Gabriel Gonzaga: Sensing the Prize

By Greg Savage Aug 23, 2007
LUDLOW, Mass. -- One man trains in a room full of mixed martial arts celebrities -- he being the most famous of them all -- in a Las Vegas gym that bears his name.

Another, nearly 3,000 miles away, anonymously prepares for what he hopes will be the defining moment of his young career.

In the rolling hills of Western Massachusetts, Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures), with the help of his coach Marco Alvan and a number of their students, is getting ready to take on legendary UFC idol Randy Couture (Pictures) for his heavyweight title Aug. 25.

The stark contrast in settings is not lost on the man who lit the MMA community aflame by shedding sacrificial lamb's clothing on his way to a brutal knockout over heavily-favored striker Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic this past April.

"It doesn't make too much difference if you train in a small city or big city," said the soft-spoken 28-year old challenger. "What really matters is if you are really focusing on training and you have a great team and coach around you."

For Gonzaga, that coach is Alvan.

The two became fast friends while growing up and competing in jiu-jitsu in Brazil. And it was Alvan who helped engineer Gonzaga's move from Rio de Janeiro to Ludlow. The two started Team Link with the goal of turning out top-notch fighters and competitors.

If they are anywhere near the level of Gonzaga, the team will do just fine. His coach holds him in the highest of regards and is not bashful when asked about how good he might just be.

"Gabriel has a lot of talent," boasted a beaming Alvan. "Gabriel, for me, is pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world."

Gonzaga may well turn out to be one of the best but he is going to have to get past Couture to continue his march towards the top. And that will not be an easy task for him, evidenced by the impressive display "The Natural" offered in his title-claiming defeat of Tim Sylvia (Pictures) in March. It will take a tremendous effort to ensure he brings the UFC strap back to Massachusetts and Gonzaga said he has the blueprint for success.

"As everyone knows, Randy Couture (Pictures) is an awesome fighter and always to beat a guy like that, the caliber that Randy Couture (Pictures) has, you have to train a lot," stated the respectful Gonzaga. "You have to be in the best shape of your life and go right there and present a great show."

The road to this championship bout was not an easy one. Gonzaga was much-maligned by fans and pundits alike after his UFC debut in Nov. 2005.

"Napao" as he is known to his friends -- it translates to "big nose" and references more of a sixth sense than a prominent snout -- squared off with Kevin Jordan (Pictures) in what turned out to be a terrible fight.

The Brazilian eventually scored a knockout late in the third round but the damage had already been done; fans mercilessly booed and many harangued the performance, not knowing the tribulations suffered by the octagon first-timer.

Gonzaga's wife Carolina, pregnant with twin girls -- the couple's first children -- nearly died in the weeks before the fight. Born two months premature, Isabella and her mother survived. Leticia did not.

"It was very hard to deal with," said the 6-foot-2 heavyweight, his head bowed and voice cracking. "I had a problem that anyone who's a parent knows what I am talking about, but right now it is over and I don't want to talk about this anymore. I gave the best that I could and this just made me stronger."

With his family's health secure, Gonzaga made the move to Ludlow and rattled off three consecutive wins in the UFC, upping his record to a 8-1-0. The stretch, culminated with the knockout of Filipovic, garnered him a chance at the UFC heavyweight crown.

Oddsmakers have installed Gonzaga as a slight favorite over his Hall-of-Fame opponent, and although that may have come as a surprise to the casual MMA fan, it did not astonish the savvy viewers of the sport.

Couture's junior by 16 years, "Napao" will outweigh the champ by at least 15 pounds come fight time, and he just soundly beat the man widely-viewed as the second best fighter in the division. All things considered, the only shock in the odds might be that Gonzaga isn't a heavier favorite.

When asked to break down the fight and the strategy they will employ in hopes of dethroning Couture, Alvan boldly stated that they will beat "The Natural" in his own realm: on the mat.

"Gabriel's strength is definitely Brazilian jiu-jitsu," the trainer said. "We truly believe that this fight is going to hit the ground and that's the place that Gabriel wants to be."

Alvan quipped that if Couture wants to take the fight to the ground he should just ask because they would be more than happy to start on the canvas.

Provided that Gonzaga wrests the belt away, he will cement his place as one of the best heavyweights in the world. With a baby boy due in September and the possibility of nabbing the UFC heavyweight strap, it could be a very gratifying couple of weeks for "Napao."

Still, despite those prospects, he refuses to get ahead of himself.

"I am not trying to think about what's going to happen after if I win the fight because the fight is not over yet," explained the would-be champion. "I've been trying to focus only in the fight, you know, step-by-step and after the fight then I am going to think about how it's going to be."

Although his charge was reluctant to make a prediction, Alvan made his position crystal clear, hoping perhaps it's he who possesses a sixth-sense come Aug. 25:

"I think he is going to get this belt and he's going to keep it for a long time."
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