Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who officially retired to take an office position with the UFC in Brazil, won championships in the UFC and Pride FC, and at one point, was considered the best fighter in the entire sport.
But his most memorable moment came against a fighter that nobody would take seriously today, but was taken very seriously at the time.
It was Aug. 28, 2002, and there were 71,000 fans in attendance for a Pride show at the outdoor Tokyo National Stadium, which to this day still stands as the largest assembly in MMA’s history. Bob Sapp, who came into the fight weighing 375 pounds of ridiculous muscle, had become one of the biggest celebrities in Japan. Nogueira who weighed 230 pounds, was at the time the Pride heavyweight champion. Sapp had less than three minutes of in-ring MMA experience in winning two fights against pro wrestlers Yoshihisa Yamamoto and Kiyoshi Tamura, the latter of which fought at 190 pounds.
If ever there was a match-up of size and power against technique, this was it. While Sapp would go on to become a joke of a fighter — who later in his career would tap out at the very sight of a punch headed his way — at that point in time he was a physical powerhouse who made Brock Lesnar look tiny. The Brazilian Nogueira was considered a master of submissions and the best heavyweight fighter at the time — if not the best overall fighter in the world.
Nogueira immediately went for a double-leg takedown, but Sapp easily blocked it, picked him up and dropped him on his head in what the Japanese fans called a ganso bomb, essentially an incredibly dangerous version of a pro wrestling power bomb. Sapp continued to overpower him until Nogueira reversed, got side position and busted Sapp up over the right eye. Sapp reversed and started pounding on Nogueira badly.
Nogueira would catch Sapp in triangles, but Sapp was so strong he would power bomb his way out.
The 10-minute first round seemed to last forever. Nogueira’s face turned into hamburger meat, long before he had that look permanently late in his career due to all the punishment he had taken. At different points, the fight was stopped to allow the doctor to check on the cuts of both men.
Nogueira was quicker and more skillful standing. But Sapp was so strong that he’d just shove Nogueira, and “Minotauro” would go flying. This spectacle looked more like a sci-fi movie fight where the lead character was locked in mortal combat with an gigantic member of an alien species. Nogueira decided to go for takedowns, and always wound up on his back, but at least he could try his submissions from there.
After the first round ended, which Sapp clearly won, the monster looked exhausted and Nogueira looked like a crazy man had attacked his face with an ax.
Bill Goldberg, who was doing commentary at the time, and who knew Sapp since both trained together for pro wrestling, noted that there wasn’t enough oxygen on the entire planet to fill up Sapp’s lungs. Nogueira grabbed an armbar and Sapp tapped at 4:03 of the second round, and the place went ballistic. Stephen Quadros, doing commentary, exclaimed that that performance turned Nogueira into a living legend of the sport. “The Fight Professor” was onto something.
One could say that particular fight told the story of the career of Nogueira. At his peak, he was far from the biggest, or the strongest, but in those early days, his jiu-jitsu was the equalizer when facing the biggest and the strongest. And nobody was more durable.
The problem with a fan favorite like “Big Nog” is that while turning apparent brutal losses into crowd pleasing submissions, it takes its toll. That toll was the last five-and-a-half years of Nogueira’s career where he won only two of seven fights in the UFC.
Nogueira’s career lasted 16 years, and what looks to have been his final fight took place a month ago. But the last time the near prime version of “Big Nog” showed up may have been his 2009 fight with Randy Couture, where he won a thrilling decision in a bout where Couture was able to survive multiple submission attempts. He may have hung around a little too long, but perhaps he was looking to turn the tables on his career, the way he did while thrilling fans in his most memorable fights.
Nogueira won born in Vitoria da Conquista, Bahia, Brazil on June 2, 1976, long after the television heyday of the sport in that part of the country. Growing up, he and his brother, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira — twins who are easily the most successful brother combination in the history of MMA — studied all forms of fighting, from boxing to judo. He became so well versed in jiu-jitsu that he was brought to the U.S. to fight on small shows in 1999.
From there, he was discovered by Akira Maeda, a Japanese fighting celebrity known for winning high-profile worked fights in his own RINGS organization. As Pride FC and Pancrase were starting to gain popularity in Japan, Maeda saw that his RINGS promotion — a group that he insisted wasn’t pro wrestling, when, for the most part, really it was — was doing a style that was about to be obsolete.
So he tried to turn things real and Nogueira became his best fighter. Nogueira dominated the first legitimate King of Kings tournament in 1999-2000, but lost a very controversial decision to Dan Henderson in the $250,000 final fight of a 32-man open weight tournament. He came back the next year, and dominated everyone, winning four of his five matches via submission and the other via a one-sided decision, establishing him as a star in Japan.
Pride, with stronger financial backing, lured him away from RINGS after his tournament win. In his second fight in the organization, he established himself as Pride’s best heavyweight with a submission win over Mark Coleman — the “Godfather of Ground & Pound” — on Sept. 24, 2001. Coleman, a year earlier, had won the biggest tournament in the history of the sport, the famous 2000 Pride Open weight Grand Prix tournament.
Coleman was considered the champion based on the tournament win, although technically there was no champion in Pride yet. Six weeks later, Nogueira beat Heath Herring at a sold out Tokyo Dome with 53,000 fans, in the fight to determine the first Pride world heavyweight champion. Nogueira went 6-0 in 2001, becoming the best fighter in Japan’s two biggest organizations. He went 5-0 in 2002. If it wasn’t for one man — Fedor Emelianenko — Nogueira would have remained undefeated through 2006.
Emelianenko was the one opponent the prime Nogueira couldn’t stylistically match. Emelianenko hit harder standing. His higher level judo allowed him to dictate where the fight would go, and he could take Nogueira down whenever he wanted. And his submission defense was such that Nogueira couldn’t finish him.
Emelianenko won the Pride title from Nogueira via decision on March 16, 2003, at the Yokohama Arena. But when an injury to Emelianenko caused him to miss a title defense on a Nov. 9, 2003, show, Nogueira had another version of the Sapp match, this time with a far more dangerous finisher, Mirko Cro Cop.
Cro Cop beat Nogueira half to death in the first round, but one mistake in the second round allowed Nogueira to get the armbar and win the interim heavyweight title.
The 2004 Pride heavyweight division was built around a 16-man heavyweight Grand Prix. Nogueira and Emelianenko, the two champions, were put on separate sides of the bracketing, seeded to meet in the finals.
That’s exactly what ended up happening. Each man won three times. This set up the finale, which ultimately played out as a very disappointing fight. Nogueira has many times felt that this was his night to beat Emelianenko. Unlike in their first and third fights, where he never really threatened much on offense, his ground game off his back was looking sharp early. Still, he never caught Emelianenko. After their heads collided, Emelianenko had a deep cut opened up and the fight was stopped and ruled a “no contest” due to the head-butt causing the cut.
But Emelianenko won the third fight on Dec. 31, 2004, the heyday of the New Year’s Eve fighting spectaculars that were a huge part of Japanese culture.
Nogueira capped off his championship career with a come-from-behind win once again, on Dec. 27, 2008.
By this point, Pride was no more, and the financial success of UFC on pay-per-view in 2006 allowed them to bring in many of Pride’s biggest stars. After Couture left UFC as heavyweight champion in a public battle with management, the UFC created an interim title, where Nogueira, the star Pride import, faced Tim Sylvia, who had held the UFC title twice.
Sylvia looked too strong early. His reach enabled him to get the better of the standing for two rounds, but Nogueira finished him in the third with a guillotine.
Nogueira, moving slowly due to knee and hip problems, and coming off a staph infection, looked like a fighter who needed to retire as Frank Mir lit him up and took his title in a major upset. Until that loss, Nogueira would have been either the No. 1 or No. 2 heavyweight in the sport for somewhere between eight and nine years, a period at the time matched but only a few fighters in the sport’s history. Given that longevity, Nogueira made good on Quadros’ prediction after the Sapp fight, and he has to be considered a no-brainer when it comes to a Hall of Fame induction down the line.
Yet it was that same mentality that caused him to never quit in his biggest wins, that saw him continually try and come back while clearly past his prime over the past six years. Even now, not having won a fight since 2012 and battling all kinds of injuries, he was still in recent weeks making noises that he wanted another shot at Mir. Yesterday’s announcement that he was taking the office job, acknowledging his retirement, was clearly the fight call, even if a little on the late side.