Like many of his Pride contemporaries, much was expected of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira when he was signed by the UFC following the Zuffa acquisition of the vaunted Japanese organisation late in 2007.
He was after all one of Pride’s marquee names, having become their first heavyweight champion and having fought in numerous famous encounters. He was arguably the greatest heavyweight fighter the sport had seen, with the exception of Fedor Emelianenko.
Although he was in his 30s, the Brazilian was still near the top of the heavyweight landscape after defeating Josh Barnett in Pride Shockwave 2006 via unanimous decision. With fighters like Randy Couture and Tim Sylvia sitting at the top of a decidedly weak UFC division at that time, Nogueira was expected to garner the gold without too many problems.
Indeed with Emelianenko reluctant to sign with the UFC, Nogueira fans saw little that could go wrong. However, like many of the great Pride fighters found, competing in the UFC was far from a cakewalk.
For his debut Nogueira was paired against Heath Herring, another veteran of Pride. Although at one time Herring was arguably a top five heavyweight, his fighting reputation and record had taken a battering by the time of 2007. On paper this looked like a nice octagon warm up fight for the Brazilian, especially as he had already beaten the American twice before.
But in the first round Herring landed a surprise left high kick to the head of Nogueira which dropped the usually iron-chinned Brazilian to the floor. Nogueira was pretty much out of it and certainly there for the taking but Herring inexplicably pulled away and let the Brazilian back to his feet. Nogueira was able to recover and win the remaining rounds pretty comfortably to give him a unanimous decision.
His reward for surviving a major scare against Herring was a shot at Tim Sylvia for the UFC interim heavyweight championship. Sylvia dominated a stand-up from the off and had the Nogueira in real trouble when his punching combinations floored the Brazilian in the first. Sylvia took top position and pounded away but eventually allowed Nogueira to return to his feet.
After weathering further storms in the second round Nogueira was able to pull guard in the third. From there, with breathtaking speed, he secured a sweep and locked in a guillotine choke on his opponent for a memorable win.
Although for many it was yet another classic Nogueira comeback, more discerning fans noted warning signs that years of taking (and usually overcoming) punishment were catching up with the legendary fighter. He had seldom if ever been dropped and now he had been floored in consecutive fights against opponents’ he was heavily favoured to defeat.
It all came to a head for Nogueira in the Octagon when he fought rival TUF Season 8 coach Frank Mir at UFC 92. Mir won a very one sided fight knocking the Brazilian down twice in the first and again in the second where the fight was called off by the referee. It was the first time Nogueira had been stopped in his MMA career.
It was soon revealed that Nogueira had just recovered from a staph infection that had hospitalized him for five days in the build-up to the fight. This, and an apparent knee injury suffered in training, helped make some sense as to why he had seemed so lacklustre in a fight he was expected by many to win.
Following this major setback came a nostalgic match-up against octagon legend Randy Couture at UFC 102. Although it was far from vintage Nogueira, he outboxed his opponent – flooring him twice – on way to a unanimous decision victory. It was easily his best Octagon showing to that point.
Undefeated Cain Velasquez was next up for Nogueira in a classic youth versus experience match-up. However Velasquez made very short work of Nogueira dropping him early and landing brutal shots on the ground before the fight was called. Nogueira had now been stopped in two of his last three fights.
Despite calls for the former Pride champion to hang up his gloves after the defeat Nogueira vowed to fight on. "Even though I've lost my fight I'll always keep my head up," said Nogueira. "I'll be returning to the top again and I'll try to be the champion again in this division."
Various surgeries kept Nogueria out of action for about 16 months following his loss to Velasquez. His return bout was in Rio de Janerio against former TUF finalist Brendan Schaub at UFC 134 in the summer. In front of a partisan crowd and against a dangerous fighter in good form Nogueira stunned many by knocking out his opponent in the first round proving that there was still some life in the old dog yet.
And so came UFC 140 and a rematch with Frank Mir. Although Nogueira put on one of his finest Octagon displays and was on the brink of victory having dazed Mir with strikes, the Toronto event will forever be remembered for one thing - the moment Mir did the unthinkable and came back from the brink to break the arm of the legendary submission artist Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira!
Despite this brutal loss, Nogueira, typically, still believes he has plenty of fights left in him. He wrote on his blog: “I am sure I will fight for many years in my lifetime. I fight because I like it and because I feel like I am in one of the best phases of my career.”
If anyone can recover from such a downturn, it is Nogueira. Although his UFC run has been pretty disappointing, the fact that he’s still able to compete at the highest level speaks volumes. With CroCop having retired and Fedor Emelianenko seemingly out of the mainstream MMA picture right now, Nogueira – out of the Pride Holy Trinity of heavyweights - remains the last man standing.