After his introduction to the general public on “The Ultimate Fighter" reality show two years ago, people thought of Brendan Schaub as an ex-football player, who, when his days in that sport were over, jumped on the MMA bandwagon.
But having grown up in Aurora, Colo., just outside Denver, Schaub can vividly remember the interest he had at age 10 when the first UFC came to town.
While he played all sorts of sports in high school, and later played in the Arena Football League and had a stint on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, his goal was nonetheless to get into the same Octagon as Royce Gracie.
When it was announced that UFC 134 was going to be held in Rio de Janeiro, one would have expected the UFC roster’s large Brazilian contingent to call the office and beg for a spot on the show. A big American ex-football player who came from the reality show, not so much.
"It was always a dream of mine to compete in Brazil," said Schaub, who faces one of the sport’s legends, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, on Saturday night at the HSBC Arena. "UFC has never been [in Rio]. The Gracies have a big influence on society here. A lot of the top guys are Brazilian. I think it’s time, a historic moment, and I think people in Brazil feel that."
Schaub has been spending what should be his free time in Rio during fight week doing work in the community. He and his sponsors have given away MMA gear and equipment to children’s programs every afternoon between his training sessions and promotional duties.
"This one is different for sure," he said as compared to his prior UFC fights, all held in the U.S. "It has special meaning. The energy from the locals is insane. At [Wednesday’s] open workouts, I’ve never seen anything like it, and that includes being at the open workouts for the [Shane] Carwin vs. [Brock] Lesnar fight."
Schaub (8-1) didn’t just ask to be on the show, he specifically asked for Nogueira as his opponent. For Schaub, fighting where Royce Gracie got his start may be like a childhood fantasy, but for Nogueira, the emotional meaning is even stronger.
Nogueira (32-6-1), is 35, but one could argue his ring age is much older after more than a decade as one of the sport’s hardest-hitting, give-and-take sluggers. He’s the only man in history to have been a champion in RINGS (2000-01 King of Kings tourney), PRIDE (heavyweight champion 2001-2003, interim champion 2003-2004) and the UFC (interim champion 2008). He had the reputation of being a fighter who was impossible to finish until his 2008 loss to Frank Mir, which came when he fought shortly after being hospitalized with a staph infection.
Nogueira lives about three miles from the HSBC Arena, but he’s never fought MMA in Brazil. He was a jiu-jitsu champion, then recruited to come to the U.S. to fight when the Brazilian scene was almost nonexistent. His quick submissions led to him being recruited by officials from the Japanese RINGS group, which in those days debuted the best undiscovered heavyweight talent.
After winning RINGS’ major tournament, he was signed away by PRIDE right after the latter organization had become the world’s dominant promotion. In late 2006, when UFC president Dana White made the directive to bring the best heavyweights to UFC, MIrko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Nogueira were the first two big signings.
"Big Nog" hasn’t fought since being knocked out by current heavyweight kingpin Cain Velasquez 18 months ago in Australia. Aside from a match two years ago with Randy Couture that was one of the year’s best, he hasn’t looked like the Nogueira of old since 2006. Since the Velasquez fight he’s had surgery on both his hips and one of his knees. He was on crutches for five months, but claims that now for the first time he’s training without pain.
But the uncertainty of whether Nogueira can turn back time has made Schaub a 5-to-2 favorite. Schaub, whose only loss came at the hands of Roy Nelson in the finals of “TUF” season 10, has since made his name beating former big names.
Company officials clearly see something in Schaub. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he is in great shape, moves well, and hits hard. He’s got both a crowd-pleasing style and has a marketable look, with popularity among the sometimes hard-to-reach female fight fan demographic.
Being put on time-after-time with high profile fighters gave Schaub his chance to rise in fame, and this is just the next chapter. On Oct. 23, he out-boxed veteran Gabriel Gonzaga for three rounds. And on March 19, he knocked Filipovic, a superstar in PRIDE from Nogueira’s era, out cold with an overhand right.
"It’s similar," he noted about going from Cro Cop to Nogueira. "They are similar legends but fighting him [Nogueira] in his home town makes it a little different than fighting ‘Cro Cop’ in New Jersey. When he was walking out, I was thinking, `Here’s ‘Cro Cop,’ the guy you watched for all those years.’ But once the cage door shut, it was business as usual. The same thing is going to happen on Saturday night."
Nogueira in his prime was a good technical boxer with a great chin. But the chin has been in question in years. In his last five fights, even though he won three, he took a real beating in four, was knocked out in two, knocked down several times in another before coming back to win, and was nearly knocked out in a fourth.
With a loss, it would be very difficult for Nogueira to ever work himself back into championship contention. A loss will hurt Schaub, but he will always have the opportunity to bounce back.
"Yeah, I think the pressure is on him, but when you’re climbing the ladder in the heavyweight division, a loss puts you back," said Schaub.
Stylistically, Schaub is a big heavyweight with good takedown defense and knockouts in seven of his eight wins. The obvious strategy is to use his quickness standing, then go for the opening to deliver the big blow.
But Schaub is preparing for the guy he watched on tapes years ago, not the guy who fought Velasquez.
"He’s had time to recuperate and recover to be on this card," Schaub said. "For me to expect anything but the best Nogueira is silly. He said at the press conference that he’s never felt better."