Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is a legend in the mixed martial arts community for good reason.
One of the first fighters to have solid striking and a brilliant jiu-jitsu game, Nogueira represented the future when he submitted ground-and-pound monster, Mark Coleman with a beautiful triangle armbar from his guard. As Nogueira's career progressed, he developed a name for heart, determination and grit under fire. It seemed like every match turned into an incredible come-from-behind victory for him.
The great flaw in Nogueira's game has been his insistence on striking like a boxer—in the model of his enormously talented brother, Rogerio. Recently, Nogueira has been using a more fitting method of landing his punches in rough, ugly fights, which allow him to strike like he has never been able to strike before. Today, we'll take a brief look at Big Nog's modus operandi.
Nogueira faced adversity in the ring with many dangerous opponents only to come back and pull off the submission. Up until 2008, Nogueira had never been finished, even through three fights with the great Fedor Emelianenko, which led to his fans quipping that "Nogueira never loses, he just runs out of time."
In addition to his many dramatic performances—embodying the Rocky spirit that excites fans more than any technical master class can—Nogueira also has one of the finest resumes in MMA. Despite his recent decline in physical ability, Nogueira has fought a who's who of mixed martial arts talent.
Lacking the ability to shoot with any decent rate of success, Nogueira had such confidence in his guard that he would happily pull an opponent down onto him (including legitimate jiu-jitsu threats such as Fabricio Werdum, his upcoming opponent, and the great Fedor Emelianenko).
More often than not in his early career, Nogueira would shoot on his opponent, and as the opponent sprawled, Nogueira would perform a beautiful sit out (the most effective I have seen in MMA) and move to his opponent's back or top position.
This sit out was finally countered by Frank Mir, who was able to grab a hold of one of Nogueira's arms and hop across him to secure a beautiful and brutal kimura finish. This was a wonderful example of a fighter training specifically for an opponent's tendencies.
A testament to Nogueira's effectiveness with this technique was that it worked wonders on both the hulking Bob Sapp and the technically brilliant Fabricio Werdum and Volk Han.
From cult favourites like Jeremy Horn and Volk Han, to terrifying giants such as Bob Sapp and Semmy Schilt, to hard-nosed brawlers like Dan Henderson and Sergei Kharitonov, to world-class heavyweights like Fedor Emelianenko, Mark Coleman and Josh Barnett, Nogueira met them all and almost always came out on top.
In mixed martial arts, and especially in the heavyweight division of today where records are so short and careers are so carefully guided, it is almost impossible to find a better resume than Nogueira's. Were it not for "The Last Emperor's" two victories over Nogueira, one could make the case for Nogueira being MMA's greatest heavyweight to date based on his opposition.
His one weakness was that he was always hittable. Until recently, an MMA elitist movement used to love to bring up Nogueira's outboxing of Kharitonov to demonstrate his elite boxing and to cite his time training with the Cuban boxing team.
Here's the truth: Nogueira's outboxing of Kharitonov only showed Kharitonov's limited understanding of the striking game.
Almost every time Kharitonov moved in to punch, Nogueira ducked his head down to the right and fired back a jab while parrying with his right hand—Kharitonov ate it every time. Not once did Kharitonov ever attempt to fake out Nogueira or eliminate his counter jab; he just went on doing what Kharitonov does—demonstrating his amazing chin, swinging his club-like right hand and hoping to catch something.
Almost a decade later, Brendan Schaub did exactly the same thing. After hurting Nogueira with an uppercut to counter Nogueira's constant dipping, he went back to lunging in face first and eating Nogueira's jabs.
This led to him stumbling back to the fence and being put to sleep. It was only the second standing knockout of Nogueira's career and Big Nog's first against a heavyweight.
In general, Nogueira has always been something of a punching bag on his feet. You can tell me over and over again about how hard he works on his boxing and whom he spars with, but it doesn't change the fact that he gets hit a lot when he's out in the open.
Why does he get so much? Partly because he lacks head movement and partly because he has slow, shuffling feet. Nogueira looks nothing like his twin brother when they are moving around the cage, as he seems to eat almost everything that is thrown at him.
Nogueira has had something of a career renaissance of late. Following his first crushing defeat at the hands of Mir, Nogueira started to show hints of punching power that he had never shown before.
It is important to consider the opposition that Nogueira has beaten—Brendan Schaub and Dave Herman aren't going to be transitioning to the GLORY Heavyweight Grand Slam anytime soon—but Nogueira might be starting to use a style of punching more suited to his lack of swift movement.
Whereas Nogueira was stiff and rigid in his punching form early in his career—trying to remain in stance at all times—the power right hand that he demonstrated against Mir, Couture and Schaub stemmed from stepping forward and performing a transfer of weight. Jack Dempsey spoke about this a great deal in his book, Championship Fighting.
Nogueira lacks the footwork to get in fast and land punches first through speed alone, and along with his poor head movement, it makes him hittable. Therefore, his new strategy of ducking into the clinch and bullying opponents along the fence (as shown in his bouts with Mir and Herman) makes sense.
By moving into the clinch as soon as possible instead of hanging out in the open, he avoids being beaten up by faster fighters.
Fabio Maldonado—a big power puncher whose head seems to be a magnet for strikes in the open—had great success in his most recent bout against Roger Hollett by using similar tactics. The clinch boxer, though still rare, is becoming as effective in MMA as he was in Jack Johnson's era of boxing.
In his second bout with Mir, Nogueira managed to ruffle the American's feathers early by pinning him against the fence and using hard punches and elbows. When the two men broke on Nogueira's terms, Mir had nowhere to retreat and Nogueira didn't have any chasing to do—allowing him to step in and hit Mir with a hard, weighty right hand.
Against Schaub, Nogueira was able to use his dipping jab to stun Schaub and move him along the fence, where Nogueira's slow feet were no longer a factor, and tee off. Against Herman, it was much the same: pressure, pinning along the fence, separating and punching.
Whether Nogueira can muscle Werdum to the fence and rough him up in the face of Werdum's new octopus-style assault on the feet remain to be seen, but in truth, the new, bullying Nogueira who makes fights ugly and lands his punches is more interesting to watch than the Nogueira of PRIDE, who spent so long trying to box like a Cuban amateur and got hit midway through every attempt.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.