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Behind the Numbers: Couture vs. Nogueira

Michael DiSanto, UFC - There was a time, not too long ago, when the thought of seeing Randy Couture versus Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was only a dream.

Still, fans around the world hotly debated the merits of this fantasy matchup. Would Couture’s wrestling and submission defense overcome ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira’s elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and clean boxing? Would Couture be able to use the Octagon to his advantage against a foe who had competed for nearly his entire career in a square, rope-enclosed ring? Would Minotauro’s inhuman ability to fight through extreme adversity overcome anything Couture could throw at him?
By Michael DiSanto

There was a time, not too long ago, when the thought of seeing Randy Couture versus Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was only a dream.

Still, fans around the world hotly debated the merits of this fantasy matchup. Would Couture’s wrestling and submission defense overcome ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira’s elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and clean boxing? Would Couture be able to use the Octagon to his advantage against a foe who had competed for nearly his entire career in a square, rope-enclosed ring? Would Minotauro’s inhuman ability to fight through extreme adversity overcome anything Couture could throw at him?

Those questions and more were the source of pages worth of debate on various mixed martial arts forums around the globe. Yet, nobody ever thought that the fight would come to fruition. After all, the UFC and PRIDE were bitter rivals competing on opposite sides of the planet. Fight politics, therefore, prevented the two rulers of their respective heavyweight divisions from meeting to crown an undisputed champion.

Fast-forward to today. Zuffa, LLC, the company that owns and operates the Ultimate Fighting Championship, long ago acquired PRIDE and signed many of its top fighters to exclusive promotional deals. Thus, Minotauro now competes under the UFC banner.

Couture is no longer the heavyweight champion, but he has established himself as an all-time great—one of only a handful of inductees in the UFC Hall of Fame. Minotauro, who will absolutely go down as one of the greatest heavyweights in history, briefly won the interim UFC heavyweight strap, though he lost it to Frank Mir in his last trip to the Octagon. Both men desperately want to put themselves back into position for another shot at the title—possibly the last of Couture’s career. Thus, they will meet in the main event of UFC 102 this Saturday night in Portland, Oregon.

It might not be MMA’s version of Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier circa 1971, a night where the world’s two best heavyweight boxers, both of whom were undefeated, clashed in the most highly anticipated heavyweight bout in boxing’s modern era. Couture-Nogueira circa 2001 would have been such a bout.

Instead, Saturday’s main event more closely resembles Ali-Frazier four years and a couple of losses later. But that doesn’t make the bout any less significant. In fact, each man now has more to lose, just like Ali and Frazier did at that point in their illustrious careers. As a result, they each put on what was arguably the best performance of their respective careers, giving fans one of the greatest fights in history in what will forever be remembered as “The Thrilla in Manila.”

Expect the same effort from Couture and Minotauro in Portland.

What will happen once the referee signals for the action to begin? Let’s take a look behind the numbers and break down this timeless battle.

PHYSICAL SIZE

Though both men will be remembered in history as two of the best heavyweights to ever compete in the sport, Couture is only 6’2 and 220 lbs, making him one of the smaller heavyweights in the UFC. His frame is much better suited for light heavyweight, which is why he successfully competed at 205 lbs from his career-energizing win over Chuck Liddell at UFC 43 on June 6, 2003, until his triumphant return to the land of the giants at UFC 68, scoring a lopsided unanimous decision win over Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight championship for a record third time.

Nogueira, by contrast, is a good-sized heavyweight. Standing a shade over 6’3 and weighing 245 lbs, he is a big, strong heavyweight who has spent his entire career competing against the sport’s biggest combatants. It will be glaringly obvious at the weigh-ins that ‘Minotauro’ is the much larger man in this fight.

Compounding that problem is the fact that all three of Couture’s UFC heavyweight losses came at the hands of big, strong grapplers or wrestlers: Brock Lesnar, Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett. Granted, Couture defeated another big, strong grappler, Gabriel Gonzaga. Nonetheless, Minotauro is the best grappler of that group, and that could pose a problem for Couture based on his history.

Advantage Nogueira.

AGE

We will dispatch with this one very quickly. Minotauro was born on June 2, 1976. He will be a few months past his 33rd birthday on Saturday night. Couture was born in the same month as his foe, though he was born 13 years earlier. That is right. Couture will be a few months past his 46th birthday on Saturday night.

Fighting at 46 years old is unthinkable for most mortal men. Couture is not among those men.

‘Captain America’ is the poster child for success past 40, twice winning the 205-lb title and also the heavyweight title, giving him more UFC titles since that significant life milestone than anyone else competing in the UFC during that time.

That doesn’t change the fact, though, that Couture is just 5-4 since turning 40. His lone non-title fight during that time was his win over Mike Van Arsdale at UFC 54 on August 20, 2005, in his penultimate 205-lb bout.

The fact remains that Father Time is the one opponent who is sure to defeat Couture at some point. Couture competes like a much younger man, but he will seemingly age overnight. And that is going to happen sooner rather than later. Will that night be August 29? It’s possible that nobody, not even Couture himself, knows the answer to that question at this point in time.

Advantage Nogueira.

EXPERIENCE

With age comes experience. Despite sporting a rather modest 16-9 overall professional record, including 13 wins in 19 trips to the Octagon, Couture is one of the most experienced fighters in the division by virtue of the level of competition he has faced during those 19 UFC bouts.

During that time, he has faced nine current or former champions, including Josh Barnett, who was stripped of the heavyweight title after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the wake of his win over Couture at UFC 36 on March 22, 2002. He scored seven wins against six losses against those elite competitors.

Are you putting two and two together? Couture is has never lost in the UFC to anyone other than champions.

Couture has also participated in 14 championship fights in the UFC, racking up an 8-6 record in those fights. Suffice to say, his experience is second to none in the UFC.

Considering that Minotauro was probably still in diapers when Couture first sat behind the wheel of a car, one would expect him to have fewer professional fights under his belt.

Nope.

Minotauro has competed in nearly twice as many professional bouts, racking up a 31-5-1 overall record as a professional. That includes his recent move to the UFC, where he has won two of three bouts, and his ultra-dominant run in PRIDE, where he amassed a 17-3-1 record in a deep heavyweight division.

Like Couture, Minotauro has a wealth of experience fighting the best of the best. He has faced seven current or former PRIDE or UFC champions in his career—once again, including Barnett. He sports a similar winning percentage to Couture in those bouts, with a 5-4-1 record. That record drops to 5-5-1 if one includes his split-decision loss to Dan Henderson in RINGS, a Japanese mixed martial arts promotion, on February 26, 2000, before he moved to PRIDE.

While some may look at Minotauro’s more active career as a sign that he is the more experienced of the two, Couture’s years competing against the best of the best inside the Octagon, which is a much different competitive environment than the PRIDE ring, cannot be overlooked.

Advantage Couture.

TRENDS

This is my favorite category to discuss because one can twist and turn the numbers in a number of interesting ways, particularly when comparing two extremely experienced fighters like Couture and Minotauro.

Both men come into Saturday’s fight on the heels of a loss. Couture’s longest career losing streak is two, suffering back-to-back defeats to Barnett and Rodriguez in 2002 at UFC 38 and 39, respectively. Nogueira has never lost two straight bouts in the UFC or PRIDE, sporting a perfect 3-0 record following a loss. Couture is a similarly impressive 4-1 following a UFC loss.

Oh, but there is much, much more to discuss.

Interestingly enough, Couture has never lost a fight in the UFC that has lasted the distance. Nogueira cannot make the same claim, as three of his four combined PRIDE and UFC losses have come by judges’ decision. He is 6-3 overall in PRIDE and the UFC in bouts that have lasted the distance.

If the fight lasts the distance, one has to like Couture’s chances.

On the flip side of that statistic, Minotauro has only been stopped once in his career, suffering a second round technical knockout loss courtesy of Mir’s fists in his last bout. Couture has been stopped six times in the UFC.

If the fight ends inside the time limit, one must give the edge to Nogueira.

Couture is 6-4 in his last 10 bouts and, as mentioned earlier, only 5-4 since his 40th birthday. Minotauro has had more recent success, scoring seven wins in his last 10 bouts and six in his last eight.

Couture is 2-1 since returning to heavyweight back at UFC 68 and 9-3 overall as a UFC heavyweight. Again, Minotauro has spent his entire career at heavyweight—all 24 of his combined PRIDE and UFC bouts. Again, both men lost their most recent bout.

I’m not exactly sure what any of those trends mean, since one can make a good argument that they support either man.

Nobody has a significant advantage based on trends.

LAYOFF

Couture is in the midst of a 210-day layoff since losing to Lesnar at UFC 91. That isn’t a big deal, though, as the former two-division champion regularly takes lengthy absences from competition. For example, 210 days is a mere two-thirds of the way to his recent long of 322 days, which occurred following his loss to Liddell at UFC 52 on April 15, 2006, until he returned to snatch the heavyweight title from Sylvia at UFC 68.

Couture’s longest absence from the Octagon occurred after he first won the UFC title by scoring a judges’ decision over Maurice Smith at Ultimate Japan 1 on December 21, 1997. He stayed away from the UFC for nearly three years following that win due to a dispute with UFC brass, opting to instead fight in Japan during that period, though he still took 19 months away from all competition at one point during his absence. He returned from that long absence to defeat Kevin Randleman, regaining the title that he hadn’t lost in the cage in the process.

It is noteworthy that Couture also won his bout following his 322-day layoff after UFC 52.

Minotauro, on the other hand, has been one of the most active fighters in the heavyweight division for most of his career, opting to fight every few months in PRIDE. Since coming to the UFC, his activity levels have reduced dramatically. He is currently in the midst of a 245-day layoff following his loss to Mir at UFC 92.

His UFC and PRIDE longest layoff occurred after his second UFC bout, a come-from-behind win over Sylvia at UFC 81 on February 2, 2008. His next fight was his loss to Mir, a whopping 329 days later—a lifetime for an active fighter like Minotauro. Afterward, Minotauro stated that he did not like such lengthy absences from competition and wanted to fight more regularly to avoid ring rust.

Unfortunately for Minotauro, 245 days isn’t exactly fighting regularly.

Advantage Couture.

THE PREDICTION

I’m not sure who has an advantage based on the numbers.

Minotauro’s perfect record following a loss is impressive. That is countered by the fact that Mir, who isn’t known as a heavy handed guy, was able to stop him with strikes in his last bout—the first stoppage loss of his long career.

Couture’s perfect record in bouts lasting the distance is probably even more impressive. Minotauro’s ability to withstand punishment is legendary, the Mir stoppage notwithstanding. That tends to suggest that this bout will last the distance, which should bode well for Couture.

Nonetheless, Minotauro is a fighter with 13 fewer years on the earth. His awe-inspiring chin and heart have resulted in a significant amount of accumulated mileage in those 33 years, but experts should not rightfully judge him on solely on his performance against Mir. It is no secret that Minotauro suffered a staph infection that required nearly a week in the hospital in the month leading up to the bout. I don’t know if the outcome of the Mir fight would have been any different, but my guess is that Minotauro may have lasted longer and looked a bit younger.

In any event, I’m going with the Brazilian to win this one. He is the better boxer. He is also much better on the ground, whether from his guard or from the top position. Granted, he will struggle to take down Couture, though as he showed against Sylvia, he is very adept at pulling guard against unsuspecting foes. Couture is master of the ground-and-pound attack, but trying to grind away inside Minotauro’s guard is like swimming through a pool of fresh seal blood in the Pacific Ocean off of the Farallon Islands—an extremely dangerous proposition.

Minotauro will use his superior length and jab to keep Couture at bay on the feet. When the Hall of Famer finally gets tired of running into his piston-like jab and takes the fight to the ground, Minotauro will show the world why he is regarded as one of the best heavyweight submission artists in the game. It is difficult to imagine anyone submitting Couture, but even if he doesn’t, his control and submission attempts from the bottom, mixed with his success on the feet, will likely lead to the first judges’ decision loss of Couture’s career.

Plus, like I mentioned earlier, Father Time has to rear his ugly head sometime. I’ve been wrong about that happening to Couture plenty of times before, just like other writers. I’ll be right sooner or later. Why not Saturday night?

Medios

Reciente
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