LOS ANGELES – Not long ago, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was more punch line than punch-out artist.
The former PRIDE Grand Prix champion arrived in the UFC in Sept. 2007 ranked No. 2 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound poll and was considered by many the world's finest light heavyweight.
But one calamity after another struck once he arrived. First, there was an embarrassing submission loss to Forrest Griffin in his debut. Then there was the knee injury that required two surgeries and kept him on the sideline for 16 months.
By the time of his lackluster win over 44-year-old Mark Coleman, in his January return, Rua was often brought up along Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic as the PRIDE fighters who were the biggest washouts in the UFC.
"I don't care what others say," Rua said through interpreter Eduardo Alonso. "I know about what I say and what I do and how my career goes. Whatever people want to say, they're entitled to their opinion."
Tuning out the criticism proved pivotal, because "Shogun" is poised to have the last laugh. Just nine months after the Coleman fight, Rua has a chance to establish himself as the world's best light heavyweight. He'll meet champion Lyoto Machida for the title in the main event of Saturday night's UFC 104 at Staples Center.
"I never really doubted myself or had big fears regarding my future," Rua (18-3) said. "Those were the dark days of my career; it was very tough. Now I think I'm at the best stage of my life both professionally and personally. I knew all I needed was a chance to prove myself."
Rua got that opportunity when he faced Chuck Liddell in the co-main event of April's UFC 97. The matchmaking was questioned by those who felt Rua's performance against Coleman shouldn't have been rewarded with a headline fight, but those critics were silenced when Rua scored a first-round knockout.
"I think against Chuck Liddell I kind of proved to the American people and to the doubters my potential," Rua said. "It is our duty as fighters to evolve and get better and show a better performance for the fans."
But Alonso noted that even that wasn't enough to win over all the skeptics. "Before the Liddell fight, everyone said 'Shogun' was going to get killed. After he won, they said he beat up an old man and blah blah."
That belief has been reflected at the sports books, where Machida, who has a 15-0 record and is ranked No. 4 in the current Y! Sports Top 10, is a heavy favorite. It's a notion with which UFC president Dana White heartily disagrees.
"The casual fans, they don't understand how good 'Shogun' is at his best," White said. "The hardcore fans have seen what he was capable of in PRIDE, winning the Grand Prix, so they know. But the average fan only knows what they saw when he first came to the UFC.
"When you have surgery and you're away from fighting as long as [Rua] was, it takes some time to get back into it. I’m telling you, you're going to see the PRIDE 'Shogun' on Saturday night."
For his part, though, Rua isn't fazed by those who consider Machida the favorite.
"So far in my career, every time I have entered as the underdog, I have won," Rua said. "I think that may be because the pressure is on the favorite, he is the one with the responsibility of proving people right. … Lyoto is the champion. He is undefeated for his whole career. He deserves it. It is what it is."
Machida's unique fighting style is well documented. The Belem, Brazil native blends aspects of Shotokan karate, an uncanny sense of balance due to his sumo wrestling training, and a counter-striking style that enabled him to win seven consecutive UFC fights without losing a single round.
Add in the dose of explosive offense that completed Machida's push to the top in devastating knockout wins over Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans, and you have a fighter no one has yet to figure out. The "Shogun" of old was an aggressive fighter who has 15 of his 18 wins via knockout or TKO. But the new "Shogun" knows that rushing in on Machida is an invitation for misery.
"The biggest change between then and now is experience," Rua said. "I am better strategically and I am better able to adapt to different styles. Of course you try to get better physically and technically and all that, but experience and maturity is the biggest difference.
"I know Lyoto very well. I have studied him well and trained his style, I hope I can keep up with my strategy the whole fight because you know what to expect, so I don't want to get frustrated and change my plans. We can only know for sure what's going to happen when the fight starts. Anything can change at any given moment."
For which Rua himself is proof.