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Friday, March 14, 2003
Mixed Martial Arts--- This Sunday's Pride 25 event from Japan boasts a main event that could very well be the Fight of the Year for 2003. Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira, who is undefeated in mixed martial arts, will put his Pride Heavyweight Championship on the line against Emelianenko Fedor, who is coming off a jaw-droppingly impressive performance against heavyweight powerhouse Heath Herring.

I don't think most MMA fans have fully appreciated the significance of the Nogueira-Fedor fight in recent weeks. In every MMA media poll, Minotauro is always ranked as the #1 heavyweight in the world (with good reason), while Ricco Rodriguez is #2 and Fedor is #3. Now that Ricco is going to be out for a while after knee surgery, that means we're going to see the top two active heavyweights in the sport face off. It has been years since that has happened in any MMA organization, and it will likely be years before it happens again. Anyone who doubts the fact that Fedor is the real deal should watch his fight with Heath Herring, in which the previously indestructible Herring was systematically dismantled by Fedor's brutal ground-and-pound attacks from bell to bell.

At the same time, all you have to do is look at the year Minotauro had in 2002 to see why he is such a powerful force. He beat Enson Inoue via submission due to a triangle choke, he knocked out Sanae Kikuta with a straight right hand, he submitted the 6-foot-11 Semmy Schilt with a triangle choke, and he scored an armbar submission victory over Dan Henderson in an epic battle at the end of the year. Oh yeah, and he also forced the seemingly unstoppable Bob Sapp to tap out to an armbar, despite having an injured back and despite Sapp's almost God-like strength and size, in a fight where Nogueira showed more heart and guts than I have ever seen any fighter display in any fight.

Fedor doesn't have the size or strength of Bob Sapp (nor does anyone else), but his punches on the ground are going to be more measured than Sapp's, his endurance is less likely to fail him, and he has much more experience fighting top-level mixed martial artists. If Fedor is going to win this fight, it's going to be via ground and pound. Nogueira took an amazing amount of punishment from Bob Sapp and kept going, but no one is invincible, and anyone can get knocked out on the ground or battered into a TKO via referee's stoppage.

As Joe Hall recently pointed out in an excellent piece on MaxFighting, Minotauro is unlike submission masters that have come before him, in the sense that he doesn't sit back and wait for an opening to appear, and then take advantage of that opening to attempt a submission. He can do that with the best of them if he wants to, but he prefers a non-stop barrage of submission attacks, transitioning beautifully from one submission to the next and always leaving his opponent guessing. You can't defend against one particular submission against Nogueira without leaving another part of you vulnerable to attack. You have to fight with the knowledge that at any second, he could secure a submission hold on your legs, ankles, arms, or neck. There's no time to mount much of an offense of your own when you're trying to fight off a dizzying array of submission attempts from the best submission artist in the world.

Trying to stand up and trade strikes with Minotauro is generally not a good idea, since he is a better kickboxer than most MMA fighters (as evidenced in several of his fights during 2002). Even if you are a better stand-up fighter than Nogueira and can afford to trade strikes with him, there's no way to get out of the fact that Nogueira is going to take you down to the mat if he chooses so. You might be able to escape a few takedown attempts if you're lucky, but that's just delaying the inevitable. If Nogueira can take down Bob Sapp (who has 360 pounds of muscle on his side), he can take down anyone.

Ultimately, Fedor is not as good at submissions as Minotauro, he's not as good at stand-up fighting as Minotauro, and he's not as good at takedowns as Minotauro. Nonetheless, the Fedor-Herring fight showed that Fedor can hang with the best heavyweight fighters in the world, and he could very well have the best chance of any MMA fighter at dethroning Nogueira. It's entirely conceivable that Fedor could win by TKO, but I believe that if Fedor were to win, it would be more likely to come by decision. All he has to do is ground and pound Nogueira, dish out a lot of punishment throughout the fight, and last 20 minutes without getting caught in a submission. Sounds easy enough, but it's the most difficult task that any mixed martial artist could face. The history of MMA dictates that Nogueira is going to have to lose sometime, to somebody, but I'm picking him to prolong his historic winning streak and defeat Fedor by submission.

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