Mixed martial arts, like so many sports, is full of intangibles. Toughness. Self-belief. Cunning. Intimidation.
In the most obvious context, of course, bigness is as tangible as it gets. The day before a bout, each combatant steps on a scale in his skivvies in front of a howling crowd that has come to the arena to watch a bunch of muscular men (and sometimes women) get weighed. Also on hand, because why not, are a pair of too-jaded-to-blush octagon girls, who don't even have to walk around holding up a cardboard sign with the fighter's weight on it. They just stand about smiling as the vital statistic is announced, right down to the tenth of a pound. Tangible.
But for the most part, bigness is relative. On Friday, the UFC's octagon was set up in the middle of a temporary outdoor arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, halfway around the globe and as far from Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world, as one's imagination can fathom. The card had just eight bouts rather than the usual 10 to 12, and they aired live in the U.S. during the middle of the workday on the promotion's online streaming service, whose subscription base is a work in incremental progress. By almost any measure, this was not a feature event in MMA.
Still, the main event pitted Big vs. Big. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira is so enormous a figure in the sport that he goes by two nicknames, one of them "Minotauro," the other "Big Nog." His opponent, Roy Nelson, has a big belly, ample presence and just one nickname, though it's highly descriptive: "Big Country." They're heavyweights. Big.
The biggest thing about their fight, though, was all but guaranteed to be its aftermath. Both men are 37-years old, and neither is at the top of his game. Nelson came in having lost two fights in a row, and Nogueira had dropped three of four. But the UFC heavyweight division is not exactly stacked, so both of these warhorses seemed safe from the chopping block, barring something appalling.
Well, consider us appalled.
Nogueiro (34-10-1, 1 NC), a onetime Pride champion and former UFC interim champion as well, saw a glorious career go thud when Nelson (22-9) laid him out with his signature right hand at 3:37 of Round 1. Big Nog seemed to age 10 years in the moments it took his assaulted body, as stiff as a two-by-four, crash to the mat. The crowd gasped as much as it roared.
"Anytime you beat Big Nog, I mean, he's a legend," Nelson said afterward in the cage, before turning toward his vanquished opponent, who was still being attended to, and saying, "Thank you."
That sounds like a career appreciation, and perhaps Nogueira will be wise enough to accept it as a fitting retrospective. If he needs convincing that his time is past -- a glorious past, to be sure, but nonetheless a yesterday that need not spill into tomorrows -- he might want to get a UFC Fight Pass subscription and watch a replay.
Big Nog had nothing for Nelson. Barely a minute in, Nelson stunned him with a right uppercut, then floored him with an overhand right. Nog got up, but on legs of overcooked spaghetti. Nelson stalked him, with the patience befitting a fat man who knew he might have to go five rounds, and with just under two minutes left he again put the big Brazilian on his back with an overhand right.
Nogueira again got to his feet, but now he was Tommy Hearns doing a comically unsteady dance away from Marvin Hagler. And just as "Marvelous Marvin" caught up with Hearns in that long-ago legendary boxing match, Nelson moved in to kill off a legend, his weapon being that thunderous right fist. When Nelson connected on the button, time slowed down as what was left of Nogueira collapsed onto his back.
More impressive than that "Big Country" right hand was the one he held back from unleashing a la Dan-Henderson-on-Michael-Bisping, a show of respect after a job well done. As Nogueira's head was still bouncing off the canvas, Nelson turned on his heels and walked away, raising that lethal right fist to the sky for all to see.
Indeed, Nelson showed he had the power to end a man's night and perhaps even his career. But is that happening to champion Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos? No. To Travis Browne or Fabricio Werdum? Probably not. Nelson belongs on the big stage, yes, but his entertainment value is in small supporting roles.
As for Nogueira, bring down the curtain.