Commentary

Nogueira will bring his special brand of toughness to Mir fight

Being run over by a truck as a youth and suffering a serious back injury before a fight hasn't held back tenacious Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Updated: December 24, 2008, 3:39 PM ET
By Tim Leidecker | Sherdog.com

In Japan, they call it "samurai spirit." Kampfgeist is the German equivalent. Italians refer to it as grinta. They all have the same meaning: heart, courage, determination, testicular fortitude. In U.S. sports history, a couple of shining examples have become permanently engraved in the collective memories of fans.

When Willis Reed limped into Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, it was a moment of extreme bravery and inspiration. Though he'd torn a thigh muscle just nine days earlier, Reed hobbled onto the court and scored New York's first two baskets. He left the game soon after. The Knicks won 113-99 and delivered the first NBA title to New York City.

Three years later, Muhammad Ali fought challenger Ken Norton for 10 rounds with a broken jaw. Even though he went on to lose a split decision -- it was just the second defeat of Ali's illustrious career -- it became another testament to why Ali is commonly referred to as the "greatest of all time."

In a more recent example, then-Green Bay Packers quarterback and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre played more than half a season with a broken thumb in 2003. He also put grief behind him, threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns and led his team to a 41-7 victory in an important road game against the Oakland Raiders just 24 hours after he learned of his father's unexpected death.

All those moments were created by special sportsmen, who are revered by their fans and peers. Mixed martial arts has also produced an athlete who has shown more guts and more cojones than any other fighter in the sport's brief history. His name is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, known by most as "Minotauro."

The 32-year-old Brazilian -- who will defend his interim heavyweight championship against Frank Mir at UFC 92 this Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas -- has made a name for himself, not only for his incredible jiu-jitsu and club fighter-level boxing skills, but also for his ability to take an absurd amount of punishment and author unbelievable comeback victories.

Nogueira delivered his first superhuman performance in August 2002 when he faced 400-pound behemoth Bob Sapp in front of more than 90,000 spectators at Pride "Shockwave" at Tokyo National Stadium.

The Sapp he faced then was not the complacent movie and pop music star the MMA world knows today. He was a hungry beast with raw power who was just starting to learn the game, and he was coming off three straight knockouts over K-1 World Grand Prix finalist Cyril Abidi, seven-year veteran Yoshihisa Yamamoto and Rings heavyweight champion Kiyoshi Tamura.

In their fight, Sapp outweighed Nogueira by 170 pounds -- the size of a separate welterweight fighter -- and brutally pounded him in the first 10-minute round. Minotauro had to survive a pile driver, a modified guillotine/can opener choke and vicious ground-and-pound that opened a nasty cut below his left eye.

The Brazilian's strategy worked to perfection, however. He weathered the storm and, in the second stanza, the gigantic former NFL offensive lineman was spent and running on fumes. At 4:03 of the second round, Nogueira isolated one of Sapp's thigh-sized arms and secured a textbook armbar for a big comeback win. The monstrous Sapp was beaten for the first time.

The wounds from the Sapp war had barely healed when Nogueira again had to face a Goliath-like physical specimen in 6-foot-11 Semmy Schilt and two-time Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson -- the only fighter to previously defeat Nogueira -- within one month of each other. He passed both tests with flying colors, as he submitted both men with his patented triangle choke and armbar submissions.

What awaited Nogueira next was the worst beating of his career and one of the few times he was unable to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In the first defense of his Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight title, he faced Russian fighter Fedor Emelianenko. Although Emelianenko was considered an unproven commodity at the time, with just two wins in Pride, he'd enjoyed a successful run in Rings, winning that promotion's final two tournaments.

Emelianenko proved to be the antidote to Minotauro's poison, as he defended numerous submission attempts and landed vicious punches to the face inside the Brazilian's open guard. After a 20-minute battle of epic proportions, Emelianenko snatched the championship from Nogueira in a unanimous decision.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Rodrigo Nogueira
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuAntonio Rodrigo Nogueira has come a long way since his defeat of Heath Herring in 2007.

What most people do not know is that Minotauro fought that night with a sciatic nerve contusion. Those who have experienced that sort of injury know it causes extreme pain from the lower backbone down through the legs. Nogueira could hardly walk on his way to the arena and had to get painkiller injections in order to fight. A lesser fighter might have canceled the bout.

The opponent who came closest to knocking out Nogueira during his stint in Pride was Croatian kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. The two collided in November 2003 for the interim heavyweight championship after Emelianenko broke his thumb and was unable to defend his belt. "Cro Cop" carried an unbelievable amount of momentum into the bout, as he had reeled off six straight wins, four of them by first-round knockout. The former law-enforcement officer had brushed aside Sapp and Heath Herring -- both former opponents of Nogueira -- and the once scary and dangerous Igor Vovchanchyn.

When the two faced off, Cro Cop controlled the stand-up exchanges, peppering Nogueira with punches and other strikes, while effortlessly stuffing the Brazilian's takedown attempts. Filipovic's punishing kicks to the body and head had the Brazilian bleeding from the nose early in the first round.

At the end of the first 10 minutes, Cro Cop landed his patented left high kick, which knocked down Nogueira and forced him into survival mode. Fans and experts still argue about what might have happened had Minotauro not been saved by the bell moments later.

That set the stage for another one of Nogueira's unbelievable comebacks. Undeterred by countless unsuccessful takedown attempts in the first round, Minotauro shot in for one more double leg, which he completed. From there, Cro Cop was in his world. Filipovic was quickly mounted, softened up with punches and eventually put away with an armbar during a scramble.

Three years and 11 fights passed until the likable Nogueira finally moved his act stateside. For his UFC debut, matchmaker Joe Silva picked Herring as the opponent. Nogueira and the "Texas Crazy Horse" had already traded leather twice inside the Pride ring, and their first encounter remains one of the best heavyweight fights of all time.

Even though Herring was an opponent he knew inside and out, things did not go as planned for Nogueira at UFC 73. The proud Texan caught him with a huge head kick that left him momentarily stunned. Herring, however, inexplicably failed to follow up and allowed Nogueira to recover. The Brazilian outboxed and outworked him in the later rounds en route to a unanimous decision. If anyone needed more proof regarding his toughness, this was it.

Nogueira's stiffest test took place outside the ring, however. At age 9, he was run over by a truck while playing in the streets. The near-fatal accident left him in a coma for almost a month and cost him a rib and parts of his liver. A large scar on his lower back remains visible to this day.

During the 11 months he spent in the hospital, it appeared likely he would end up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. If someone had told his family that Nogueira would overcome his injuries and go on to become one of the greatest mixed martial artists in history, they might have considered it a cruel joke.

Still, Minotauro pulled through. Upon entering high school a couple of years later, he took up boxing and jiu-jitsu and laid the foundations for what he has become: quite simply, the gutsiest fighter in MMA.

Tim Leidecker is a contributor to Sherdog.com.