If there's a secret regarding the legendary durability of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, it might be his vivid memory.
The former PRIDE heavyweight champion, who has fought some of the biggest and baddest men in the sport in 37 professional fights, has never been stopped, even though he's spent plenty of time getting pounded and been in situations often that would have stopped virtually all competitors.
Frank Mir, who challenges Nogueira on Dec. 27 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship interim heavyweight title, refers to him as being like a cockroach that can't be killed.
But at 6-3 and 242 pounds, Nogueira's got to be the biggest and most dangerous cockroach on the planet, and based on credentials, would have to be considered the second-best heavyweight in the history of the sport.
Whether he's being powerbombed on his head by 360-pound Bob Sapp, punched out by a prime Mirko Cro Cop, knocked down repeatedly by a giant Tim Sylvia, caught in a kneebar by submission expert Josh Barnett or on the receiving end of Fedor Emelianenko for 20 solid minutes, he's always survived. And with a 31-4-1 record, with one no contest, he's usually come out on top.
How? When things get hairy, he starts thinking about what happened when he was 11 years old.
"I was at a birthday party and a truck backed up and the wheels ran over my chest," he recalls vividly. "I lost part of my lung and my liver. I was in a coma for a long time and in and out of the hospital for a year.
"For sure, when I'm in a fight and having a hard time, I think back to that time because that was the worst. No matter how bad things are, my attitude is that it's nothing compared to what happened then. Thank God I survived it."
Nogueira, nicknamed "Big Nog" because he has an identical twin brother, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira – "Little Nog" – who fights mostly in Japan, is the only man in history to capture championships in both the UFC and PRIDE. He's coming off an 11-month layoff, the longest of his career, to face Mir in a five-round championship match. The winner faces Brock Lesnar to unify the UFC heavyweight title, likely next spring.
The interim title was created after Randy Couture quit the company as heavyweight champion in late 2007. To strengthen UFC's legal position against Couture, there was a clause in his contract that said as long as he held the championship he couldn't fight for another organization, UFC wouldn't strip him of the title.
But at the time, there appeared to be a good shot Couture would never return to the UFC, so Nogueira and Sylvia squared off on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas to create an interim champion, who at the time figured to be considered the real champion when all was said and done.
Things weren't looking good for Nogueira through the first two rounds of the fight. His left eye was nearly swollen shut. He was knocked down and losing the stand-up, unable to keep Sylvia on the ground. He lost the first two rounds. But in round three, he caught Sylvia in a guillotine and came out as champion.
Despite his Japanese fame, Nogueira was largely unknown in America when he fought Sylvia. But after three months of television exposure as a coach on "The Ultimate Fighter," fans will have more of a connection with him, and hence, it should greatly help both his popularity and marketability in an industry where Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slice are huge draws, and the best pound-for-pound fighters, Anderson Silva and Emelianenko, are not.
The crowd reaction at the MGM Grand should be interesting. Nogueira clearly came off better than Mir on the small screen. Mir's fighters took the early edge in the first round of the competition. But when the filming of the show ended, Nogueira had three of the four finalists, and because of a bet made between them, Nogueira shaved Mir's hair on the show's final episode.
But Mir is a native of Las Vegas who was a crowd favorite even during the days he was seemingly down-and-out as a fighter after a broken leg suffered in a motorcycle accident seemed to snuff out a once-promising career.
"Eleven months off, I don't like that," said the 32-year-old Nogueira. "It makes you get out of shape. I was out of shape when I got there (to do the reality show, which started filming in late May). When I was training with the guys, I got motivated. They were all hungry and gave me great motivation to train hard."
While Nogueira lives most of the year in Florida, he went back to Brazil for his main fight preparation where he had a dozen strong training partners, then headed back to Las Vegas last week's "Ultimate Fighter" finals.
Nogueira is a 3 ½-1 favorite in the fight, largely because if you look at the history of the two, Nogueira has never been stopped and Mir usually has not looked good past the first round.
"He's strong at the beginning of the fight," said Nogueira. "He's good with armbars and leglocks. I have to be cautious early on, when he's very good. His endurance is not as good as mine and the longer the fight goes, it's better for me. He's got good kicks as well, but I've been training a lot of new things."
Come-from-behind wins are his specialty. He was dominated by Sapp in
2002 before 71,000 fans at Tokyo National Stadium in a fight that made both men household names in Japan. Sapp picked him up and dropped him hard with a power bomb, and the stunned Nogueira took punishment on the ground for nearly 14 straight minutes before Sapp finally ran out of gas and was armbarred. He had a similar bout the next year with Cro Cop, in a match which at the time was figured to determine who the second best heavyweight was behind Emelianenko. Cro Cop, the most feared striker in the sport at the time, was taking Nogueira apart with punches and kicks, and seemed to have him finished at the end of the first round.
But Nogueira took the punishment, got Cro Cop to the ground, and armbarred him as well.
Two of his four career losses ended up being avenged: A controversial 2000 split decision loss to a much smaller Dan Henderson was avenged in 2002 with an armbar; a 2006 split-decision loss to Josh Barnett in a fight that could have gone either way was avenged three months later with a close but solid decision victory.
His only career black marks have been to Emelianenko, who beat him by decision in 2003 to win the PRIDE heavyweight title. A rematch in 2004 ended in a no contest, when after an accidental head-butt, Emelianenko suffered a deep forehead cut and the match had to be stopped. Nogueira believes he was en route to winning the fight at the time. But a third meeting, on the 2004 New Year's Eve show, saw Emelianenko win another unanimous decision.
Both losses were due to Emelianenko being able to muscle Nogueira around, as even he never came close to finishing. Because of those losses, he's worked harder on weights and his boxing, and has gained some size, which he feels would lead to a different result if the two were to fight again.