BOSTON – It's generally accepted that Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is one of the elite mixed martial arts fighters in the world.
Yet, the former UFC light heavyweight champion hasn't won back-to-back fights in more than four years and has been just a .500 fighter over the last six years.
Rua, who will face Chael Sonnen on Saturday at TD Garden in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Fox Sports 1, has also absorbed an extraordinary amount of punishment in that span.
He took a brutal beating from Jon Jones in their 2011 bout in which Rua lost the light heavyweight belt. In a loss to Dan Henderson later that year that many consider the best fight in UFC history, he was again battered and beaten.
Those beatings may one day come back to haunt him, but there currently is little evidence of their effect on Rua.
He's not slurring his words, and he still moves fluidly and gracefully. He appears to be as quick and as athletic as he ever was and he is still extraordinarily powerful.
His record would suggest he's not the great fighter he once was, but his performances generally refute that. Other than the loss to Jones, he's never been blown out and he always delivers more than his share of punishment.
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"Shogun, I don't know, he's had a rough run," UFC president Dana White said. "Look at the fights he lost. Look at the fight he lost with Dan Henderson. It was probably one of the greatest fights I've ever seen, if not the greatest fight I've ever seen. It was unbelievable.
"If you look at his fights on paper, it's tough to look at a piece of paper and go, 'Oh, he won this one. He lost that one. He won this one. He lost that one.' You've got to see the fights to understand."
White famously urged his close friend, and biggest star, Chuck Liddell to retire because of repeated knockouts. Liddell was knocked out in four of his last six fights, including his last three, before announcing his retirement on Dec. 29, 2010.
White feared for Liddell's safety and knew that Liddell loved to fight so much, he'd never walk away willingly.
But White said Rua's situation is vastly different, despite the punishment the Brazilian has taken.
"When I told him to retire, the media, the fans, everybody started flipping out," White said of Liddell. "[They said], 'Who the [expletive] are you to tell a guy he has to retire and that he can't do this?' Well, I'm his friend, that's who I am. I'm his friend and I don't want to keep making this kind of money [off him].
"But how do I tell a guy like Shogun he can't fight any more? The guy is still one of the best in the world. He's ranked in the top 10 and he's not getting knocked out left and right. Is he taking punishment? Yeah, he's been in wars, man, knock-down, drag-'em-out wars. What's that going to mean for him later? I don't know."
Rua, though, isn't concerned about the beatings he's taken over the years and doesn't believe he's facing any more of a risk than the average fighter.
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He is only 31 and attributed his inconsistency to regularly facing the best fighters in the world. But he said there is nothing physically wrong with him.
He had an injured knee when he first joined the UFC in 2007, but that was surgically repaired. Rua said he's not limited in any way and is still hopeful of regaining the light heavyweight belt.
"Today, I'm still able to do everything I did when I started," he said. "The sport has grown a lot and I've tried to follow the evolution of the sport."
One of the UFC's most lethal strikers, Rua spent time in training camp working with legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach. Roach said he wasn't impressed by Rua's technique originally and said Rua didn't generate as much power as he should have.
But Roach said Rua picked things up quickly and is now punching extraordinarily hard.
"He's a good athlete and he works very hard and he picks things up well," Roach said. "He's using his body and that's making a big difference for him. He's got legitimate power now."
It's that power that has made Rua a threat in every fight he's taken. And it's his power that gives him a chance to regain the title.
But no matter how much power he has, a human body can only take so much punishment before it begins to break down. Rua has already taken an ungodly amount but shows no signs of calling it quits.
Some can take more than others without it impacting them, but the key is to stop before reaching that line.
White said he's seen wildly varying cases.
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"What's that going to mean for him [down the road]?" White said of the punishment Rua's taken. "I don't know. The difference is, everybody's different. I've seen guys – everybody who is here who has been involved in boxing has seen this – I've seen guys who were in nasty, crazy wars from back in the old days. There were guys who fought in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and you saw them when they were older and they were still 100 percent. They were sharp and everything else.
"Then you saw other guys who were not so sharp … punch drunk. You've seen guys who were punchy and started slurring their words. That is from being punched in the head. That is from contact. It happens in football, it happens in hockey and it happens in mixed martial arts and boxing. Those are the things you see when you tell a guy to [retire]."
He may be whistling past the graveyard, but for Rua, it's a risk he's willing to take. He's one of the best in the world at what he does, he makes a great living, and he's the idol of millions.
Like a lot of fighters, he'll worry about the future when the future comes. Hopefully for his sake, it's a bright one.
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