Vale Tudo Relics: The Career Arc of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua

One moment in particular moved the Brazilian fans at UFC 301 on May 4 in Rio de Janeiro. Just before the Jose Aldo-Jonathan Martinez co-main event and the Alexandre Pantoja-Steve Erceg headliner, the lights went out in Farmasi Arena and the screen showed a compilation of impressive knockouts that marked the career of one of the great names in the sport’s history: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Greeted by the testimonies of dozens of fellow legends and given a standing ovation by the fans, a surprised Rua grew visibly emotional when he heard the narrator announce his induction into the pioneer wing of the UFC Hall of Fame. Few have been more deserving than the former Pride Fighting Championships grand prix winner and onetime Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder, who fought 42 times during his 21-year run.

Rua’s most endearing trait was always his incessant search for the knockout. A trademark since he debuted at the age of 20 in 2002, he was introduced to fans in Curitiba, Brazil as “the brother of Murilo ‘Ninja’ Rua” and a protege of Wanderlei Silva, who had just struck gold in Pride by knocking out Kazushi Sakuraba. “Shogun” needed only four minutes to stop Rafael Freitas in his Nov. 8, 2002 debut, putting away the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and capoeira master with a head kick followed by stomps under the Meca World Vale Tudo banner. Six months later, Rua returned to the organization and introduced the world to what would become one of his trademarks, as he knocked out Angelo Antonio de Oliveira with soccer kicks in just 55 seconds. “Shogun” then faced his most difficult test to that point when he took on the far more experienced Evangelista Santos at Meca 9. Their war lasted more than nine minutes and went down in history as one of the most exciting fights of all-time. Both men suffered knockdowns, but Rua turned the tide in several exchanges and disposed of “Cyborg” with punches from the mount. He was recognized by the Brazilian media as a true vale tudo showman for the first time, hence the “Shogun” nickname.

Before taking his burgeoning superstar to Japan, Chute Boxe frontman Rudimar Fedrigo decided to accept an invite from the United States for Rua to participate in a three-bout International Fighting Championship grand prix. Renato Sobral, Jeremy Horn, Chael Sonnen, Forrest Griffin and Erick Wanderley were in the tournament. “Shogun” started with a second-round knockout of Wanderley, only to submit to a Sobral guillotine choke in the semifinals. “Babalu,” who already had 26 fights and stints in the UFC and Rings under his belt, went on to win the grand prix with a decision over Horn in the final.

Rua’s first setback did nothing to shake Pride’s interest in him. He made his company debut less than a month later and punched out Akira Shoji in the first round of their Pride Bushido 1 pairing on Oct. 5, 2003 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.

Crowning Achievement

Rua in 2004 was no longer known as the younger brother of “Ninja,” as he earned the eternal admiration of fans and promoters by beating three Pride opponents in a row with soccer kicks. The victims? Akihiro Gono at Pride Bushido 2, Yasuhito Namekawa at Pride Bushido 5 and Hiromitsu Kanehara at Pride 29. The knockout of Kanehara resulted in Rua being chosen as the 16th man for the 2005 Pride middleweight grand prix. The loaded tournament field featured Dan Henderson, Alistair Overeem, Quinton Jackson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Igor Vovchanchyn, Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona, along with a longtime teammate and mentor in Silva. What unfolded was one of the most memorable individual runs in MMA history.

“Shogun” was matched with one of the favorites in his first assignment on April 23, 2005 and took on Jackson—a man who had defeated his brother by split decision two months earlier. Rua was sensational, as he knocked out “Rampage” with a series of knees and soccer kicks less than five minutes into their encounter. From there, he moved into the quarterfinals two months later and took part in one of the greatest fights of all-time with Nogueira. “Minotouro” had submitted Henderson via armbar in his first tournament bout. Rua bested Nogueira in a three-round war, flashing his versatility through dominant actions on the ground ahead of a unanimous decision.

Rua returned to Japan on Aug. 28, 2005, aware that if he eliminated Overeem in the semifinals, he would have to face either a longtime idol in Silva or Brazilian Top Team’s Arona in the final the same night. Pre-fight controversy surrounded both matchups. While Silva and Arona nearly came to blows during their faceoff, Overeem downplayed Rua’s skills with some choice words: “Brazil is good at football and jiu-jitsu. What you do at Chute Boxe is not muay thai.” Never one to engage in much trash talk, “Shogun” chose to respond in the ring and put away Overeem with punches from the mount 6:42 into their match. Arona, meanwhile, defeated Silva by unanimous decision. At age 23, Rua then shouldered the responsibility of representing Chute Boxe against one of its archenemy’s top students. He wiped out Arona with punches less than three minutes into their emotionally charged final and emerged as the last man standing in one of the greatest MMA tournaments on record.

“Chute Boxe proved today that, in addition to muay thai, it has the best ground game for vale tudo,” the Chute Boxe jiu-jitsu coach told me following the fight, shortly after he had awarded “Shogun” his black belt in the locker room. Rua could not contain his joy. “Today is the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I avenged Wanderlei, knocked out Arona an even secured the 4-2 [advantage] over BTT.”

A Final Climb to the Top

After he tore through the grand prix, “Shogun” showed no interest in fighting Silva for the Pride middleweight championship. Silva went on to defeat Arona and retain his title in their rematch four months later. Between 2005 and 2007, Rua maintained his status as the most feared 205-pound fighter in the world with victories over Randleman, Cyrille Diabate and Kazuhiro Nakamura, along with another knockout of Overeem. He suffered his only loss in Pride to Mark Coleman, as he broke his arm while defending a takedown from the onetime Olympian just 49 seconds into their February 2006 pairing.

The UFC acquired Pride in 2007, and Rua followed in Silva’s footsteps by leaving Chute Boxe and setting up his own team. Early returns were not promising. Without the daily input from Fedrigo and Rafael Cordeiro and the notoriously rough sparring sessions afforded to him at the revered gym, Rua’s performance dropped off. He submitted to a rear-naked choke from Forrest Griffin in his Octagon debut at UFC 76. The defeat, however, proved beneficial. After a year of recovering from injuries and settling on a new training structure, “Shogun” found his best form again. His brother was instrumental in his resurgence, along with manager Eduardo Alonso and coaches Sergio Cunha and Andre Amado.

Rua knocked out Coleman in their UFC 93 rematch, blew away Chuck Liddell at UFC 97 and went on to challenge Lyoto Machida for the undisputed light heavyweight championship. Interestingly enough, Machida had spent a week training with Rua at Chute Boxe in 2006. Machida took a controversial decision from “Shogun” at UFC 104, and the contentious nature of the result led to an immediate rematch seven months later at UFC 113. There, Rua punched out “The Dragon” in the first round and effectively ended The Machida Era.

In his first title defense, “Shogun” found himself pitted against Jon Jones—a man many now consider to be the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time. Rua succumbed to punches and knees from the New York native in the third round of their UFC 128 main event on March 19, 2011. He returned the following August to star alongside Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Anderson Silva in the UFC’s long awaited Rio de Janeiro debut. Rua avenged his previous defeat to Griffin with a first-round knockout in the co-headliner. He then turned his attention to Henderson, a former two-division Pride champion, at UFC 139. Henderson walked away with a unanimous decision in their unforgettable five-round war, which earned numerous “Fight of the Year” awards and was later enshrined in the Fight Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame. Again, Rua’s profile was bolstered in defeat.

From that point forward, injuries, particularly those to his knee, led Rua to drastically reduce his training load—a decision that had a direct impact on his performance. Between 2012 and 2023, “Shogun” engaged in another 16 fights in the UFC and compiled a middling 7-8-1 record. He never again regained the past glory that saw him rise to the top of the 205-pound weight class. Still, none of it could erase the indelible memories he created with his violent artistry, and those exploits will be forever immortalized now that he has taken his rightful place in the pantheon of the greats.

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