The phrase “striker versus grappler” gets thrown around a lot in the world of mixed martial arts. Sometimes, there is truth behind the saying, but without any real background, people often use it when describing something they see on paper. Headlining UFC Fight Night 39 this Saturday night, live from du Arena in Abu Dhabi, UAE, are two big fellas that fit this bill.

On paper, Roy “Big Country” Nelson is a knockout artist and Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira is a submission wizard. Nelson has 12 knockout wins to his five submissions, and all six of his UFC wins have been by first- or third-round knockout. In his entire 28-fight pro career, he has only been stopped one time, by TKO at the hands of former UFC heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski over five years ago. On the other hand, Nogueira, the longtime Pride veteran, has 21 submission wins to his three knockout victories. The Brazilian has been stopped four times, however, and all four stoppages were in his four Octagon losses.

Nogueira was brought into the UFC in 2007 after parent company Zuffa bought Pride and merged the two promotions. In his second UFC battle, the former Pride heavyweight champ won the interim UFC title by none other than a submission of Tim Sylvia. In capturing the crown, Nogueira became one of only three individuals to hold a title in both organizations. In his next fight, he was stopped for the first time ever, and he has bounced back and forth between wins and losses ever since. Currently, the promotion has him ranked as its No. 11 heavyweight.

Nelson entered the promotion through a much different path. The Las Vegas native and former (and final) IFL heavyweight champ shocked fans, and even UFC President Dana White, with a huge knockout of Brendan Schaub to win The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights four years ago. Since then, he has gone 5-5 in the Octagon with his only losses coming by decision. Having gone three rounds with guys like Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum and Stipe Miocic, Big Country has proven himself as an unstoppable force. Currently, the promotion has him ranked as the ninth-best fighter in the division.

So, on paper, “striker versus grappler” seems very fitting. However, there are a few things to note about each fighter. First, Nelson is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under famed coach Renzo Gracie. He has competed in the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships and is a Grapplers Quest champion who has actually beaten Mir in a grappling tournament, which took place several years ago. Nogueira, who holds a fourth degree black belt in BJJ, started boxing as a teenager, and his twin brother, who also fights for the UFC, is a former boxing champion. Nogueira might not be a knockout artist, but the guy definitely knows how to stand and bang.

As two of the top heavyweights in the world collide in the home of the biggest BJJ tournament in the world, fans will get to see if the “striker versus grappler” connotation is the real deal, or just a layman’s interpretation of what one sees on paper. Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up, and as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Nogueira – 9, Nelson – 10

It’s no secret that Nelson gets the nod in the striking arena, but it is not solely due to his high volume of knockouts. He is nearly impossible to knock down, let alone knock out. Nelson absorbs more strikes per minute than almost any top-10 heavyweight, but he continues to push forward like a robot. When Arlovski finally finished him in his one stoppage loss, the Russian hit him with knees, uppercuts, hooks and straight rights directly to the sweet spot, and he still only won by TKO.

Nogueira may have made it through the first 37 fights of his career without being stopped, but Mir and Cain Velasquez both took him out in the first half of the fight, and Nelson hits much harder than both. Nogueira and Nelson are now 37 years old, but Nogueira’s got a lot more miles on his chassis and it’s starting to show. Nelson lands more strikes per minute than the Brazilian, and that spells big trouble going into this bout.

Nelson’s high volume of freakish power strikes, combined with his second-to-none chin, make him the odds-on favorite in the striking department.

Submission Grappling: Nogueira – 10, Nelson – 10

On paper, the BJJ aspect of this match-up lies heavily in favor of Nogueira. He has a very high ranking in BJJ, has won many tournaments, and has almost as many submissions in pro fighting as Nelson does total fights. But Nogueira’s ground game showed a big gap when Mir snapped his upper arm as the Brazilian refused to tap to a kimura. Then, two fights later, he was finished by Werdum with an armbar, leaving him with two submission losses in his last three fights.

Nelson has never been submitted. Granted, he hasn’t submitted anyone in eight years, but his defense is so good that it is pretty tough to just hand this category to Nogueira. Nelson may not be at the same level from a rankings perspective, but he is certainly no slouch with a Gracie black belt, especially since he is damn near impossible to take down. If Nogueira does get him down, he’s probably not going to keep him there very long.

With Nogueira’s recent losses and Nelson’s tremendous submission defense, the submission game is a toss-up in this battle.

Wrestling: Nogueira – 9, Nelson – 10

After Nelson’s last fight, a three-round battle with Olympic-level wrestler Daniel Cormier, both the announcers and Cormier himself kept talking about the impressiveness of Nelson’s wrestling. The same happened after his previous war with Miocic, a former NCAA Division I wrestler. On the outside, people look at his body makeup and assume he’s just some out-of-shape brawler with no skills, but Nelson is the real deal. His short, stocky stature makes him nearly impossible to take down by traditional moves, and he has the ability to press his weight into his opponent’s chest, making for a nasty, heavy clinch.

Nogueira is a very traditional BJJ-style grappler with little wrestling training. He does have a decent clinch, but his takedown accuracy is surprisingly low in the MMA arena. Nelson’s takedown accuracy is even lower, but it’s also probably the weakest part of his well-rounded game.

Both men have strong aspects to their wrestling, but both also have weaknesses, too. Overall, Nelson is a much stronger wrestler, which is the result of a combination of his body makeup, skill set and training done with very high-level wrestlers.


The x-factor in this fight is age.

Nogueira entered the UFC on the tail end of his career. After five years and 21 fights in Pride alone, some guys would call that an entire lifetime of fighting, but Minotauro had 13 fights before that, one additional fight during that time, and has been in the Octagon nine times since. His UFC career has had mixed results, largely due to the fact that his body has been beaten and battered for a long time and now he’s in there with the best guys in the world.

Nelson may be the same age, but he has led a much different fight life. He didn’t debut until five years after his opponent. He fought 17 times before entering the Octagon, many of which ended with a win in the first round. Since entering the biggest stage in the sport, he has either knocked out a tough opponent or gone the distance with a tough opponent. Nelson appears to be in the prime of this fighting career, whereas Nogueira seems to be on the brink of retirement.

This fight is a simple case of a young 37-year-old versus an old one.

Total: Nogueira – 28, Nelson – 30

Verdict: Five years ago, this fight would have been a no-contest in favor of Nogueira. He is an icon of the sport, known for his tough chin and mean submission skills. However, after a couple subs and a couple knockouts, it’s tough to hold the current Nogueira in the same regard. He has had an amazing Hall-of-Fame career, but he is facing a guy that is nearly impossible to finish. Given the entire distance with Nelson, he may be a little too battered to finish on top.

Nelson is a very polarizing figure. Some folks have trouble getting past that when giving him a fair side-by-side comparison, but right now, he looks great, has an iron chin, and is ready to give Big Nog the fight of his life.

Nelson by his first unanimous decision victory in his UFC career.