Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has never lost two fights in a row. | Photo: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com
Father Time with each passing day seems to nip more and more aggressively at the heels of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Roy Nelson.
Nogueira will meet Nelson in the UFC Fight Night 40 main event on Friday at du Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Personal stakes could not be higher for the two aging gladiators, as defeat could prove disastrous to their immediate aspirations in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight division.
A former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder and widely regarded as one of the top 5 heavyweights of all-time, Nogueira has not fought since submitting to a Fabricio Werdum armbar at UFC on Fuel TV 10 in June. The popular 37-year-old Brazilian has never suffered back-to-back losses as a professional, having compiled one of MMA’s most respected and enduring resumes. Nogueira has delivered more than half (21) of his 34 career victories by submission.
Nelson will enter the cage on a two-fight losing streak. The 37-year-old Las Vegas native last competed at UFC 166 in October, when he dropped a unanimous decision to the unbeaten Daniel Cormier at the Toyota Center in Houston. Known for his underrated ground game and sledgehammer right hand, Nelson owns wins over 2006 Pride open weight grand prix winner Mirko Filipovic, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 finalist Brendan Schaub and Bellator MMA Season 9 heavyweight tournament winner Cheick Kongo.
The UFC Fight Night 40 lineup supplies plenty of water cooler fodder. We discuss some of it here:
Knapp: What is the most interesting aspect of this heavyweight main event for you?
Whitman: On the surface, it is easy to look at this as a matchup between Nelson’s fists and Nogueira’s chin, but the Brazilian’s offensive boxing should not be underestimated. “Minotauro” does not have the quickest hands in the world, but I think he puts his combinations together better than Nelson, who has shown the tendency to rely on walk-off shots in the past. If Nelson allows Nogueira to stand up straight in the pocket and use his jab, this one could get quite interesting.
Knapp: It seems like this is a question asked before every “Minotauro” fight, but would you like to see Nogueira hang it up in the event of a loss?
Whitman: While it would be presumptuous of me to speak boldly about whether a competitor as decorated and seasoned as Nogueira should hang up his gloves, I feel comfortable stating from an objective point of view that I would like to see the former Pride champion retire sooner rather than later. He is unquestionably one of the greatest heavyweights this sport has ever known, and he has nothing more to prove. He has also logged a lot of miles on his body and taken as much in-ring punishment as anyone I can readily name. Time catches up with all fighters, even the best of them.
Knapp: So many “what ifs” have followed Nelson through his career that there is little point in rehashing them now. One thing we know for sure is that “Big Country” can knock out any man alive if he hits him right. I think that is the most likely outcome for this main event. Do you agree that Nogueira -- a man who was once regarded as nearly impossible to finish -- will suffer another stoppage loss at the hands of Nelson?
Whitman: If I had to bet on a specific way for this fight to end, yes, that would be my inclination, but I do not believe such an ending is by any means assured. Remember that Nogueira was also counted out against Dave Herman and Brendan Schaub, both of whom he smashed.
Knapp: Tatsuya Kawajiri has already made it known he has designs on a featherweight title shot. At 35 years old, he has little time to waste. Do you think the “Crusher” will ever challenge for the UFC belt?
Whitman: I could see it happening, but it might be a tough sell. If it were me, however, I would give Kawajiri some leeway considering his lengthy and highly regarded body of work. With his advancing age, I think two more wins should be enough to earn him a title shot. If he gets past Clay Guida, I would pair him with somebody with solid top-10 status. There is plenty of talent at the top of the division, and, provided he can score a victory over a contender, I think he should be in the running alongside Chad Mendes and the winner of Jeremy Stephens-Cub Swanson.
Knapp: Guida, meanwhile, was knocked out for the first time in his most recent outing against Mendes. While there is no shame in such a defeat, I have to wonder if “The Carpenter” will find himself stuck just outside the title picture, as he was for years as a lightweight. Do you think he will ever get over the hump?
Whitman: Guida has put on some of the best fights the UFC has ever seen, and I have no doubt fans will never forget his battles with the likes of Roger Huerta, Nate Diaz, Tyson Griffin and Diego Sanchez, but I’m not sure “The Carpenter” will ever get over that hump. While he definitely has the ability to beat Kawajiri and some of the tough customers who populate the top 10, Guida needs to exhibit some tangible dominance at 145 pounds before we can say for sure one way or another.
Knapp: Thales Leites has looked sharp, if not spectacular, in his return to the UFC, mostly on the strength of his ground game. Do you think Leites has another run at the top-10 up his sleeve?
Whitman: The middleweight division is far denser than it was when Leites earned his title shot against Anderson Silva in 2009. While the Brazilian’s ground game is a powerful weapon, I do not see him usurping the likes of Costas Philippou, Tim Kennedy or Tim Boetsch to work his way into the top 10.
Knapp: Beneil Dariush is another up-and-comer who got me off the couch with his last fight -- a first-round stoppage of veteran Charlie Brenneman. What do you think of Dariush’s chances against Ramsey Nijem and is this 24-year-old good enough to become a serious contender in the UFC’s stacked lightweight division?
Whitman: I really like Dariush, and I especially like that he can fight off his back. It is too early to tell whether he can hang with the division’s best, but the good news is that we have plenty of time to find out just how good this 24-year-old can be.