Nogueira looks to add UFC gold


LAS VEGAS – All of the attention, as it has been for the past two months, was focused on Brock Lesnar. A swarm of television cameras surrounded the former WWE and NCAA heavyweight champion as he loosened up in a workout room at Mandalay Bay prior to his bout with Frank Mir at UFC 81 on Saturday.

A few feet away, a man with a resume in mixed martial arts that Lesnar may never approach stood by himself, talking with a solitary reporter.

One of the icons of the sport, he moved casually through a crowd of people, occasionally nodding in recognition but largely passing unnoticed by the throng fixated on Lesnar. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was all but anonymous, but he was, by far, the most decorated man on the card.

He's a former PRIDE heavyweight champion whose only losses were to Fedor Emelianenko (twice), Dan Henderson and Josh Barnett. In baseball terms, that's like beating every pitcher but Johan Santana, Josh Beckett and Jake Peavy.

The easy-going Nogueira, who is a minus-170 favorite on the Vegas sports books to defeat Tim Sylvia and claim the UFC belt, shrugs it off.

"It's good for the sport," Nogueira said of the attention focused on Lesnar, the one-time pro wrestling star. "That's the important thing to remember."

But Sylvia, who hopes to make UFC history on Saturday by joining Randy Couture as the only men to win the same UFC belt three times, said there is something else important for those who are fawning over Lesnar to remember.

Sylvia, whose willingness to say whatever is on his mind, drawing the wrath of UFC fans, heaped praise upon his opponent.

"People forget what a good fighter this guy is," Sylvia said, before considering his words and re-starting. "They forget what a great fighter he is. I remember watching him way back when, when I was getting into this sport. He's one of the legends."

Nogueira, who comes into the match ranked No. 9 in the Y! Sports Top 10, built his legend primarily in Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championship. And those close to the UFC are quick to point out the struggles that the ex-PRIDE fighters had upon entering the UFC.

Perhaps the most notable ex-PRIDE star, Wanderlei Silva, lost a memorable slugfest to Chuck Liddell at UFC 79 in December. Heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop, who reached almost mythical status in PRIDE, is just 1-2 in the UFC and is showing no signs that he's a title threat.

Even Nogueira, who won his UFC debut in July when he scored a workmanlike decision over Heath Herring, had his shaky moments. He was kicked in the head in the first round by Herring and knocked down.

Noted for his legendary ability to take a shot, Nogueira was clearly vulnerable after Herring's powerful kick.

"I can take a punch – a very good punch – but that was a pretty good kick," a grinning Nogueira said.

He probably doesn't have to worry too much about head kicks from the 6-foot-8 Sylvia, though Sylvia did knock out Tra Telligman with such a move at UFC 54 on Aug. 20, 2005.

Nogueira knows, though, that fighting someone with Sylvia's size is a challenge. He beat the massive Bob Sapp in 2002, but Sapp was nowhere near the complete fighter that Sylvia is.

And he has a win over the towering Semmy Schilt, a fight he ended with a triangle choke. But Nogueira said he knows he can't rely on what he did against Sapp and Schilt.

Sylvia, whose submission defense was superb in his win over world-class grappler Jeff Monson at UFC 65, presents Nogueira with an entirely different set of challenges.

"I'm used to big guys and I've never had a problem with the real big guys," said Nogueira, who at 6-3, 230 is hardly a small heavyweight. "But Tim has a special style. He's got a lot of good sprawls. We've been working a lot of Greco-Roman (wrestling), a lot on the ground and a lot standing up. He has a good jab, so we've worked a lot on countering the jab. I have a very good strategy, but there is a lot to prepare for against Tim.

"I have to cut the distance, for sure, to get in close so I can clinch him. If I can take him to the ground, it's better for me."

Nogueira is renowned throughout the MMA world for his work on the ground. He has 18 wins by submission among the 30 victories on his ledger and has submitted such top fighters as Cro Cop, Henderson and Mark Coleman.

Mir, who ranks among the best heavyweights ever at submissions, said it is an honor for him to share a card with Nogueira.

"If you are a heavyweight and you are into jiu-jitsu, you think of (Nogueira)," Mir said.

Nogueira grins at the mention of the compliments that flow from the athletes he is sharing the card with, but he knows the courtesies are about to end soon.

But that's OK with him, because he likes nothing better than a good fight.

"These kinds of fights are what it is all about," Nogueira said. "All that hard work is so you can get to a point like this and fight these kinds of fights. I'm sure Tim is going to be in his best shape. I will be. We will just go out there and fight as hard as we can for 25 minutes and hopefully give the (fans) a great fight."

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