One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who squares off with Roy Nelson at UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi on April 11.

The UFC returns to Abu Dhabi for the first time since 2010, though this time around there is not a title fight on the card. Instead, there is a mix of youth and experience, albeit without there being any fighters who are considered to be currently knocking on the door of a title shot, which is seemingly a shame. In modern-day MMA, fans feel almost deprived of value for money if they don’t get to see a contender fight every time they tune into the UFC, or any promotion. However, fans must recognize that in order to grow the sport, expansion is required and with that comes patience as a prerequisite.

Despite the apparent lack of immediate title implications this weekend, we will see two well-known heavyweights who, despite having been suffering of late, possess real pedigree within the UFC ranks in the not-so-distant past. However, in more recent times, we have seen them struggle. Nelson lost his last two to Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic, whilst the former interim titleholder, Nogueira, has been struggling to put together a string of wins. Nogueira has alternated between wins and losses since first winning that interim title against Tim Sylvia in 2008.

The Brazilian has only managed to fight once a year for the last two years, mostly as a consequence of the brutal injury inflicted upon him by Frank Mir during their fight.

For Roy Nelson, this fight represents an opportunity to get back to his winning ways and work himself back towards the title contention that he has been chasing and asking for in recent years (in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion).

What’s more, the UFC may also be happy to see Nelson focusing his efforts on the physical side of the sport, given his recent public application for the top job at the Nevada State Athletic Commission following Keith Kizer’s abrupt resignation.

The Breakdown

On paper, it would seem this fight is a difficult one to call. The outcome of the fight largely depends upon the current condition of either man, given that this fight features two men with skills in all areas. In the past, we have seen Nelson rely heavily upon his punching power despite having a competent ground game, which would seem to be a useful weapon in a division largely bereft of high-level grapplers.

However, in Nogueira, Nelson is facing one of the few men that has the potential to submit Nelson given his own grappling pedigree both in and out of MMA competition. Nevertheless, the expectation would be for this fight to remain standing for the duration. Both fighters have demonstrated a reluctance to seek a takedown in their recent outings.

On the whole, the Brazilian is considered one of the very best practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the history of the heavyweight division across all of MMA, despite his own recent submission loss to Mir.

Given the recent fights of both fighters and their respective game plans, I would expect that this fight will largely take place on the feet, with any takedown being initiated from up against the cage or from a knockdown.

As far as pure boxing abilities go, the edge has to go to the Brazilian, who has the crisper punching. Nogueira’s punches land straight down the middle, whereas “Big Country” tends to wing his punches a bit more. Nelson’s style is definitively the more concussive approach, but all in all has not been enough against the elite, who have the skills and technique to avoid these largely telegraphed punches.

The Strategy

It is perhaps strange that the man who was champion only a short time ago is now considered an underdog against someone like Nelson. Nelson is a fighter who, whilst being consistently in the top 10 of the division, has so far failed to break through into true title contention due to his perceived physical ceiling.

The reason for Nelson being given the favorite tag is largely because many consider the Brazilian to be on a downward spiral, with the punishment he has taken throughout his career starting to take its toll. There is no doubt that Nogueira is a legend in the heavyweight division from both his Pride and UFC career, but he has taken a lot of punishment. That leaves many observers rightly concerned about his current durability, which is a key feature of any heavyweight fighter given the size of his opponents.

If the Brazilian is to win this fight, he must display pinpoint footwork and speed in order to enable him to be the first to the punch. Given the damage he has taken in the past and that his punch resistance simply isn’t what it used to be, Nogueira must ensure that he is the smarter fighter of the two on fight night. That means not standing toe to toe with Nelson, as this makes the outcome more of a coin toss than anything else—odds which “Big Country” seems to enjoy against just about any opponent.

This is largely because in the heavyweight division, if two men choose to simply stand in front of each other and trade punches, it can often produce a level playing field, when in truth the skill disparity would be much more obvious if the fight were to take place at distance.

Despite his crowd-pleasing persona and body type, Nelson will generally be at a disadvantage in terms of speed and overall agility against the majority of fighters who take their nutrition seriously. As such, Nogueira must ensure that he is light on his feet so that he can pick his moments in order to launch a combo at Nelson. There is no point in Nogueira simply circling away from Nelson’s power punch to then only throw single shots.

If Nogueira wants to keep Nelson off balance, he must do so with quick combinations and intelligent movement. One additional advantage from this tactic is that there is always the possibility that as he moves in and out of range, utilizing these combinations, the takedown will open itself up for Nogueira. If this is the case, he is more than comfortable from top position even against another high-level grappler like Nelson.

In MMA these days, we have seen that grappling is becoming largely nullified if both men have a solid understanding of the art. It is only when one man is leaps and bounds above the other that submissions become an imminent threat. With this in mind, it is imperative that Nogueira ends up in top position if the fight hits the floor. MMA grappling has not become a situation whereby the guy on the bottom is equally as dangerous anymore. Fighters have generally trained long enough to see the setup for an armbar or triangle from a mile away, and they will posture up and out at the first sign of danger.

The fact of the matter is that despite both men only being age 37 (which is not so rare in MMA these days), their age doesn’t reflect the damage they have both taken throughout their careers. A loss here for either man could see a relegation to gatekeeper status within the UFC. Therefore, it is imperative that a statement is made to ensure they are not just kept on the roster for their name value alone without ever again holding the distinction of being a viable title threat.

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.