Former Pride FC and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champion, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, looks to submit mullet enthusiast and knockout artist, Roy Nelson, this Friday (April 11, 2014) at the Du Arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Since winning the title from Tim Sylvia in 2008, the legendary "Minotauro" has alternated wins and losses inside the Octagon. Unfortunately for the aging Brazilian, his losses have been consistently devastating, and his wins are no longer against the current cream of the crop.
Going up against a knockout artist like "Big Country" is risky for Nogueira, but it's a necessary challenge. Nelson has made his position of gatekeeper clear, and this fight will definitely state whether or not "Big Nog" deserves to face top 10 opposition and continue his career at the top of the mixed martial arts (MMA) world.
Will he pass this test?
Let's find out.
Between years of boxing training and some visits to the Cuban national boxing team, Nogueira's striking has improved greatly across his career. He's never been particularly fast, even for a heavyweight, but he has developed a rugged style that works well for him.
For a long time, Nogueira has had an effective jab. The Brazilian often begins his combinations with the jab but can also use it as a single shot. In his more recent fights, Nogueira has feinted a bit more than he used to before jabbing, although his feints tend to fade as the match goes on. Unlike many fighters, Nogueira's slower, thudding jab usually is used to force his opponent backwards rather than to control distance.
In addition, Nogueira uses his jab to counter his opponent's punches. Slipping down as he throws, Nogueira's movement lets him avoid his opponent's straight punches and jam his own jab into their nose. In his victory over Brendan Schaub, Nogueira repeatedly knocked "The Hybrid" backwards with this hard dipping jab as the Schaub threw.
Nogueira's straight right hand has become more powerful in the last couple years. He commits to the punch now, stepping in deeper. Plus, he often ducks as he throws and turns it into an overhand. These slight changes have had big effects, as Nogueira's been dropping his opponents more in his last six fights than the prior 38.
The reason that Nogueira commits more to his right hand is his new found affection for clinch striking. It makes sense that the lumbering Brazilian would like to fight in close, where his takedowns are more effective and his lack of head movement is less dangerous. To get to this position, Nogueira has stepped up his aggression while standing, both with feints and actually punches.
Once he secures the clinch, Nogueira is very good at utilizing his head to constantly work over his opponent. As the two fighters pummel for underhooks, Nogueira drives his forehead into his opponent's jaw, pinning him to the cage. This is not only frustrating, but it's painful and distracting as well. One of Nogueira's favorite positions along the cage is to grab an underhook, grind his opponent's jaw, and use his free hand to batter his opponent's face.
In his second bout with Mir, Nogueira was well on his way to victory thanks to his striking against the cage. Mir repeatedly grabbed Nogueira's left hand with both of his, looking to circle out. As he did so, Nogueira attacked his unprotected face with his free right hand. Mir eventually pushed him back but failed to circle away from the fence, allowing Nogueira to tee off on him with heavy punches.
Nogueira's lack of speed and head movement have long made him quite easy to punch. He has shown some defensive improvements in his last few fights, but years and years of abuse have probably made it a bit too late.
At his best, Nogueira is a slightly above average wrestler. His shot chaining and blast aren't anything special, but he's always been able to eventually drag his opponent down to the mat, usually after his face has been bloodied up.
A Judo black belt, Nogueira's best takedowns come from the clinch. In particular, Nogueira is very good at driving through his opponents with an outside trip once he achieves double underhooks. Additionally, Nogueira is pretty good at transitioning into a shot from the clinch position. When he starts his takedowns from the clinch, his success rate goes up, as much of Nogueira's wrestling problems stem from failing to get in on his opponent's hips in the first place.
When facing a strong striker who wants no part of clinch wrestling, Nogueira is usually forced to shoot a double from too far out. If he times his shot well, it works fine. But more often than not, his double is not powerful enough to blast an opponent off his feet from a distance. That means that "Big Nog" is getting sprawled on.
As his opponent sprawls, Nogueira hangs onto him. To complete the takedown and avoid being stuck underneath his opponent, Nogueira would use the sit out, one of his favorite moves. After grabbing one of his opponent's hands, Nogueira would swing his head out towards that side and shoot his hips in that same direction. This pushes his opponent forward, allowing Nogueira to come out the side. Depending on how his opponent reacted, a successful sit out lands "Minotauro" in either the guard, turtle, or side control.
It's fairly rare that Nogueira's opponent will try to take him down due to his dangerous guard game, meaning that takedown defense has never been one of Nogueira's priorities. On the other hand, Nogueira often looks to counter his opponent's takedown attempts with submissions, like the two anaconda chokes he used in the 2004 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Nogueira, a Pan-American champion and Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) competitor, is a third-degree black belt under Ricardo De La Riva. Famous for his complete faith in his jiu-jitsu, Nogueira has made a career out of catching skilled fighters in submission holds.
Off his back, Nogueira is equally talented at sweeping and submitting his opponent, as well as returning to his feet when that is his goal. This is important, as all these moves chain together and focusing on one section too heavily causes fighters to miss opportunities. Since he's excellent at all areas of grappling off his back, the Brazilian is quite fluid in his transitions.
One of the best sweeps that Nogueira hit came in his UFC bout against Randy Couture. "The Natural" was having a little bit of success from full guard, landing small punches and elbows. As Couture pushed his weight forward to land a shoulder strike, he became slightly off-balance. Noguiera, being the jiu-jitsu veteran, slightly shifted his weight and lightly removed Couture's base with his left instep. These very subtle movements sent Couture tumbling to his side, giving Nogueira the mount.
To check out the sweep, skip to 10:45. Or just watch the entire fight, it's definitely worth your time.
Nogueira's best guard position is undoubtedly his half guard. Not only does the Brazilian possess a wide variety of half guard attacks, but a majority of the fighters out of his camp also have nice sweeps from half guard. Whenever Nogueira is in half guard, he immediately gets the underhook and stays on his hip. These two things are key, as they allow "Minotauro" to either come up for a half guard sweep or throwing his opponent up to knock them off balance.
The most effective sweep in Nogueira's game is fairly unique to him, at least in MMA. While in the half guard, he'll secure a grip on his opponent's arm, the arm that is one the same side as his half guard. With his other arm, he'll reach underneath his opponent's leg. From this position, he can roll towards the side of his half guard while pulling the leg across his body. Since he's controlling the wrist with his own hand, his opponent cannot stop the sweep with that arm.
Check it out here.
If, for whatever reason, Nogueira cannot finish that sweep, he'll transition into the deep half guard. As he tries to roll his opponent up, he'll move his feet underneath his opponent's leg rather than wrapped around it. This allows him to elevate the leg, knocking his opponent off balance. From the deep half, Nogueira will attempt to either escape out the back door, roll his opponent over, move into a single leg, or stand back up using any of those moves.
The only person to successfully nullify Nogueira's half guard was Fabricio Werdum, the best heavyweight grappler to ever fight in MMA. Werdum's guard passing was just a step ahead of Nogueira's sweeps, allowing him to pass and land strikes. Once Nogueira realized this, he focused on working back to his feet from the half guard instead, which he was still able to do.
Nogueira's submission game from the full guard is very smooth. He excels at chaining his submissions together and catching his opponent while he's preoccupied with the last attempt. The armbar, omoplata, and triangle are very connected, and Nogueira switches between them like a much lighter grappler. In addition, Nogueira would attack with a kimura sweep whenever his opponent placed a hand of the mat, never letting his foe rest.
One of the biggest reasons Nogueira is so effective from the full guard is his grip strength. The Brazilian is famous for being able to hang onto his opponent's wrists and force them to try to out-grapple him, often resulting in a triangle or armbar. For an example of this, look at how he controls Tim Sylvia's wrist in the sweep that's posted above. Sylvia is a huge man and was in good shape at the time of their fight, controlling his wrist should not be easy.
From the top, Nogueira is very active in hunting for chokes and armlocks. He's also working towards a submission, even if just to open up a passing opportunity. Once he attacks, his transition game is still on point, as he flows around his opponent until he has no option but to submit.
Nogueira is a master of what I call panic submissions. When he takes a fighter to the ground that is NOT a grappling specialist, Nogueira is very quick to secure a dominant position. From there, he waits until his foe makes a move. Due to the fear of a submission, his opponent is often very quick to try and explode out of a position.
The problem with exploding out of a bad position is that it leaves openings. Whenever an arm is fully extending and pushing, a fighter attempts to quickly spin away, or the fighter bucks his hips as hard as possible, he always leaves some type of attack open for the top grappler. There's a reason those things aren't taught techniques, and Nogueira often shows precisely why.
For example, after two full rounds of getting the crap punched out of him by the gargantuan Tim Sylvia, Nogueira finally hit a sweep and landed in side control. Sylvia, anxious to return to having success, began to turn into Nogueira so that he could stand up. Nogueira gave "The Maine-iac" that space, knew he would try to rush back to his feet, and jumped onto his neck when he tried.
Best chance for success
Like in his other recent fights, Nogueira's goal in this fight should be the clinch. For the most part, Nelson has shown none of his feared knockout power when in close with his opponent. Since the knockout is almost certainly Nelson's only path to victory in this fight, smothering its chances would be a smart move.
Additionally, Nelson's cardio may not be a definite weakness, but it certainly isn't his strength. Nogueira, despite his age and sometimes appearance, has always been able to fight fairly well for a heavyweight going into later rounds. If he's able to latch onto Nelson and hammer away at the body, he'll almost certainly begin to take over in the later rounds.
Should the fight go to the ground, Nogueira needs to be very wary of winding up on the bottom. He's certainly capable of sweeping Nelson, but if he makes a mistake and allows Nelson to pass, it will be miserable for him. Nelson's very good at using his weight from the top, and "Minotauro" does not want to spend a round sucking wind underneath "Big Country's" big belly.
If he's on top of Nelson, Nogueira should be wary of attacking with high risk submissions. Like I said, being on the bottom is not ideal against Nelson. Instead, Nogueira should look to get to a position like mount or side control and just wear on Nelson. Being heavy and landing hard shots will sap Nelson's conditioning and will, and may eventually open up an easy submission.
See Nelson's breakdown here.
Can Nogueira continue to perform well into forty fights, or will Nelson send him a step closer to retirement with a big right hand?