Gonzaga sniffs out his biggest opportunity

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LUDLOW, Mass. – Gabriel Gonzaga's nickname, "Napao," literally translates from Portuguese as "big nose."

But the man who will challenge Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight championship Saturday night has an average-sized honker. So how did he end up with such a title?

" 'Napao' is a common expression in Brazil," said Gonzaga's jiu-jitsu coach, Marco Alvan. "It means you have a sixth sense; you smell what's about to happen. Gabriel is always anticipating, always ahead of his opponent. That is how he became Napao."

The moniker makes sense. Napao has sniffed out one opportunity after another en route to the biggest match of his life:

He walked away from Brazil's famed Chute Boxe Academy and moved to America because he sensed something good was happening in Alvan's school.

He thought the presumed-invincible Mirko "Cro Cop'' Filipovic had a weakness, and exploited it with ruthless precision.

And now "Big Nose" looks to seize the biggest opportunity of them all. Gonzaga will look to capture Couture's title in the main event of UFC 74 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, a mere year and a half after making his UFC debut as just another anonymous undercard fighter.

"This is the opportunity you wait for all your life," Gonzaga said (quotes in this interview are a mixture of direct answers from Gonzaga and questions fielded through Alvan and translated from Portuguese). "If no one knew who I was two years ago, that's OK. Everyone knows me now."

Gonzaga, a native of Rio de Janeiro, started his professional career at Chute Boxe, the legendary camp which has produced the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Murilo "Ninja" Rua.

But the 6-foot-3, 240-lb. Gonzaga sensed a chance to do something different when childhood friend Alvan came calling. Alvan had opened a chain of jiu-jitsu schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Here was an opportunity to work with a friend and get in on the ground floor of something new, Alvan's Team Link.

"Sometimes in life you have to take your chances," Gonzaga said. "I learned a lot through Chute Boxe, but I knew that Marco was one of the great new trainers. I knew I could continue to learn under Marco and that I would get a chance to succeed in a new environment and help build Team Link."

At first glance, Alvan's flagship Ludlow studio doesn't seem like the sort of place that would house one of the world's best up-and-coming fighters. The gym is nestled in a first-floor storefront of a renovated brick building in the downtown of this quiet suburb of Springfield, Mass., tucked between a hair salon and a hardware store.

But this is the type of humble setting that has helped produce many of 2007's great mixed martial arts upsets. While the stars risk going soft when they get big money and train in state-of-the-art facilities, guys like Gonzaga stay hungry and push themselves in these Spartan settings.

There is no UFC-style octagon in Alvan's gym, no hi-def sound system pumping loud rock music, just 1,200 square feet of blue mats and a small sitting area.

"There's a sense of community here, a sense of teamwork," Gonzaga said. "You can't get this everywhere. It does not matter that we are a small gym. What matters is that everyone is working hard and bringing their best every time you walk through the door."

That was a lesson learned by Alvan student Chris Keyes, a jiu-jitsu white belt who has studied at the school for five months.

"A couple weeks ago, I was rolling and I made a mistake," said the Chicopee, Mass., resident. "And Napao came over and took the time to show me what I did wrong. Here's this guy, he just knocked out Mirko Cro Cop and he's training to fight Randy, and he took the time to come over and teach a beginner how to do things right."

At the UFC 66 post-fight press conference last December, company president Dana White swore to reporters that Gonzaga was legit and deserved more recognition. Gonzaga had just upped his octagon record to 3-0 with a convincing win over previously unbeaten Carmelo Marrero via first-round tapout. Gonzaga dominated the standup, then worked over Marrero on the ground until he saw an opening for an armbar.

"He's for real, guys," White said. "He belongs right up with the top heavyweights."

The reporters nodded politely and assumed this was a White hype job.

Four months later, the skepticism stopped.

Gonzaga didn't just beat Filipovic on April 21. He dominated the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix champion from start to finish at UFC 70 in Manchester, England.

"We knew going in I could beat him," Gonzaga said. "Even if no one else gave us a chance, that's OK. I have the confidence I can beat anyone. When they came to me and offered me Mirko as an opponent, I was happy to get the chance. I didn't even think twice about it, I said, 'I'm ready.' "

Napao knew that Mirko uses body kicks to set up his trademark high knockout kick. He also knew Mirko likes to wait and pick his spots.

So Gonzaga pushed the pace from the outset. He even was willing to eat one of Filipovic's nasty body kicks, waiting for the right time to strike. When Cro Crop went to the body a second time, Gonzaga caught the leg and scored a takedown. Gonzaga spent the next several minutes in Mirko's guard, raining down punches and elbows.

"We knew he likes to set up the high kicks with a kick to the body," Gonzaga said. "We knew it was coming. I was waiting on it. I couldn't grab the first one and he strung me with it, but I got the second one."

A controversial restart near the end of the round by referee Herb Dean appeared to let Mirko off the hook. Instead, Gonzaga unleashed his devastating kick to the head. The clip made SportsCenter and endlessly was recycled on YouTube, with users reposting the video as fast as the UFC could get it yanked.

The end result? A new star was born, and Gonzaga had his guaranteed title shot.

"I was surprised when (Dean) ordered us back to our feet," Gonzaga said. "But as soon as I got up, I could see that Mirko was ready to be finished off. I could see it in his eyes. I knew that was my chance, and I made it happen."

Knocking out Cro Cop, who has been bestowed mythical status among hardcore fans but is not a household name in the United States, is one thing. Taking on the most beloved figure in MMA is something else altogether.

There will be no Tito Ortiz-style trash talk going into this one: Gonzaga is just as much in awe of "The Natural"'s accomplishments as the rest of us. The then-43-year-old Couture mesmerized fans with his transcendent performance in beating Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title March 3 in Columbus.

"Randy Couture is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete," Gonzaga said. "When Randy won, we stood and applauded him like everyone else. Just to have the opportunity to compete against him is a tremendous honor.

"(But) you can't treat this any differently than any other fight. Once the match starts he is just another opponent. He has what I want. Once I step into the octagon, he's just like anyone else I compete against."

The challenger is aware of Couture's overwhelming popularity. After all, Chuck Liddell is one of MMA's most popular stars, but the crowd sided with Couture at UFC 57 in his third and final match with the Iceman.

"I know the fans are probably going to cheer for Randy," Gonzaga said. "That is OK with me. I just hope they appreciate who I am and how hard I fight for them. I know Randy will have the crowd with him, but I'm confident that in time they will appreciate my skills and learn to like me."

On paper, Gonzaga seems a bad matchup for the champ, who is known for having trouble against heavyweights with solid ground skills. But even with the apparent edge on the ground, Gonzaga (8-1) isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with Couture (15-8).

"It doesn't matter to me how the match finishes," Gonzaga said. "If you want me to predict, I'll say I win by KO. But I will win whatever way I can."

Gonzaga's trainer has an idea how he wants it to finish, though.

"I am Brazilian," Alvan said. "I have jiu-jitsu in my soul. What greater thrill would it be than to have Napao win the title with a submission? I want to petition the UFC to start the match differently. Instead of standing them up, let's start with Napao pulling guard and Randy on top, and see where it goes from there."

Who will win at UFC 74? Go to the Yahoo! Sports MMA/Boxing experts blog and tell us what you think.