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The Blueprint: Bader vs. Nogueira

Just like with the main event, this is a very difficult fight to predict.  I can make an equally compelling case for either man winning.  Experience should never be undervalued.  Then again, someone with Bader’s blend of youthful athleticism and confidence should never be counted out.

The word “perfect” is thrown around pretty regularly in the world of athletic competition, oftentimes out of context.

Think about its meaning for a moment.  Excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.  Entirely without any flaws, defects or shortcomings.  Accurate, correct or exact in every detail.  Exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.

Is Albert Pujols really the perfect baseball player?  Was Michael Jordan the perfect basketball player?  Obviously not.  They have achieved a level of excellence arguably unmatched by their peers, but perfection is the highest possible standard, meaning that if an athlete is perfect, than nobody, either in days past or sometime in the future, can possibly be better.

I can say for certain that there is no perfect fighter in the world of mixed martial arts.  Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are probably as close as one comes, but they aren’t perfect.  Both men have tasted defeat – Silva came ultra close to tasting it for the fifth time in his professional career in his last bout.  Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that they are currently the two best fighters in the world, pound for pound.

Ryan Bader knows that he is far from perfect.  The 27-year-old former collegiate wrestling All-American is only a few short years into his MMA career, so he has a long way to go in terms of attempting to perfect his craft.  Compared to veteran light heavyweight fighters, such as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua or Lyoto Machida, one might even consider his skill set to be a bit nascent.  

Yet, nobody can deny the fact that, at least as far as the ultimate outcome is concerned, Bader has been perfect thus far in his UFC career.  12 fights.  12 wins.  It doesn’t matter how he won or how long it took.  In a sport tracked solely by outcomes, Bader is as good as any fighter in history through his first 12 bouts.  After all, it is impossible to achieve a record better than 12-0 through 12 fights.

But, if we have learned anything in mixed martial arts, it is the fact that Bader’s run of perfection won’t last forever.  It never does.  Not in this sport.  The question, however, is whether it will last yet another fight.

Antonio Rogerio Nogueira hopes to answer that question in the negative this Saturday night, as he squares off with the man his legendary twin brother coached to victory on the eighth installment of The Ultimate Fighter.  

Nogueira presents the toughest challenge of Bader’s short three-plus-year career – by leaps and bounds.  The Brazilian is technically more proficient than Bader in every aspect of the game, except for wrestling.

The Brazilian is one of the better fighters in his division in the standup realm.  His kickboxing game isn’t much to write home about, but the former amateur boxing champion has technically proficient hands, having won his country’s national boxing championships in 2006 and 2007.  Not to mention the fact that he won a bronze medal in boxing in the 2007 Pan American Games.  In addition, he is willing to take a punch or three in order to give one back, just like his brother.  While that is a recipe that typically leads to a knockout loss, the grade of granite that runs through the Nogueira family jawbones is of the highest grade.  Thus, he has only lost one career fight in 22 by knockout.  So, his style instead allows him to take away the confidence of his opponent by eating their best shot and continuing to hammer away.

Bader, by contrast, is very good at very basic boxing moves.  He needs to come forward to be effective.  His lateral movement and ability to slip punches by moving like a pendulum are average.  And, of course, his fistic arsenal remains very rudimentary and predictable - range-finding jabs, one-twos, lead right hands followed by left hooks, but very few clean up left hooks, lead uppercuts or a really focused, snapping jab.  With that said, Bader is very, very good at the few combinations that he throws, and he also possesses better than expected leg kicks.   But he isn’t going to win a traditional boxing or kickboxing match with Minotoro anytime soon.

As far as Minotoro’s ground game is concerned, is there any real need to get into the details?  He is a Nogueira, after all.  That means he is nothing to mess around with on the ground, whether from the top or bottom position.  Compare that to Bader’s couple of years learning submissions and the skill differential is a dramatic one.

Add to the mix that Minotoro, who is 19-3 in his professional career, is also vastly more experienced, with exactly twice as many professional fights and a massive edge in both total bouts and wins over A-level opposition, and this fight seems like a recipe for disaster for Bader’s perfect record.  

But, alas, this isn’t boxing.  And it isn’t the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling Championships.  And it isn’t about who has done it more times.  It is mixed martial arts, which means that differences in boxing skill and submission prowess isn’t always that important when someone has game-changing skills like a truly dominant wrestling base and legitimate one-punch stopping power in his fists.

In other words, this fight isn’t going to the ground, unless Bader decides to take it there or Nogueira is able to send him there with his fists.  Thus, the Brazilian’s submission advantage may be wholly neutralized.  He also isn’t going to survive if his game plan includes eating Bader right hands in order to land his more technically proficient combinations.  A couple of big shots from this kid and anyone in the world is going to go to sleep – granite jaw or not.

As for the experience differential, that is only going to be relevant if Nogueira is able to start out strong against a younger, fresher, faster and much stronger foe.  If Bader is able to play the bully from Jump Street, it is going to be a painful night for his foe.  If, however, Nogueira is able to drag Bader into deep waters, the youthful fighter may not be able to swim for very long.

In light of all that, what are the keys to victory for each man?  For Bader, it is staying off the ground early when the guys aren’t completely lathered in sweat and he is better able to slip out of submissions.  It also means coming forward and playing the aggressor at all times.  He needs to focus on speed when throwing his hands, not power.  If he loads up, the Brazilian will merely slip and counter.  If he fires fast, crisp punches, Nogueira will either need to retreat to a safe distance or try to eat a few in order to fire back – again, a really bad idea against a guy with Bader’s sledgehammers.  

Nogueira needs to try and find a way to put the wrestler on his back.  Bader, much like a turtle, is completely out of his element when he is on his back.  Maybe he isn’t totally naked, in terms of vulnerability, but he isn’t wearing much more than his skivvies, either.  To do that, he must soften up Bader on the feet.  That means taking control of the action with the jab, which is a great weapon to stymie a power-punching bully.  

Once he has control, it is all about making Bader retreat.  “Darth Bader” is not an effective fighter moving backwards – not until he plants, sits down and counters, of course.  Thus, if Bader is moving backwards, he will almost certainly be losing the fight.  

His frustration will grow as the minutes tick by and that will cause him to fight like a young man, which means winging desperate haymakers or reverting to what he knows best, which is takedowns.  The former creates openings to take down an off-balance Bader.  The latter could lead to a transition submission or the opportunity to use a kimura to score a sweep.  Either way, Nogueira will be in a great position to win the fight.

Just like with the main event, this is a very difficult fight to predict.  I can make an equally compelling case for either man winning.  Experience should never be undervalued.  Then again, someone with Bader’s blend of youthful athleticism and confidence should never be counted out.  Technical proficiency is tremendous foundation for success.   Of course, power and speed are the great equalizers to skill.

At the end of the day, I’m 50-50 on this one.  My gut tells me Bader is going to continue along the path of perfection.  My brain tells me that it’s time for his “0” to go.  I guess that means I’ll be watching with great interest, just like everyone else.