Note: This was this week’s Crunch Time column I wrote for the Cheney Free Press
Last weekend’s UFC 190 generated a lot of buzz, mostly because women’s bantamweight champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey knocked out Brazilian prospect Bethe Correia in 34 seconds – something I wouldn’t have believed had I not seen it several times Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Rousey’s impressive win wasn’t the only thing that resonated with me that evening. Halfway through the main card, I watched former heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira — known affectionately as “Big Nog” and “Minotauro” — square off against Dutch fighter Stefan Struve — also known as “Skyscraper” due to his 6-foot 11 1/2 frame — for three grueling rounds.
Nogueira, 39, has fought 36 times throughout his career and he certainly showed his fighter mileage when he took on Struve. As he wrapped his arms around Struve’s body, Nogueira struggled to take him to the mat. I thought it was going to resemble the May 2 Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight, except Struve and Nogueira were more active in their striking. Nogueira landed some punches, and even led the fight in significant strikes early on, but Struve picked up momentum and countered Big Nog in the later rounds of the fight.
Nogueira, known for having one of the toughest chins in MMA, was able to withstand Struve’s striking, as he had when he fought power punchers like Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko.
Unfortunately, that Nogueira wasn’t the same competitor who was fighting Struve and after the match was over and the judges declared Struve the winner, all I could think of was “Nogueira’s done. I hope he retires.” I wasn’t asking Nogueira to retire because I was angry with his performance. I just don’t want to see him take an ungodly amount of punishment in his next fight.
I got into MMA late — around 2006 to be exact — but Nogueira was always one of my favorites to watch in the cage. He has a solid boxing game, as well as a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. He also had a lot of heart and often displayed it when he went up against larger opponents. I spent several hours watching him fight in Pride Fighting Championships in Japan and I was happy to see him get success in the UFC — he became the first fighter to win heavyweight championships in both Pride and UFC.
But like every great fighter, age and defeat caught up to Nogueira. He’s lost five of his last seven fights, including first-round knockout losses to Roy Nelson and Cain Velasquez and had his arm broken by Frank Mir. Although Struve didn’t finish him in their fight on Saturday, it proved that Nogueira wasn’t the fighter he once was many years ago.
That’s typically how the fight game works. Many look at combat sports as a young man’s game and fighters who are 35 years and older are “too old” to compete. Fighters such as Henderson, Randy Couture, George Foreman, and Bernard Hopkins, all won world titles in their 40s, but those are rare cases.
I wasn’t the only person wishing Nogueira would permanently hang up his gloves. After the fight, UFC President Dana White told the media he would no longer promote fights with Big Nog, but instead offer him a job with the company. This isn’t unusual for the UFC to employ former fighters. Former champions Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes and Forrest Griffin took office jobs or ambassador roles with the company after their fight careers were finished.
Sometimes fighters can be stubborn and that competitive side of them will say “I still have one fight left in me” even though their body is asking them to “stop.” Before the Struve fight, Nogueira told Fox Sports that retirement hadn’t crossed his mind.
“A lot of guys from my same generation just came back and are doing better,” Nogueira said in the interview. “So I’ll try to keep it going on. I’m training good and I’m in shape. I still want to fight.”
After the bout, White said he spoke with Big Nog, who “didn’t disagree” on the UFC president’s stance on retirement.
Sometimes fans will rally behind a particular fighter, assuring them they have “one more fight left.” However, some folks will support the decision for that athlete to leave their sport.
As much as I have enjoyed watching Nogueira over the years, I think he has nothing left to prove in the cage. Ultimately, it’s his decision on whether or not he’ll retire from mixed martial arts. If he does, I’ll celebrate his accomplishments rather than mourn what his fight future could have been.