Photo: WILTON JUNIOR/AGENCIA ESTADO/AE (Agencia Estado via AP Images)
Following a 13-year absence, the UFC’s return to Brazil was a night to remember, with three of the nation’s legends scoring huge wins in front of a lively crowd at Rio De Janiero’s HSBC Arena.
Middleweight champ Anderson Silva scored a punishing second-round stoppage of Yushin Okami, notching his 14th win in the UFC and showcasing his trademark accuracy and dynamism. In the semi-main event, Mauricio Rua dispatched Forrest Griffin in the first round, scoring a big win after losing his belt last March to Jon Jones.
And in perhaps the most emotionally uplifting bout of the night, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira knocked out rising heavyweight star Brendan Schaub, in what was the first bout of his 12-year career in his native Brazil.
Anderson Silva: Tonight’s performance underscored how important Chael Sonnen is in determining whether Silva moves up to 205 pounds for a superfight against Jon Jones, because nobody else in the division is remotely compelling as a challenger.
This is the version of Silva upon which his terrifying reputation was built. After an opening round where Okami scored a couple of punches from standing range and managed to not get killed while tying up on the fence, the champ went to work. Once Silva started shimmying and pushing forward, the signal was sent loud and clear: he’d given Okami notice, and was prepared to finish.
Drilling the challenger with a speedy right hook, Silva pounced, finishing the bout with punches and elbows as the dazed Okami simply withered into a defensive posture.
Going into the bout, the pro-Okami argument went like this: he had a style similar to Chael Sonnen, who greatly troubled Silva in their epic August 2010 tussle at UFC 117. He could pressure and plant Silva to the ground and exploit the champ’s wrestling; pretty much the only area of Silva’s game that isn’t elite-level. But Silva never let Okami get close to this outside of the first round, where he had Okami too busy defending against the plum clinch to really uncork a legitimate takedown attempt.
That’s Silva in a nutshell. He has opponents preoccupied with so many things that it’s hard to do anything, especially when he blindsides you in the off-chance that you actually can get a strike or a takedown attempt off.
Mauricio Rua: “Shogun” needed a big win tonight for several reasons, and got it with a KO of Forrest Griffin. After getting battered and stopped by Jones, you had to wonder how Rua would respond.
Uncorking the aggressive strikes that made him the rising terror of Pride’s light heavyweight division in the mid-2000s, Rua vaulted to the short list of potential 205-pound challengers. The good news for Rua regarding the Sept. 24 Jones-Quinton Jackson bout is that he’s a marketable opponent for either; should Rashad Evans get next and win the belt, that’s another bout that’s appealing, as well, especially since Rua and Evans were originally slated to tangle in March.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: As beloved a fighter the game has seen, Nogueira had fallen on a rough patch since the peak of his UFC career, where he submitted Tim Sylvia to win the interim heavyweight title in February 2008. Subsequent KO losses to Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez, sandwiched around a decision win over Randy Couture, seemed to indicate the former Proide champ had seen better days. With a style based on gritty comebacks -- often after taking enormous punishment -- Nogueira maintained that injuries had dogged him, and his 18-month absence since the brutal Velasquez defeat allowed him to heal up.
Against Schaub, the performance was classic Nogueira, using a veteran’s wares to lure his opponent into an ultimately fatal trap. Pushing the standup pace and eating some shots while slipping others, Nog landed a big right hand to drop the upstart, and then jumped in for a finishing attack. With a dangerous guard and underrated boxing skills, Nogueira remains one of the handful of heavyweights that virtually everyone would think twice about before trying to take down. Tonight’s win rejuvenated his UFC marketability -- much as Tito Ortiz’ submission of Ryan Bader did -- and creates some interesting future matches for “Big Nog.”
Edson Barboza: The Brazilian dynamo bumped his unbeaten record to 9-0 in a close decision win over Ross Pearson. Barboza’s standup is eerily similar to UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo, from his snap-bang low kicks to blazing punches and smooth delivery.
The downside is that tonight, much as was the case in his razor-thin decision over Anthony Njokuani in his last outing, Barboza seems to do these wonderful things in spots, while being passive and seemingly resting in between bursts. This may well be a product of cutting weight -- he’s the biggest 5’11 lightweight you’ll ever see -- which might explain the dazzling athleticism showcased in between passive periods.
Barboza’s got considerable tools and the time to work on them; he’ll have to as he ascends the ladder against better competition, especially in the wrestler-heavy lightweight division.
Ross Pearson: The Brit gave a credible performance in a decision defeat to Barboza, showing improved head movement and striking. To his credit, he tried a few times unsuccessfully to plant his foe to the mat when it was apparent he couldn’t get the upper hand standing.
Pearson’s a durable lightweight with decent wrestling and stamina, but just couldn’t get over the hump against the more-gifted Barboza. However, a meaningful shot or two in one of the close rounds could’ve nicked the bout for the Englishman, who lost 29-28 on two of three judges’ cards.
Yushin Okami: Okami certainly gave it his best and is still a very tough middleweight. He falls into the curious position of having the wrestling chops and overall intensity to beat most rising contenders, yet being far away from getting a title shot in the foreseeable future. Call him the Jon Fitch of the middleweights.
Forrest Griffin: Shogun Rua has made a career of blasting foes into la-la land, and Griffin is the latest unfortunate addition to this list (at least if you’re Griffin). A hard loss here, but Forrest’s ability to overcome the odds has always defined him, and hopefully he’s still got a wild-card performance or two left in him.
Brendan Schaub: Coming into his bout with Nogueira, Schaub had progressed measurably as a fighter. And in the opening two and a half minutes of the bout, Brendan did exactly what he was supposed to. He moved. He jabbed. He fired off sharp punches and then got away to reset and do it again, while scoring with short blows on Nog’s failed tie-up attempts prior to escaping.
The problem with Nogueira is he’s at his most dangerous precisely when your game plan is going so well -- ask Bob Sapp, Mirko Filipovic or Tim Sylvia for particulars on this. Schaub has nothing to be ashamed of in this performance, as he lost to a much more experienced legend. With his work ethic and athleticism, he should come back a better fighter because of it.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.