Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight champion, Mauricio Rua, is set to take on "The Gangster of West Linn," Chael Sonnen, this Saturday (Aug. 17, 2013) in the main event of UFC Fight Night 26, which takes place at TD Bank Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Shogun" has had a long and storied mixed martial arts (MMA) career, becoming famous for both his devastating killer instinct and horrendous knee injuries. Rua is an enigma -- fans never know whether to expect a lightning fast Muay Thai assassin or flat-footed brawler.
Rua became a household name in the sport after a devastating run in Pride FC, bringing plenty of hype with him into the Octagon. However, he got off to a poor start, losing to Forrest Griffin, who had at that point never been considered a contender. Rua followed this fight with a uninspired performance against Mark Coleman, although he scored a knockout in the waning seconds of the bout.
The Brazilian next faced UFC Hall of Fame inductee Chuck Liddell and looked better than he had in years, deftly out-striking "The Iceman" before knocking him out near the end of the first round. This earned him a title shot against Lyoto Machida, the undefeated Karate master who was looking to reign over the 205-pound division.
"Shogun" wasn't frightened by the myth of "The Machida Era" and dueled with him twice, first losing a very controversial decision and then knocking him out. Once again looking like the killer he was in Pride FC, Rua went back under the knife before losing his title to upstart Jon Jones. Since then, Rua has alternated wins and losses, but hasn't looked the same.
Does Rua still have enough left in the tank to take out Sonnen?
Let's take a closer look at his skills to find out:
Rua has trained under a "Who's Who" of combat sports, including Rafael Cordeiro, a former trainer at the legendary Chute Boxe academy, and Freddie Roach, one of the most respected boxing trainers on the planet. Under their tutelage, "Shogun" became a devastating striker ... if a flawed one.
The best part of Rua's striking is likely his kicks. The Brazilian has absolutely devastating kicks and sets them up better than most fighters. While he is most effective with his leg kicks, Rua is quite dangerous with kicks to the head and body. Unlike many fighters, Rua turns his hips all the way over, giving his kicks much more power. While they are now illegal, Rua's most effective kicking technique may be soccer kicks and stomps, finishing multiple fights with them.
One fight that stands as a testament to Rua's kicking ability is his first fight with Machida. Despite the controversial ending (which is becoming quite common in Machida fights), Rua was able to seriously damage "The Dragon" with repeated blows to the inside and outside of his leg. Capitalizing on Machida's tendency to retreat, Rua would chase him backward with punches and end his combo with a leg kick. By the fifth round, Machida's mobility was limited and Rua was able to land solid punches.
"Shogun" has a unique, but sometimes sloppy, boxing style. Rua rarely throws any straight punches, preferring to throw looping power shots. This works well when he feints and slips punches, but makes him an easy target should he neglect to do either.
Additionally, his spotty cardio can further weaken his defense.
One of Rua's trickiest strikes is his lunging left hook. He manages to cover a lot of distance with this punch. and if he misses, he can throw a leg kick or follow up right hand. Rua notably knocked out Liddell with this lunging left, getting to Liddell's chin seconds before he could do the same. While Rua makes very effective use of his left hook, he doesn't use his left hand for much more.
Most of Rua's power strikes come from his right hand. Be it a hook or overhand, Rua steps in deep and throws hard. More often than not, Rua is willing to exchange in the pocket and rely on his heavy hands to win the fight. It may be a risky style, but it's earned Rua legions of fans and multiple fight night bonuses.
"Shogun's" power punches are most effective when he's able to slip his opponent's strike and counter. When Rua relies on movement to avoid punches, rather than just absorbing the shots, his offense is much more effective as he's able to land at his range more often. Rua's countering was on point in his championship match against Machida, when he capitalized on the unusually aggressive Machida with an overhand, earning a first round knockout victory.
One of Rua's favorite strikes is the uppercut. Rather than mixing it into his combinations or trying to catch his opponent ducking, Rua throws the uppercut from the waist, mostly as a lead. While both easy to counter and not particularly fast, it is quite devastating when it lands. Additionally, it can be used to counter his opponent's takedown attempts.
Finally, Rua will also use his uppercut when he's in close with his opponent, like he did to both Coleman and Quinton Jackson.
"Shogun" is a nasty striker at range, but he is even more of a mauler in the clinch. Expertly blending in punches and elbows with brutal knees, Rua is able to control his opponent from the Thai plumb and do serious damage. He either continues attacking with knees until his opponent foldds, or breaks away and throws a barrage of punches. While Rua hasn't relied on his clinch knees in years, it's still a dangerous tool in his arsenal.
When Rua is healthy and in good shape, his defense is actually pretty good. However, when he's injured or gassed, it's atrocious. He doesn't move his head at all, which makes him very easy to hit. While this is far from good, his worst trait is his willingness to stand inside his opponent's range without throwing strikes or feinting. At this range, it's absurdly easy to hit him, and he offers no resistance.
While far from a wrestling specialist, Rua is a capable of taking down talented grapplers. In his Pride FC days, Rua often relied on his takedowns when facing dangerous strikers such as Cyrille Diabate. More recently, Rua dominated Brandon Vera on the ground in the first round of their fight.
When Rua needs to bring the fight to the mat, he mostly relies on clinch takedowns. He generally either does one of two things from the clinch: Get lower than his opponent's hips and drag them down, or go for a trip. Both of these are surprisingly effective, as Rua's been able to takedown many top fighters such as Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin.
When Rua is desperate or tired, he will shoot for takedowns. They aren't particularly fast, but Rua is quite effective if he can pin his opponent against the cage. From that position, he does a pretty good job of lifting his opponent up from his feet, rather than his knees, which is a common mistake. His shot may not be pretty, but his determination often manages to get the fight to the mat.
Once "Shogun" gets on top of his opponent, he's in a great position to do serious damage. Rua loves to dive in with a big punch (or kick), and refuses to allow his opponent to control his posture. Posturing up and dropping down bombs is one of the Brazilian's favorite ways to fight, and he'll often work to pass as he does. Rua loves to combine ground strikes with the "Rape choke," a signature Chute Boxe technique where the user grabs his opponent's neck with one hand while bashing with the other.
One of Rua's favorite ground striking techniques is the hammer fist. Rua's hammer fists are very accurate, often landing directly on the chin, and really land with a snap rather than a push. Additionally, hammer fists are Rua's go-to technique when he's hurt his opponent and is aiming for a finish.
Rua's takedown defense is rather inconsistent. Despite his clinch prowess, he's vulnerable to clinch takedowns, as Machida showed in their second match. His double leg defense isn't spectacular either, considering the fact that a very old Coleman still had plenty of success out-wrestling Rua despite his lack of working joints. To counteract this, Rua has gotten pretty good at getting back to his feet after he's taken down, as well as an offensive guard game.
After winning the Pride FC World Grand Prix in 2005, Rua was awarded his black belt by Antonio Schembri. Despite just one submission victory, Rua has a very good ground game.
Before talking about Rua's deep half guard and leg lock attack, which is clearly his bread and butter, it's worth mentioning his aggressive omoplata attack. Rua's preffered way to get into the omoplata is to frame his opponent's face/chest with one hand while pulling his own ankle up with the other. It's important to note that he can't use this move unless his opponent leaves a hand on the mat.
While he has yet to finish one, he did sweep both Coleman and Ricardo Arona with omoplatas. The latter is very impressive, as Arona is an ADCC champion and an expert at controlling foes from the top.
Rua's preferred guard position is a variation of the deep half guard. The deep half guard is a position where the bottom grappler tries to off balance his opponent by getting in deep under a single leg and lifting his opponent's other leg up with his own feet, thus removing his base. This allows the bottom grappler to roll his opponent, escape out the back door, or as "Shogun" prefers, attack with leg locks. Here is an example of Rua trying to off balance his opponent from the deep half position.
Randleman is the only person Rua has ever submitted in an MMA bout. After an early takedown, Rua immediately went to his deep half and began rocking back and forth (above). Next, he threw his outside leg across Randleman's, which is known as reaping the knee. This puts him in the heel hook position, a move which he attempts, before transitioning to a twisting foot lock and sweeping Randleman.
Rua then continues to seek out heel hooks and toe holds while controlling the leg from the top position. Eventually, Rua sees an opening and jumps on a kneebar. Tucking Randleman's foot underneath his armpit, Rua just has to lean back to put immense pressure on "The Monster's" kneecap and ligaments.
Another very important leg lock in Rua's career is the one he attempted in the third round of his grueling war with Dan Henderson. Rua had just been clobbered with an "H bomb" and was eating Henderson's followup punches. It didn't look good for the Brazilian, but he managed to persevere by latching onto "Hendo's" ankle. This bought him a few precious seconds to recover and allowed him to get back into the fight.
The last leg lock technique Rua goes to is his drop down heel hook from the back clinch. After securing a back clinch on his opponent, Rua will step in between his opponent's leg with one foot and then sit down. While sitting, he'll throw both of his legs around one of his opponent's, effectively ending up in the heel hook position. Frankly, it hasn't worked out well for him yet, but Rua continues to try it. This attack can be seen in the Liddell takedown .gif.
In addition to his offensive guard game, Rua has an aggressive guard passing game. Mostly, Rua likes to dive into his opponent's guard with punches and then try to throw himself around their legs as they're dazed. Once he passes their guard, Rua will go to either knee on the belly or mount and continue to drop big punches.
While two of "Shogun's" seven losses are by submission, I don't believe he has a submission defense problem. His guillotine loss to "Babalu" Renato Sobral was a decade ago, and his submission loss to Griffin was because of cardio and injury problems, not a lack of technique.
Best chance for success
Rua is facing a grinding wrestler with poor submission defense, a type of fighter Rua has historically had much success with. Luckily for Rua, Sonnen is a natural Middleweight, which should mean Rua will have an advantage when it comes to defending takedowns.
"Shogun" needs to force Sonnen backward. Sonnen is a pressure fighter, meaning he excels, both with takedowns and standup, when he is forcing the action. If Rua can keep Sonnen on his heels, he'll be able to land more effective strikes while minimizing the chance of ending up on his back.
Rua's most effective tool for this fight might just be his leg kicks. A five round fight, Rua will have plenty of time to systematically destroy Sonnen's shot and power punches by cracking his lead leg. Since Sonnen will most likely need to go to a decision to win, it's in Rua's best interest to attack with strikes that impair Sonnen's ability rather than head hunt early.
Finally, Rua should be as active as possible from the bottom. Sonnen has always had trouble with skilled guard players and has even been heel hooked in the past. Although if Rua finds the opportunity to sweep or stand up, he should prioritize that over submission attempts, as doing damage early should be one of his biggest priorities.
Does Rua have what it takes to begin his ascent back to the title or will Sonnen grind down another opponent?
Tell us what you think about the UFC's first event on Fox Sports 1, Mauricio Rua vs. Chael Sonnen, or any other fight on the card in the comments section below. And for a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Sonnen be sure to click here.