UFC champ from West Palm had a painful path before entering the ring
By HAL HABIB
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
The truck that ran over him tore up so much of his body, it would be simpler to discuss the parts that weren't injured.
Nearly a year would pass before Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira could leave the hospital. Four days came and went before he awoke from a coma.
But even before he regained consciousness, he swears, he could hear what they were saying. The things about him never walking again, never playing sports again, were bad enough, but when they started talking about him in past tense, those were fighting words.
Twenty years later, Nogueira has gone from being one of the toughest kids around to one of the toughest men anywhere. Now 31, he is Ultimate Fighting Championship's world heavyweight titleholder. His nickname is "Minotauro," after the half-man, half-bull in Greek mythology.
Mythological pretty much describes his road from Vitoria da Conquista, Brazil, to West Palm Beach. Not supposed to do sports anymore? Unlike the rest of his friends, who played soccer, he ended up in the brutal world of mixed martial arts. The truck accident cost him part of a lung, yet opponents agree he wins on stamina, regardless of how much they pound on him early. How?
"I don't know," says his cousin and fellow fighter, Wald Bloise. "Doesn't make sense."
The quest for an explanation begins on a Monday evening in West Palm Beach.
Driving down Okeechobee Boulevard toward Haverhill Road, you pull into a strip shopping center. You know you're in the right place when you see the overflowing storefront with the eight-sided fighting cage and contorted bodies.
About a hundred barefoot martial artists are here because Nogueira is here.
He and Bloise are co-owners of the Team Nogueira gym, but as world champion, Nogueira's commitments mean his suitcase is never far away. This visit is special, for just a few weeks ago, he defeated Tim Sylvia to win the UFC title and become the only man to hold the UFC and Pride Fighting titles simultaneously.
Technically speaking, Nogueira doesn't hold the UFC title belt on this night. Everyone else in the place does, passing it from person to person for photos with the champ, who punctuates each picture by pointing at the faux titleholder as if he's the star. None has ever taken a picture with a friendlier bull.
If not for his 6-foot-1, 240-pound frame and cauliflower ears, Nogueira (31-4-1) might be able to stroll through CityPlace and not attract attention. Not so in Japan, where mixed martial artists are well-known enough that after Nogueira's last fight there, Bloise says, more than a dozen pregnant women asked him to touch their bellies, hoping his samurai skills would rub off on their babies. How many were aware that he took a truck's best shot and bounced back, it's impossible to say.
The accident cracked two of his ribs, which were removed after they punctured a lung. His spleen also was removed. He took 300 stitches. A knee, an Achilles' tendon, his liver — all were injured by a neighbor who backed up his truck, oblivious to the young Nogueira playing with friends.
"That thing that happened in my life, it was a very hard time," Nogueira says. "And the fights, I think like it's easy, compared to what's happened to me."
Nogueira speaks English well, but this point is a conversation-stopper.
Running your fingers against the fighting cage, knowing Nogueira has battled 350-pound Bob "The Beast" Sapp, the ex-NFL player who was in the remake of The Longest Yard, you ask him to repeat that being in a sport in which athletes choke one another is easy.
"Oh my God," he says. "Easy, compared to that."
Nothing about recovery was easy. Nogueira points to his neck, where doctors inserted a device to assist in a transfusion.
"They forgot the thing inside of my neck," he says. "About 10 months later, we find out I have this thing inside my body. It was that big (holding his fingers a few inches apart). It was very hard to breathe, you know, so that took me two more surgeries to find. It was too deep."
That was the physical toll. The emotional toll, for an 11-year-old boy hospitalized for nearly a year, was another matter.
"All my friends go there to see me and they walk," he says. "They're playing."
Nogueira? He was growing.
"I sit there, just thinking about my life," he says.
While he was in a coma, friends and family were praying he still had a life.
"I ask him, 'When you're in a coma, you heard voices?' '' Bloise says.
Nogueira tells him he heard, "He's going to die." Nogueira's then-silent response: "No, I will live. I will live."
It's a spirit Bloise, also 31, sees whenever they train together.
"Mentally, he's as strong as all other fighters because he has that life experience that maybe me and you never had," Bloise says.
After the title bout, Sylvia told reporters, "Nogueira's the best in the world, no doubt in my mind."
Sylvia is 6-8 and 255 pounds, but before a Las Vegas crowd that included Barry Bonds, he submitted to Nogueira's guillotine chokehold 1:28 into the third round.
To the layman, mixed martial arts can appear savage. Yet on this Monday night, Nogueira is holding court for students ranging from 4 years old to 60. Cops and firefighters, doctors and lawyers, they've formed a circle as Nogueira demonstrates the title-winning hold on Bloise. What isn't apparent to the eye is that to reach this point, the students must undergo an initiation of sorts.
"We teach them how to be respectful, then we teach them how to fight," Nogueira says. "I think that's very important."
With that, MMA's savagery label takes its first hit. Then, another.
Nogueira has a 7-year-old daughter, Taina, in Brazil. "She wants to be a fighter," he says, laughing, "but I put her in ballet and swimming."
Conversely, his family doesn't worry about him getting hurt — he has never suffered a serious injury in MMA — because he has been involved in martial arts since age 4.
"I grew up competing," says Nogueira, who estimates he'll fight for five more years. "So when I see the other man inside (the cage), I don't have any hate. I don't want to hurt him. I don't want to hurt myself. But I want to see who is better, me or him? If you think like that, you are not so intimidated."
Usually, anyway. Fighting Sapp when nobody else cared to is a memory he and Bloise can laugh about now.
"Beat him! Beat him!" Bloise yelled from Nogueira's corner.
"How am I going to do it?" Nogueira remembers thinking. "He intimidated me."
Then Sapp tossed Nogueira around. Then Nogueira rallied, forcing Sapp to submit to an armlock.
Today, Nogueira is a world champion twice over, awaiting word on his next fight, likely in a couple of months. Yes, the Pride division is disappearing and there are various MMA organizations, each crowning men in various weight classes, but neutral observers stamp Nogueira as a legitimate world champion.
"They definitely should do a book," Bloise says. "That would be like one in a billion. It would be one in a million to be champion, but one in a billion to be hurt in the way he was and become the champion that he is."