Legacy at stake for 'Minotauro'
Combined, the two revered fighters, both nearing the end of their careers, represent a full picture of mixed martial arts -- one having helped raise American MMA from the dead; the other a regular participant in big-money fights in front of enormous Japanese crowds.
As their careers played out over 22 years and 63 fights, neither Couture nor Nogueira have much to complain about. Except, perhaps, timing. While each faces the reality of an emptying hourglass -- Couture is 46, Nogueira a war-torn 33 -- the pair will meet for the first time at UFC 102 knowing they could have as easily done the same eight years ago in their primes during a historic tournament that helped shape the sport.
Four months removed from recapturing the UFC heavyweight championship in 2000 against
Defeating Nogueira in the finals would have given Couture ownership of the title as MMA's best heavyweight just when Zuffa assumed control of the UFC. Instead, when Couture tapped to a guillotine and Nogueira secured an arm-triangle against
No one could have known it then, but that loss, which gnaws at Couture's competitive soul, played a major role in the growth of Japanese MMA and its reputation from 2000 through 2006 for showcasing MMA's best heavyweights.
Few seemed capable of duplicating what Nogueira managed at his peak. At 235 pounds he moved with the grace of a middleweight, finishing fights by chokes no one had seen before and joint locks that inspired a generation of young jiu-jitsu players.
"I have been impressed with the kinetic chess match he brings to every single fight," said Couture. "He's certainly been one of the top guys in the sport."
Nogueira could also take a beating, making several of his fights and stories of his sturdiness legendary.
Sitting inside a closed hotel restaurant in Osaka, Japan, in 2001, Nogueira recounted a tale to me he would never stop telling. The scar on his back, by the looks of it something a knife or bullet might create, demanded the story. When Nogueira was 11, a truck slammed into him and continued down a dusty road near his Brazilian hometown. He was stuck underneath. Four days in a coma, 11 months in a hospital and the heavy price of one rib and a portion his liver were disregarded when he claimed recovery through martial arts. Later as a professional fighter, the 6-foot-3 "Minotauro" -- so named in honor of the mythical half-man, half-bull creature from Greek mythology -- often displayed the kind of guts that probably prevented his death as a child.
Less than three months after armbarring Coleman, Nogueira outpointed
At that moment, Couture-Nogueira would have been a dream fight. UFC champ versus Pride champ, the top two heavyweights competing in MMA. Yet, everything soon went away when
As a result of the UFC winning its promotional war with Pride, Nogueira made his way to the U.S. two years ago. To American audiences just seeing him for the first time, the Brazilian appeared to be working underwater. Though he survived to win his first two bouts in the UFC, everything caught up to Nogueira last December against
"It was very bad for me to fight this fight," said the submission specialist, who carries a record of 31-5-1 with him into the cage against Couture. "I couldn't move at all."
His left knee was terrible. Leading up to the fight it popped out place while he slept. And three weeks before the bout Nogueira was hospitalized for a bad staph infection.
Sometimes being tough isn't a positive attribute.
Eight months removed from the worst fight of his career, Nogueira's knee is surgically repaired. He and his camp claim he hasn't felt this good in four years. And a date with the scale in Portland, Ore., on Friday should reveal Nogueira around his ideal weight of 230 pounds.
"I feel like I have to perform way better than the last match," he said. "I [trained] way better than for my last match. I felt like I had to work more. My opponent is very good, very strategic."