COMMENTARY | Mauricio Rua accomplished one of the most impressive feats in mixed martial arts history when he won the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix.
The tournament win (four of them, actually, against top fighters) catapulted Rua from the No. 2 light heavyweight on his team, Chute Box, to arguably the No. 1 light heavyweight in the world. Pride's middleweight division then was the same weight class as the UFC's light heavyweight division now, currently ruled by Jon Jones.
With a blend of violent aggression, elite technique, and still under the age of 25, "Shogun" seemed destined for greatness. There's no denying he's accomplished a lot since the GP win, including a UFC light heavyweight title, but the road to greatness has been anything but smooth.
Rua's first post-GP fight came against Mark Coleman, an American heavyweight wrestler. It was a spectacle matchup, which Pride indulge in and the UFC mostly avoids. When Coleman grabbed for a takedown, Rua fell violently on his elbow and dislocated it. Coleman was awarded the victory, but few game him credit for decisively beating Rua.
"Shogun" would rebound with four straight victories in Pride against varied levels of completion. When they closed up shop in 2007, Rua was recognized as the top 205er in the world thanks in part to Quinton Jackson's destruction of longtime UFC kingpin Chuck Liddell.
Rua's first Octagon experience came against Forrest Griffin, who was viewed more as a UFC poster boy than true competition. To the shock of hardcore MMA fans everywhere, Griffin outworked the No. 1 light heavyweight in the world, and submitted him in the closing minute of the fight.
Rua was sidelined with a knee injury for all of 2008, which hindered his performance against Griffin, and came back in 2009 to win a sloppy rematch against Coleman, and then knockout the fading Liddell
He was granted a title shot against the then-"unsolvable" karate master, Lyoto Machida, but wasn't viewed as the guy capable of solving Machida's technical puzzle. Rua put together his best performance in years, and he was able to beat Machida at his own game. He remained elusive throughout the fight, engaging when he had advantageous angles, and keeping Machida from controlling the fight.
Ironically, "Shogun's" coming-out party in the UFC was scored as a unanimous decision lost, despite most believing he had won the fight. An immediate rematch took place and Rua looked like a man possessed, walking through Machida's offense and knocking him unconscious. It was his most spectacular performance in the UFC.
In his first defense as light heavyweight champion, he was an underdog against Jon Jones. This had more to do with Jones' rampage through top competition than Rua's deficiencies. Rua, like all of Jones' subsequent opposition, was no match for "Bones."
He bounced back by knocking out Griffin in a rematch, and then lost a razor-thin decision to Dan Henderson in a fight worthy of being called one of the best of all time. Next up was a back-and-forth stoppage victory over the always-game Brandon Vera.
"Shogun" has no distinct weakness. His cardio has been deservedly questioned, but he's also outlasted opponents in wars against Henderson and Coleman. He's known for his Mauy Thai striking, and also compliments his game with above-average takedowns and take-down defense. On the ground, he's adept both offensively and defensively. Despite a 5-6 record in the UFC, there's really no blueprint for beating him, except being one of the best fighters in the world.
Chael Sonnen made Rua look bad Saturday night. He was smothered by Sonnen's top-control, and submitted before he was able to show off any of his supposedly improved punching power from training with boxing coach Freddie Roach. Rua said before the fight that he has no plans to retire. And maybe he shouldn't, he's bounced back from more than one poor performance.
In the 8 years since he won the Pride GP, Rua has shown flashes of the greatness but has never been able to sustain it. He's also gone toe-to-toe with the best fighters in the world one after another and whether he won or lost, rarely made excuses for his performance or insulted his opposition.
Rua is one of the good guys in the sport. He may never reach the levels of greatness envisioned for him in 2005, but the name "Shogun" will always command respect in the world of mixed martial arts.
Joe Napoli has been a follower of MMA since the Dark Ages. JoeJNapoli.
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