A couple years ago it seemed like Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira was done for in the world of MMA. A holder of both the Pride and UFC heavyweight titles, “Big Nog” looked all but done after being destroyed by Cain Velasquez. UFC 134 was supposed to be his swan song against Brendan Schaub and then something funny happened: Nogueira looked rejuvenated against Schaub en route to knocking him out early in the second. A horrific loss to Frank Mir in which his arm was broken, a fight he nearly finished Mir in, and a beautiful armbar submission of Dave Herman have left the venerable heavyweight at a crossroads.
Does he have one last run in him … or have the years of fighting and the wars he’s been in have left him a shell? This weekend against fellow BJJ ace Fabricio Werdum (a rematch from Pride) should tell us everything we need to know about his future.
Fight Breakdown: This is a fun matchup because of how both fighters have changed in the length of time from their first matchup. Big Nog was the clear #2 heavyweight in the world back then, Werdum a world champion BJJ player without much of a striking game to speak of. Nogueira took a unanimous decision and in the years since both fighters would wind up in the UFC. Now, after coaching a season of “TUF: Brazil,” they meet in a fight with title implications.
Years after their first fight Werdum isn’t quite the straight BJJ player he used to be. He’s done his due diligence and brought his striking game up to par, holding his own with Alistair Overeem in a dreadful decision loss in Strikeforce and mauling Roy Nelson & Mike Russow in victory. Werdum’s striking has progressed in such rapid fashion you might forget that he’s a world champion on the mat. Werdum might have the best BJJ in the division and is apt off his back or standing now. He’s willing to go anywhere the fight takes him and in his past couple fights he’s been willing to strike with anyone.
Nogueira is the same way, albeit more boxing centric than the Muay Thai style favored by Werdum, and it’s why the fight is so fascinating to me. Both guys are willing to stand and trade despite grappling pedigrees, not pressing the ground game, and we could see a lot of different things.
The key here is whether either fighter can land big first. Both fighters are notoriously difficult outs but have been dispatched, though, by guys with substantial power. Both have also gotten rocked, as well, and managed to fight their way through it. They match up in such an interesting way that it’s hard to figure what’ll happen.
Nogueira has gotten a sneaky boxing game and strings together combinations well; Werdum has developed a terrific clinch and leg kick game over the past two years. Neither guy is above pulling guard, or sneakily doing so ala the Frank Mir crappy double leg into guard.
My guess? Werdum won’t go to the ground until he has to or unless Big Nog’s power gives him fits. His prowess standing has increased significantly to the point where he has had no problem standing for 15 minutes and he can get him at range and pick him apart. Big Nog can be pulled into a war on his feet and I think Werdum keeps it there.
Why It Matters: Werdum’s been promised a title shot if he wins, despite JDS/Cain III being booked, and with an emphatic finish he could be an injury replacement if JDS gets hurt. Realistically a win gets him one fight away, or in a holding pattern until that fight happens.
Nogueira gets back into the mix with a win here. He’s already been beaten by Cain, and JDS is his protégé, so getting into the mix brings with it a bunch of problems. A win here for him, though, probably gets him someone in a title eliminator.