from a visceral sideshow into a hugely moneyed and internationally popular visceral sideshow. It generated its own brief history and its own raw landscape as it expanded.

In order to establish understandable cartographies, markers and signposts are made so that a fighter can be allotted their place in this landscape as an Ultimate Fighting Champion or a PRIDE Grand Prix winner. Things like victories over top ten fighters and close contests against the greatest offer a way to add up what the sport looks like and who was important. So, the landscape becomes something that we look back over and attempt to understand at the fulcral moments when someone wins a belt or retires.

Let's run with the idea of mapping history. What's the landscape itself made of? Like any geology, it's a mixture of the semi-permanent and the transitory; analogues of rock, soil, and grass. For Nog's most solid achievements, he won the PRIDE heavyweight belt and became the UFC interim heavyweight champion. Is he the third best heavyweight of all time? The fourth? He's only going to slide down the list from now on.

However, MMA is "mixed" martial arts, and so it's always been a Frankenstein made out of bits and pieces of the past. The promotional sides were thrown together from a combination of boxing and pro-wrestling. On the technical side, fighters went digging in the interstices between striking and grappling, where they found techniques a hundred years old or more, and then took them out like they were new. What this stitched-together beast needed was something intangible to animate it: it needed its own stories to bring it to life. This, I think, is where Nogueira really lived.

Rings, PRIDE and the UFC

"Most of the fighters think that everything is physical. I think the mental part is everything. You've got to keep it right. Sometimes a fighter's stronger than me or has better skills, but it's hard to find a fighter who's stronger mentally than me. I know that." -Nogueira, to Thomas Gerbasi

Nogueira debuted in 1999. Uncharacteristically for a Brazilian fighter he went straight to the US, and from there he went hunting for glory in Japan, where the combination of pro wrestling and what would become mixed martial arts was bringing in record crowds. He joined the Rings promotion, and fought Valentjin Overeem, Dan Henderson, Jeremy Horn, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and others, but it wasn't until he went to PRIDE that he became the fighter that people would know and love.

You might think that he's Minotauro because of an ability to bull forward and rush his opponents to the ground. He's not, and he wasn't ever really all that good at taking people down. It was just because he was big and strong, compared to his friends and team-mates around him. He didn't look big and strong against Bob Sapp; a behemoth who probably outweighed him by a hundred pounds and who threw him around the ring, driving him headfirst into the canvas in a gruesome-looking piledriver.

For some context: matches at this point then were still largely asymmetric, and in MMA, as in most things, asymmetry doesn't lend itself to back and forth competition. If the better wrestler took down his opponent, and if he had good submission defense, then he likely won. If the better striker stopped his opponent's takedowns, then he won. If fights weren't necessarily easy to predict, then the narratives were established quickly after they started.

One reason why there's been such an increase in competition in recent years is that the fighters are much more rounded. The bout becomes less about playing a card which the opponent can't counter, and more about the arrangement in which the cards are played, but back in McCain's "human cock-fighting" years, if you tuned in to watch Fighter X wreck Fighter Y, the chances are that what you watched would be one-sided; unlikely to dispel any prejudices that the main appeal of this so-called sport was in its brutality, and that it was martial arts freed from breaking boards and ice blocks and turned to breaking people open like bags of ballistic gelatin.

So, it was shocking when the Brazilian suddenly turned the Sapp fight around, when he dragged the far larger man to the ground and submitted him with an armbar. More than that, crucially, it made for a story. Anyone could watch it and instantly understand the dynamics of a man losing, but then, somehow, refusing to lose. It was something that would be Big Nog's stock in trade.

When Cro Cop battered the Brazilian for a round and dropped him, Minotauro roared out for the second, took the kickboxer down and armbarred him from the mount. Even in his losses, when Fedor rained down ground and pound which echoed meaty, butcher-block impacts around the Saitama arena, Nogueira seemed a long way from beaten. The saying became the mantra:

"Big Nog never really loses- he just runs out of time."

When he eventually went to the UFC, that myth teetered on a knife edge when Heath Herring knocked him down with a headkick and virtually KOed Nog clean, but maybe the myth itself saved him: Herring refused to follow up to finish him, and ended up dropping a decision. Nogueira reaffirmed his seeming-invincibility against Tim Sylvia, when he dropped two rounds but then miraculously pulled guard, swept the bigger fighter, and baited him into a guillotine choke. It would be the last anyone saw of Nogueira the unstoppable legend. After a staph infection, he was knocked out by Frank Mir, and spent the rest of his UFC career trading wins and losses until the end.

There at the close, that final Struve loss: it was bad. But it wasn't so bad. After the broken arm and the knockouts, it was at least a Big Nog fight. In shades of the old Pride freakshows, he was fighting someone far bigger than him. He waded forward through kicks and jabs without the power to get to the Dutchman or the flexibility to take him to the floor; a shell driven forward by nothing more than that flickering, indomitable will. He kept doggedly coming forward, until he ran out of time.

Reverberations

To me, this is what Minotauro is: perhaps more than anyone else, he laid the old concept of the comeback back over MMA. He brought some life to the MMA landscape; and what he accomplished was in the intangibles more than it was in anything solid. He wasn't the first, but he was the most visible part of something which turned fights from spectacles back into stories, and lent a little humanity to what was and often remains an inhuman sport.

Fighting is unkind to fighters, particularly the ones like Big Nog. Those that refuse to submit to injuries or knockouts get worn down and torn up in the end. History is unkind to intangibles, when the fine details in the map blur and the earth which surrounded and supported rock is eroded and washed away by time. As MMA carries on, quick and merciless as usual, this will likely happen to Nogueira; is happening already. He'll be relegated to an interesting footnote in the story of Fedor, or Cain, or Werdum, and they'll be eclipsed by someone who comes after them. This gradual smoothing and erasure brings with it its own small kindnesses. People will forget that Nog had some antiquated views on homosexuality, and that he could be less than equable when it came to giving reasons for his losses.

However, beyond this, concepts and memories are lost, but impacts last. Reverberations take longer to fade. The fighters who trained at Team Nogueira like Junior Dos Santos, Jacare Souza, the Pitbull brothers, and Anderson Silva have all had their own effects on the world of MMA. They themselves put out their own ripples which will continue to propagate.

Beyond this, there's the value of the people who watched fighters like Big Nog and decided that this was the sport for them. Perhaps, like me, you watched fuzzy, low-res fights on burned CDs or shoddy streaming sites or DVDs and Nogueira was one of the first fighters who flipped that switch which suddenly changed them from atavistic freakshows into somewhere that those romanticized traits like heart and will didn't just live, but thrived. That small, subtle sea-change: how many people did it affect; how much is it worth? We'll never know.

To close, I think my favorite quote regarding Minotauro is from Sam Sheridan's book A Fighter's Heart. Sheridan goes to stay with Big Nog and his friends before the second Fedor fight. Of course, he loses the fight in the end, but he says goodbye to Sam in the Saitama Super Arena afterwards.

"Rodrigo, with his face starting to swell, hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and I was filled with love for the guy. He just has a lot of love in his heart. It's what has made him.

Love has given him belief in himself. It's what makes a dog fight past forty-five minutes. Love is what makes us great, and this display of strength, heart, and love is what brings us to all the fights."