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SYDNEY – One of his assistants wrapped towels around Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's neck, back and chest and laid another across his lap. Enough sweat rolled off his face to turn a brown lawn green.
He ran his hand through his jet-black hair and drew a deep breath.
"I'm ready," he said of his heavyweight bout with Cain Velasquez on Saturday (Sunday in Australia) in the main event of UFC 110 at Acer Arena. "I'm ready. I'm very excited. All these years later, it's still just as much fun and still just as exciting as it ever was."
Nogueira is one of the most accomplished big men ever to compete in mixed martial arts. He has wins over two men who are already in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Hall of Fame and has wins over two others who will likely make it one day.
If you need a who's who of heavyweight MMA in the past decade, simply read off the list of Nogueira's opponents. It's like a roll call of the game's greatest stars.
He's 32-5-1 with a no contest, but he's nowhere near the finish line. If he defeats Velasquez, he'll be back in the pipeline for another championship shot.
And yet, for all he's accomplished – he held the PRIDE heavyweight title and the UFC interim belt – Nogueira doesn't evoke the awe that Fedor Emelianenko inspires – nor is he revered the way Randy Couture is. He'd be Roberto Clemente if they were Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, or he'd be Billy Casper if they were Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
He's the other guy.
But there's always a spot in this sport for guys such as Nogueira, who is always in shape, who always fights hard, who is one of the most versatile fighters in the history of the sport and who never turns down a challenge.
He concedes that he surprises himself with his ability to compete at the highest level after all the punishment he's endured and all the wars he's fought. Nearly 11 years after turning professional, the Brazilian still enjoys going to the gym every day and is still motivated to slay another dragon.
"When you live a healthy lifestyle and you treat your body the right way, you can go longer," Nogueira said. "Look at Randy, for example. How many years has he been at the top? Dan Henderson is the same way. Wanderlei Silva is another one. They all do the same things: They eat healthy foods, they treat their bodies right and they work hard.
"If you want to keep getting better as a fighter, you have to learn from the people who do it best. And I see what guys like Randy have been doing and that motivates me. I think I can still keep fighting top guys and being in the main events for a pretty long time. It's harder to stay at the top than it is to get there."
Nogueira is one of the few who have consistently been at the elite level for more than a handful of years. He was the first PRIDE heavyweight champion and is the only man to have won both a PRIDE and a UFC heavyweight title.
The UFC's heavyweight division is probably better than it has ever been, but Nogueira says it's only reached the tip of the iceberg. Men such as Velasquez, champion Brock Lesnar, former champion Frank Mir, Shane Carwin and Junior dos Santos are all elite fighters or on the verge of becoming elite.
"And in two years, this division is going to be so good, you won't even believe it," Nogueira said.
Nogueria, though, will almost certainly still be in the mix in two years. His manager, Ed Soares, refers to him as "The King of Hearts" because he demands so much of himself and has come back from unimaginably bad situations to win.
Never was that more true than when he fought ex-NFL player Bob Sapp. Nogueira was outweighed by more than 150 pounds and Sapp seemed at least twice as strong. He was bouncing Nogueira off the canvas like a basketball.
But Nogueira, who became interested in MMA when he watched a 170-pound countryman named Royce Gracie defeat men nearly twice his size in the early UFC shows, kept looking for a submission. Nogueira finally caught Sapp in an arm bar and defeated him, quickly becoming a fan favorite.
He's been kicked around more than an old soccer ball, but his mind continues to turn and his eyes continue to look for submissions.
"If you're going to play jiu-jitsu in the UFC, you have to be comfortable enough to play on the bottom," Nogueira said. "You have to have a strong chin and not be afraid of the punches when you play guard. You can't have any fear to play jiu-jitsu. You know you're going to open holes. You know you're going to get hit and take a lot of punishment, but you have to remain calm and watch very carefully because a hole will open at any time.
"When your opponent is punching you, yes, he's hurting you maybe, but he's opening holes and putting himself at risk, too. In my last fight [at UFC 102] with Randy, if you watched, you can see that Randy threw the elbow and I swept him. I let him stay [in my guard] and be comfortable because I knew he would be open. You learn from experience. There's pain, but there's also gain."
He raves about the skill of Velasquez and insists he knows he's in for one of his toughest bouts ever. He expects a win but won't predict one. He's far too classy, but he's also far too shrewd.
"When you are going in competition," he said, "you have to be prepared to win but you also have to be prepared to lose."
Nogueira, though, is always a winner, regardless of whose hand is raised following the final bell.
- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
- Cain Velasquez
- Randy Couture