Sherdog’s Comeback Fighter of the Year: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
By Brian Knapp (firstname.lastname@example.org)
No one could have foreseen the fall, especially Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Sherdog’s Comeback Fighter of the Year for 2009, he arrived in the UFC hyped as the world’s premiere light heavyweight, a real-life Brazilian destroyer who had left fighters like Quinton Jackson, Alistair Overeem, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona in his dust. Rua walked into his promotional debut against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner Forrest Griffin as a prohibitive favorite in 2007.
Someone forgot to inform Griffin, who submitted the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix winner with a third-round rear-naked choke at UFC 76. Rua would not fight again for 16 months.
Two reconstructive knee surgeries kept him on the shelf and out of a proposed big-ticket bout with UFC hall of famer Chuck Liddell, and by the time Rua re-entered the Octagon against Mark Coleman in January 2009, there were more questions about him than there were answers. The doubts only multiplied. Though he dominated Coleman, a former UFC heavyweight champion and Pride open weight grand prix winner, Rua looked sloppy in doing so and faded as the fight deepened. Coleman, equally exhausted, finally succumbed to strikes in the last half minute of the UFC 93 co-main event.
A few months later, Rua was back in the cage to face Liddell and looked like his old self. Behind controlled aggression, he battered the fading but still dangerous former champion, putting him away with a ringing left hand and follow-up hammerfists late in the first round at the Bell Center in Montreal. The UFC 97 victory forced the “Iceman” into semi-retirement and put a renewed Rua in position to challenge for UFC gold for the first time.
Shogun, a heavy underdog, met undefeated light heavyweight king Lyoto Machida in the UFC 104 main event on Oct. 24 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The result of their tactical five-round encounter stirred debate for months.
Early on, Rua made it clear he had indeed returned to a championship level. He punished Machida’s legs and body, as he closed the distance and negated a majority of his attacks. Shogun appeared to take over in the final two rounds, as the champion slowed noticeably. The toll of the challenger’s relentless body attack paid late dividends and had Machida uncharacteristically out of synch. By honing in on Machida’s midsection, Shogun targeted the most vulnerable area on one of the most elusive fighters in MMA history. Despite the defeat, he easily eclipsed the success of any previous Machida opponent and may have left a permanent crack in the facade of invincibility surrounding the karateka.
When the final horn sounded, Rue raised his hands skyward and celebrated with his team. Machida half-heartedly answered, but in a telling sign, as he waited for scorecards to be read, the champion stood with his head down as if preparing for bad news. It never came. All three judges scored it 48-47 in Machida’s favor, as he notched his eighth consecutive win inside the Octagon.
Though he left the arena empty-handed, Rua had re-established himself as one of the elite fighters in the 205-pound division.
“I think it was a good year,” Rua told Sherdog.com. “I achieved my goals. Unfortunately, I didn’t win the belt, but I was happy with my performance, and besides, I have a new chance for the title in 2010. So I’m tranquil and I’m done with the goals that I outlined in 2009.”
A hand injury to Machida required surgery and postponed the rematch, but the two will meet again when they headline UFC 113 on May 1 in Montreal. The challenges will not end there, as, win or lose, Rua figures to remain a fixture in the division for the foreseeable future.
“I believe that this category is the most competitive in the world. It always was,” he said. “I know you will never have a breeze, and as I fight in the UFC, which is the biggest event in the world, I know I’ll always face tough guys and can’t expect to have easy bouts. I know that, and I will always expect to face the top fighters of the division.”
Greg Savage and Gleidson Venga contributed to this report.