August 27, 2007

How should Gabriel Gonzaga explain his nickname? "Napao. It means in Portuguese, uh...big nose," Gonzaga says.

Big nose?

"But not like big, nose," he says swirling a hand in front of his face. Huh? The Brazilian's English is coming along, but an abstract concept like "napao" is still full of linguistic thorns. So his jujitsu trainer, Marco Alvan, takes a stab. "Not the nose on his face," says Alvan, also Brazilian. "It's more like what you would call a 'sixth sense.' He has a sixth sense, or a nose for martial arts."

Gonzaga got the name as a teenager because he picked up new fighting techniques so quickly it was like the fighting arts were dormant inside him and he just had to wake them up. "It's like he sees what an opponent will do before he does it," says Alvan.

Anyone who saw UFC 70 in April can believe that Gonzaga has a bit of clairvoyant in him. It almost looked choreographed when Mirko Cro Cop, the most feared striker in the world and, as far as most fight fans were concerned, the overwhelming favorite, dipped his left shoulder just enough to put his temple where Gonzaga's right high kick was going. The result looked a lot like a Little Leaguer hitting a baseball off a tee, with Cro Cop's head playing the part of the ball. And just like that, 4:51 into the first round, the Croatian parliament member who had not lost since 2005 and had only been knocked out once in 29 fights, was on the canvas, rag doll style, his right leg twisted grotesquely underneath him.

Who would have thought? Well, heavyweight champ Randy Couture for one. Couture was a guest announcer for the fight, the winner of which he would face, and he actually picked Gonzaga based on his superior grappling skills. "I didn't think it would happen with a kick, though," Couture confesses.

Nobody did. Nobody except Gonzaga's muay thai trainer Elcio Machado. "I made him believe in the high kick," Machado says, gesturing to his 6-foot-1, 242-pound student. "Look at the size of his leg. I told him he can have the top kick in the world." It turned out to be the one that knocked out the top kicker in the world, and sent a message to the fight world that there is no apparent chink in Napao's armor.

Gonzaga is not just a heavyweight, he's a heavy heavyweight. The 44-year-old Couture will be giving 22 pounds -- not to mention 16 years -- to Gonzaga. But Couture is used to that. "At this age, if you're fighting, the oddsmakers aren't on your side," Couture says. The odds didn't stop him from manhandling the 6-foot-8, 263-pound Tim Sylvia in March to take the UFC heavyweight title.

But this is the part where Cinderella faces a bloody end. Gonzaga is the new breed of heavyweight. A lifelong martial artist who is genuinely skilled in jujitsu, muay thai and boxing. Couture has said, as expected for a three time Olympic wrestling alternate, that he plans to take the fight to the ground and put Gonzaga on his back, but Gonzaga is perfectly comfortable there. "If he wants," says Alvan, "we can have Gabriel sit down and Randy can get on top of him and we can start the fight from there. Gabriel is the best grappler in the world [and the reigning world heavyweight Brazilian jujitsu champion.]"

Where Couture could conceivably have an advantage is in endurance. Gonzaga (8-1-0), who moved from Brazil to Ludlow, Mass., to train, has never completed three rounds. Couture (15-8-0) has gone a full five three times. But according to Nate Woodger, one of Gonzaga's sparring partners, "he can go forever. We do five-minute practice rounds and we throw a fresh guy at him every minute."

The only time Gonzaga looked subpar in the last few years was in his UFC debut, a three-round knockout of Kevin Jordan at UFC 56, where Napao seemed apathetic at times. But he was not in top form for that bout. Gonzaga's wife was pregnant with twins leading up to the fight, and complications nearly killed her and did kill one of the babies. Gonzaga's training was interrupted by travel and hospital stays.

His wife is again expecting, but not until after the fight. If all is going well in Gonzaga's personal life, expect to get a look at the future of the heavyweight division Saturday night. "At the gym, students say he shouldn't fight humans," says Alvan. "They want to see him fight Big Foot." Big Nose versus Big Foot. Now that would make for an intriguing matchup.

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