On a summer evening seven years ago outside Tokyo, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira was seeking to bolster his already extraordinary mixed martial arts legacy. At 30, he'd already been the first man to wear the Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight belt. He'd won 27 fights, had been in the ring with Fedor Emelianenko three times and with Dan Henderson twice. Now "Big Nog" was looking to add a Pride Openweight Grand Prix title to his resume, and the only obstacle standing between him and the semifinals was a skinny jiu-jitsu player from Brazil.
Fabricio Werdum didn't give his countryman much trouble that night. The most generous thing you could say for him is that he survived the three rounds, during which Nogueira outclassed him when the fight was standing and even outmaneuvered him on the mat. Fabricio was thoroughly manhandled. But who would have expected anything different? While Werdum was just a year younger than Nog, he had far less MMA experience. He was coming off an impressive submission of the not-yet-bulked-up Alistair Overeem, but that win in the tournament's opening round was just the 10th pro bout for Fabricio. He'd made a name for himself as a grappler, but his pair of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championship gold medals didn't come to his aid when he was getting punched in the face.
"Nogueira was more experienced then," Werdum recently acknowledged, "and I got beat up in that fight."
Do you believe in revenge? Werdum and Nogueira, coming off a stint as coaches on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, meet again in the main event of a UFC fight card on Saturday night in Fortaleza, Brazil, that also will crown a TUF champion (8 p.m. ET, Fuel TV). The reality show was seen only in Brazil, so American fans won't have much emotional investment in the battle between Nogueira-coached fighters William Macario and Leonardo Santos for the UFC contract. But there'll be much interest in the main event. Beyond the opportunity for payback, there also will be extra incentive for Werdum, who has won five of his last six bouts and could be granted a title shot with an impressive performance.
That's the first hint that this is a rematch in only the literal sense. While Nogueira (34-7-1, 1 NC) was a fighter at the top of the MMA game the first time these men meet, he's now a weary war horse who's glacier slow -- at least in comparison to the smaller, speedier men now at the top of the heavyweight food chain -- and getting by on his rugged resiliency. Werdum (16-5-1), on the other hand, has rounded out his game, having added a Muay Thai black belt to his ones in jiu-jitsu and judo. He's no longer a one-dimensional grappler, as he showed in his first-round TKO of Mike Russow in his most recent fight last June. Having not fought in a year might have slowed his momentum, but as Werdum said when he spoke with reporters shortly after the Nogueira rematch was announced, "I'm much stronger now."
Werdum is also in a stronger position than his opponent. Nogueira is in the midst of an extended up-and-down stretch that's pushed him out of the title picture. Ever since 2008, when he beat Tim Sylvia for the interim UFC heavyweight belt, the resume of the man nicknamed "Minotauro" has been a checkerboard of success and failure. He lost the faux belt to Frank Mir in his next bout, then beat Randy Couture in his next, then fell to a pre-championship Cain Velasquez. After a year and a half on the shelf following knee surgery, he made a victorious return in August 2011 against Brendan Schaub. Less than four months later, though, he suffered two losses -- he lost a fight to Mir and lost the use of his arm for many months thanks to Frank's bone-breaking kimura. Last October "Big Nog" was back in the cage and finished Dave Herman. So, if we're keeping track of the pattern of ups and downs, Nogueira is now due for a loss, no?
Even a win wouldn't put Nogueira in a title fight, and he's not even sure he wants to work toward one. It depends on the outcome of the third meeting between Velasquez and former champ Junior dos Santos, a fight the UFC has announced will happen but has not yet given a date. Antônio and Junior are longtime friends and training partners on Team Nogueira, and like Cain and his American Kickboxing Academy buddy Daniel Cormier, they're not willing to fight each other. Not even for money. Not even for the belt. Said Nogueira of Dos Santos: "I saw this guy train since he was a purple belt."
Werdum has friends in Brazilian MMA gyms, too. He considers Nogueira among his heroes. But he has no conflict of interest in his career plan. "My biggest goal is to fight for the title," he said. "I have to win this fight in order to be in title contention."