Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira has hit an unfamiliar point in his career as of late. He’s a former PRIDE heavyweight champion and a former interim UFC heavyweight champion, but going 3-4 in his last seven fights and having not recorded consecutive victories inside the Octagon since his debut in 2007, one has to wonder how much he has left in the tank. He has taken severe beatings in many hellacious wars, and in a few cases he came back to win those bouts. In those four recent losses, three fighters accomplished a feat that no one else in mixed martial arts had previously accomplished: they stopped Nogueira.
He has been knocked out twice and submitted twice. Granted, it’s been against the best in the division, but nonetheless, that’s a clear indication that Nogueira’s best days behind him. This past weekend he was submitted by fellow Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Fabricio Werdum by a second-round armbar, days after his thirty-seventh birthday. Minotauro’s M.O. has been that of a fighter who never gives up, even to the point of having his arm snapped by Frank Mir from not tapping.
This weekend was different, though. Nogueira verbally tapped, and in a true display of sportsmanship by both men, Werdum let go of the hold before referee intervention and Nogueria stayed on the ground in defeat, knowing he had verbally submitted. Seconds after Werdum let go, fear spread through the arena, as it was thought that Nogueira had once again critically injured his arm. Luiz Dorea, Nogueira’s coach, tweeted soon after the bout that X-rays have been taken showing no sign of injury. Fans everywhere collectively sighed. Although Nogueira escaped serious injury by verbally tapping, it was certainly a close call – in fact, too close. How much more of this are his fans going to have to see?
It’s now obvious that the fear of injury has been put in his mind and I’m sure doubt is not too far behind, something that might not have been there prior to his second bout with Mir. Call it fear, doubt or age, Nogueira just doesn’t have it anymore. There’s a saying in the fight game that goes something along the lines of “once it’s beaten out of you, it’s gone for good”. In Minotauro’s case, he’s had so many wars, pinpointing just which bout did it could prove to be extremely difficult. It could be a case of accumulation, which could have culminated with one particular bout. Maybe it started with Fedor Emelienenko and ended with Frank Mir, but that’s just one guess.
At this juncture of his career, he should seriously consider retirement. He’s far behind in the heavyweight landscape of the UFC and it’s going to be a very long road back to title contention. For the sake of argument, we’ll say that in the not too distant future, Nogueira reaches that title shot. The potential champions at that time could be Cain Velasquez, whom he’s already lost to, current teammate Junior dos Santos, and his most recent opponent Werdum. From this vantage point, the future doesn’t look as bright as it once did for Nogueira, at least not as bright as it looked when he first came to the UFC. When he defeated Tim Sylvia for the interim UFC heavyweight title in 2008, it appeared as if he would be the man to dethrone then champion Randy Couture, but the UFC elected to allow Brock Lesnar to cut the line in favor of financial gain rather than to grant the legitimate contender a title shot. That very well could’ve been Nogueira’s last chance at heavyweight immortality.
He’ll still go down as one of the greatest heavyweights in mixed martial arts history, but if he decides to return to the Octagon, which it appears he might, I hope the UFC matches him up against a non top-ten fighter, for Nogueira’s sake as well as his fans. It’s much too painful to see a once great champion be reduced to gatekeeper for up-and-coming talent. Of course, that’s part of the fight game and has been for decades. However, it’s up to Nogueira to recognize this and get out before his legacy is tarnished and his health is seriously jeopardized.