Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight kingpin, Mauricio Rua, looks to even the score against fellow mixed martial arts (MMA) legend, Dan Henderson, this Sunday (March 23, 2014) at Nelio Dias Gymnasium in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.
After a dominating run in Pride FC that saw him win the 2005 Grand Prix tournament, Rua came into UFC with high expectations. Whether he lived up to them is debatable because Rua has looked both phenomenal and mediocre across his tenure inside the Octagon.
Nonetheless, it's hard to be overly critical -- Rua did become a UFC champion by giving Lyoto Machida his first loss in a pair of duels with "The Dragon."
In his last two bouts, "Shogun" demonstrated how different he can look in fights just six months apart. Chael Sonnen tapped a slow Rua quickly, while James Te Huna got put to sleep in a mere 63 seconds by a fleet-footed Brazilian.
Can he begin to establish some type of consistency against "Hendo?"
Let's find out.
Across his career, Rua has spent time with some of the most recognizable coaches in combat sports. From Rafael Cordeiro at Chute Boxe to Freddie Roach, Rua's been developing his skills for a long time. Though he has some flaws, his striking has lead to 19 knockouts, so he's doing something right.
In recent years, there are two clear versions of "Shogun." Depending on his combination of motivation, or lack of, and injuries, Rua can either look elite and conditioned or like he's moving through molasses. To tell which version of Rua will perform is simple: check to see if he kicks.
Earlier in his career, Rua relied on his heavy kicks to brutalize his foes and set up his punches. At times, he still does just that and generally looks very good when he does (see either Machida bout). In other cases, Rua will plant his feet and exchange knockout blows with his opponent (see his first bout with Henderson). Within the first minute of his upcoming bout, watch Rua and see if he kicks.
Then, it will be clear which version of Rua is showing and what parts of this breakdown apply to him.
When Rua throws kicks, he really turns his hip over, making them especially devastating. The negative to this is that his kicks are a bit slower and easier to see coming. Overall, Rua's leg kicks are his most devastating attack, as they chip away at his opponent, slow him down, and make ensuing leg kicks easier to land. In addition, his high and body kicks are very powerful as well.
Though they're now illegal, it's worth mentioning that Rua's soccer kicks and stomps were incredibly deadly back in Pride FC as well.
Inside UFC, Rua used his kicks best in his first bout with Machida. Rua solved the riddle by forcing Machida backward with punches, then kicking at his legs while Machida backed away. Though Machida landed plenty of strikes by countering Rua as he moved forward, he also absorbed enough kicks to seriously impair his ability to move. By the end of the fight, Rua was able to land most of his punches as well as kicks, bloodying up the Karate fighter.
In his last fight, Rua threw about four feeler kicks in the first minute of action. He also quickly circled when Te Huna pinned him against the fence, rather than try to slug it out. The fight didn't last long enough to show Rua's cardio, but it was the best he has looked in years.
Rua's aggressive boxing style can be both effective and sloppy. He likes to walk his opponents down with looping power shots, but his defense is iffy. When Rua is feinting and focuses on slipping shots, his defense works quite well. Other times, he steps in predictably and with little movement, leaving openings for skilled strikers to capitalize on.
Though he mixes in a rare jab, Rua primarily throws uses his left hand to throw a hook. He can use it in combination with his right well, but it's most dangerous when he lunges in with it from far out. If his opponent backs away from the strike, Rua will follow up with a hard leg kick or right hand.
Last Summer, Freddie Roach mentioned that he believed "Shogun's" improved left hook would help him defeat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, a fight that eventually was scrapped. However, Roach's faith was not misplaced, as Rua knocked out Te Huna with a beautiful counter left hook last December in a nice example of Rua's counter striking.
Rua is rightfully confident in the power of his right hand. Regardless of the angle he puts on it, Rua steps deep into the strike and fully commits. Because of this confidence, Rua is more than willing to stand in the pocket and trade punches. It's risky, and Rua has taken plenty of damage over the years, but it works out for him more often than not.
Rua's power punches are most effective when he's able to slip his opponent's strike and counter. When "Shogun" relies on head movement to avoid punches, he's able to stay safe and do damage. Plus, it's good for his conditioning to not eat punches. An excellent example of Rua's counter punching is the second Machida bout, as Rua slipped an uncharacteristically aggressive Machida's left hand and landed an overhand, earning the knockout and strap.
For better or worse, Rua absolutely loves the uppercut. It works well when he pins his opponent against the fence and mixes it into combinations. He'll also throw it as a lead with his hands down by his waist, which lands absurdly hard but is also pretty easy to counter.
Another tool that Rua has utilized in a very long time is his clinch. At this point, his ability in this area may or may not have declined, but it's worth mentioning. Back in PRIDE FC, Rua blended his strikes, knees, and elbows expertly, controlling and breaking off the Muay Thai clinch at will. Once Rua begins throwing knees, he's incredibly aggressive and will keep throwing until his opponent folds.
Rua's defense varies from fight to fight. When he's feinting, moving, and slipping punches, Rua's defense works well. On the other hand, when he plants his feet and just throws, he's not even remotely difficult to hit.
Rua does not often utilize his wrestling skills, but they tend to appear under two circumstances: Rua is facing a dangerous striker (Cyrille Diabate, Brandon Vera) or he is terribly tired.
When he's wrestling at his best, Rua relies on his takedowns from the clinch. Rua generally either attacks with an outside trip or changes levels, where he latches onto his opponent's hips and drags him to the mat in a sort of double leg/double underhook hybrid. His clinch takedowns don't look like much, but they have worked on a surprising number of solid grapplers, such as Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson.
For whatever reason, Rua only really shoots doubles when he's extremely tired. As expected of a fatigued fighter, the shots really are not fast. However, if he gets in on his opponent's hips and pins them against cage. If he gets there, he actually finishes the takedown with a decent amount of success.
It may not be pretty, but Rua's a strong-willed fighter even while tired.
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). His posture is quite strong, allowing him to create the space necessary to do damage. Posturing up and dropping down bombs is one of the Brazilian's favorite ways to fight, as he does a ton of damage from there. Additionally, Rua passes guard as he dives in with punches. In order to do this, he throws his opponents legs to the side in the midst of the chaos, which his dangerous punches do a superb job of causing.
One strike that Rua has used across his career is the hammer fist, as Rua delivers the hammer fist as well as any other fighter. The reason it works so well for him is that he puts a solid snap into it and delivers multiple hammer fists in rapid time. Perhaps most importantly, he's accurate with them, landing directly on the jaw.
Rua's takedown defense is fairly average but declines as fatigue sets in. Machida and Sonnen had success using clinch takedowns against Rua despite his success in that area, while the 2009 version of Mark Coleman landed a couple double leg takedowns, which is hardly a good sign. On the plus side, Rua is very good at getting back to his feet, both via guard work and wall-walking.
Following his 2005 Grand Prix win, Rua was awarded his black belt by Antonio Schembri. Although he's been submitted three times and only has a single win via submission, Rua has a fairly advanced grappling game.
The highlight of Rua's grappling game is his variation of deep half guard. While tying up the far leg with his own legs, Rua reaches under the near leg and underhooks it. From there, he pulls the leg toward his face, forcing his opponent to balance between the two legs. In this position, he can elevate his opponent's other leg, giving him a variety of options.
Once he's in this position, "Shogun" can escape out the back door, which he'll occasionally attempt. However, he can also extend his legs, which forces his opponent to widen his stance. Then, he can wrap up the near leg with both of his own, known as reaping the knee, allowing him to attack the leg in a variety of ways.
Rua's sole submission finish came against Kevin Randleman in 2006. Rua immediately went to his deep half and began rocking back and forth. Next, he reaped the knee, which put him in the heel hook position, a move which he attempts, before transitioning to a twisting foot lock and sweeping Randleman.
It's clearly painful, as Randleman yells out.
"Shogun" 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 leglock moment in Rua's career occurred in the third round of his bout with Henderson. "Hollywood" had just knocked Rua down, and it appeared that a finish was en route. However, Rua managed to elevate Henderson, which prevented him from landing punches. A transition to a heel hook failed to finish, but it bought Rua enough time to recover.
Without it, Rua may never have lasted long enough to stage his phenomenal comeback.
A final leglock technique that Rua has attempted quite a few times is the drop-down heel hook from the back clinch. While controlling his opponent's back, 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. It hasn't worked yet and usually ends with Rua on the bottom, but he repeatedly tries it.
The other submission Rua often attacks with is the omaplata. His set up isn't complex, he just frames the face while grabbing his own foot if his opponent puts his 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.
The final technique that Rua uses from his half guard is a stand up. After failing to sweep or submit his opponent, Rua will secure an underhook and sit up into either half guard or butterfly. From there, he can usually stand up by digging into the underhook and getting his feet underneath him.
I put that little blurb at the end of this section and not with the other guard work because it directly relates to his submission defense. Rua is very aggressive with his stand up from the guard. He's over-confident in his underhook, and both "Babalu" Sobral and Sonnen managed to grab a guillotine while he scrambled out of that position. After some adjustment, both fighters secured all-neck guillotines from full guard and managed to finish.
The fights may have been a decade apart, but the finish sequences were shockingly similar. Rua, off of his back, got an underhook and tried to stand. His opponent latched on to his neck as he did so. From there, "Babalu" snapped him back down, transitioned between a couple different guillotines, and eventually finished from guard. Similarly, Sonnen switched his grip, but then he pulled guard and finished, whereas Rua managed to force Sobral to his back despite the guillotine.
Rua could have gotten out of both guillotines, but he kept pushing forward instead of dealing with the threat. If Rua again finds himself in this situation, he needs to clear his neck before doing anything else. Otherwise, he'll end up in a terrible spot, trapped, and be forced to submit... again.
Best Chance For Success
As Vitor Belfort just showed, Henderson is not impossible to counter. Rua can absolutely capitalize on this and should do so early, as "Shogun" needs to earn Henderson's respect early, something he failed to do in the first bout.
If Rua is up for it, he really should focus on circling more, rather than just brawling with Henderson. I really like how he fought against Te Huna, even if it was brief. Moving, kicking, and countering will work against Henderson, should Rua have the motivation, conditioning, and dedication to the game plan to do it.
Another tool I'd love to see Rua utilize is his body kick, or just body shots in general. Both fighters are difficult to finish, meaning that there's a good chance this fight lasts to the championship rounds. Those body shots will add up and quicken Henderson's inevitable fatigue, which can only help him.
Will Rua rise to the occasion or can Henderson earn a second victory over the deadly Brazilian?
To see a complete fighter breakdown of Dan Henderson click here.