In the brief history of professional MMA, there are only a few heavyweight fighters who could truly be called legends of the sport.

Foremost among these is probably Fedor Emelianenko. The famed Russian bruiser smashed and bashed his way through all comers, establishing a 29-fight unbeaten streak between April 2001 and June 2010, during which time it seemed like literally no other man on Earth could best him. His performance has suffered somewhat in recent years, but Emelianenko is unquestionably one of the sport’s all-time greats.

Another legendary MMA heavyweight that immediately springs to mind is Randy Couture. The multi-time, multi-division UFC champion probably had his most memorable fights at 205 pounds, but nevertheless established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the promotion’s largest division late in his storied career. Couture is a legend as much for his longevity as for his accomplishments, but no doubt belongs in that select group of fighters.

Of these legends, however, there is only one who is still actively competing in the UFC. On Saturday, Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira will lace up the four-ounce gloves once more to square off with Fabricio Werdum in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV: Nogueira vs. Werdum. The fight will be Nogueira’s tenth in the UFC, but his 44th overall, and the result could very well determine whether “Minotauro” remains an active competitor or begins to consider the merits of retirement.

Nogueira first made his mark in Japan, fighting with great success under the Rings and Pride FC banners and capturing the latter’s inaugural heavyweight title. He had just one loss—to Dan Henderson—in his first 21 professional contests and established himself as a durable submission machine who could absorb just as much punishment as he could give out. It wasn’t until he ran into Emelianenko in March 2003 that he would again taste defeat. It would be the first of three encounters between the two fighters, none of which Nogueira would end up winning. Even still, the trilogy (or at least the first and third fights) remains among Pride’s most memorable and important events, and cemented Minotauro as one of the faces on that promotion’s proverbial Mount Rushmore.

Outside of his trio of fights with Emelianenko, Nogueira notched wins over other Pride greats like Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, an in-his-prime Josh Barnett and a much-closer-to-his-prime Mark Coleman, so when Zuffa, LLC., purchased Pride in 2007 and announced he would be coming to the UFC, MMA fans around the world salivated at the possibilities.

Nogueira’s UFC debut against fellow Pride alumnus Heath Herring went according to plan, with “Big Nog” etching a decision victory in his first Octagon appearance. When he defeated Tim Sylvia in classic Nogueira fashion (that is, getting positively thrashed with strikes before pulling out a submission victory) and won the UFC’s interim heavyweight championship in the process, many in the MMA world thought Nogueira’s success in Japan would continue stateside. What’s more, the UFC had failed to come to an agreement with Emelianenko’s management team, so without the presence of Nogueira’s most significant threat, it seemed there were few other heavyweights that could mount a challenge against him.

Enter Frank Mir.

Nogueira and Mir were matched up first as coaches on the eighth edition of The Ultimate Fighter, and then later in the traditional coaches’ fight at UFC 92 in December 2008. At the time, Mir was coming off a significant submission victory over Brock Lesnar and his star was burning quite brightly. The fight was considered a showdown between two of the division’s elite, and it delivered. Unfortunately for Nogueira, that night also resulted in his first UFC loss, as Mir was able to do what no other fighter had and finish Minotauro with strikes.

Since losing the interim heavyweight belt, Nogueira has had mixed results in the Octagon. He secured wins over Couture and Brendan Schaub, but alternated them with losses to Cain Velasquez and again to Mir. Most recently, Nogueira defeated Dave Herman at UFC 153 last October in just his second fight in his home country of Brazil. Despite his recent success, though, there remains a cloud over Nogueira’s career, one that has been growing ever larger for the past few years.

If there was ever a poster child for MMA-related brain trauma, it would be Nogueira. The number of blows that man has taken to the head probably outnumber those taken by any 10 non-fighters in their collective lifetimes, and one wonders whether all that punishment will come back to haunt him in the coming years. The sport isn’t quite old enough to have seen a critical mass of fighters present symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disorder common among longtime participants in contact sports, but guys like Nogueira—guys who could, and repeatedly did, take a licking and keep on ticking—are classic candidates to develop it. Will you really be surprised if you read about how Nogueira (or Wanderlei Silva or Leonard Garcia or any of the fighters whose reputations for “going to war” made their careers) is a shadow of his former self a decade from now?

Taking all of this background information in context, this fight with Werdum on Saturday night might very well be Nogueira’s swan song. Let’s face it: At 37 years old and after the physically taxing career he’s had as a professional fighter, there is little chance Nogueira will ever again find himself in contention for a UFC title. He’s 3-3 in his last six fights, with the wins coming over 46-year-old Couture and non-contenders Schaub and Herman. In Werdum, Nogueira faces the man ranked third in the UFC’s heavyweight standings who is himself in the midst of a two-fight winning streak.

There is an x-factor in the Nogueira/Werdum fight, though, and that’s the fact that both men much prefer to take their fights to the mat rather than keep them standing. Nogueira has lost just one time by submission, and that was when Mir literally broke his arm in their rematch, so Werdum is going to have his work cut out for him if he expects to coax a tap from “Big Nog.” Werdum does have five wins by knockout or TKO, so the possibility of him finishing Nogueira while standing is certainly there, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most folks assume this fight is going to the mat at some point.

This is certainly not to say that Werdum should be seen as the heavy favorite on Saturday night. At 35, he’s no spring chicken himself, and his signature win over Emelianenko was viewed more as a loss by Fedor than a win by Werdum. Since then, he’s gone 2-1 in the UFC, and although he remains highly respected, a win over a crafty veteran like Nogueira is far from a guarantee.

Even if Nogueira is successful on Saturday, though, he should take a long look in the mirror (and maybe compare what he sees to what he saw in 2001) and evaluate whether prolonging his MMA career is going to be worth the additional damage to his body. A win over Werdum would put Nogueira at 6-3 in the UFC. This is certainly a respectable mark, but a victory on Saturday would probably not place Minotauro in title contention. At that point, Nogueira would simply be fighting for a paycheck, and while there are certainly worse ways to earn a living, one wonders how much longer he’s going to be able to withstand the grind of training and the ever-improving crop of heavyweight talent on the UFC’s roster. A loss on Saturday might be a clear sign that it’s time to hang them up, but who knows what Nogueira will actually end up doing.

In the last decade, MMA fans have been treated to entertaining fight after entertaining fight featuring “Big Nog,” and his sustained drawing power is evidenced by his headlining spot on Saturday’s card. His future after Werdum is up in the air, but regardless of how many more times Nogueira appears in the Octagon, he’s a surefire Hall of Famer and a true legend of the sport.

Photo: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.