By Tomas Rios
Watching Mauricio "Shogun" Rua kick was like watching Ken Griffey Jr. swing. It's not so much the results that capture your attention, but the jarring grace of the motion itself, a lesson in biomechanics by way of grievous assault. Kicking, like anything done on one leg, feels as natural as breathing mercury, but Rua never seemed to be throwing a kick so much as he was expressing the aesthetic ideal of a kick.
And then his knee imploded. And then it happened again. And then it happened again. The count goes three major knee surgeries in less than three years, a Mobius strip of existential bummer vibes that started the moment Rua signed with the UFC. That's the easy way to talk about Rua, the transcendent athlete doomed by suicidal knee ligaments -- easy, and stupid.
It's easy, because it's the same old brand of low-rent disaster fetishism that comes to define otherwise great athletes. It's become virtually impossible to talk about Ralph Sampson or Jonah Lomu or Eric Davis without the tone going somber. Stupid because the resulting obsession with 'What if?' ignores what matters, and what matters is what happened -- all of it. Rua's career makes clear that all those injuries are just a footnote to all the rest.
That any of this even happened is surprising given how much of an afterthought Rua was. Stuck in the shadow of Murilo Rua, an older brother prematurely preordained for greatness. Stuck in the shadow of Wanderlei Silva, a teammate already beloved by fans the world over. None of those roles suited him.
Going into the preposterously stacked 2005 Pride 205 lb. Grand Prix, no one was expecting much from Rua. Up until then, his resume had been padded with artfully one-sided beatings of comically overmatched Great Japanese Hopes -- a favored promotional tactic of Pride. Slotted into the 16-man tournament's proverbial bracket of death, he'd need to beat two top 10 fighters just to reach the semifinals of a grueling single-elimination, four-month, four-fight circuit. The 23-year-old out of Brazil's legendary Chute Boxe gym would have to start with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, a finalist in the last 205 lb. GP.
Jackson never stood a chance. He lasted less than five minutes as Rua mercilessly bodied him with knees before ending matters with soccer kicks to the face. Jackson would later call him the best he'd ever fought. Just nine weeks later, Rua would win a mouth guard-biting slugfest over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira of the rival Brazilian Top Team. Then came the hard part.
The final two rounds of the GP would be held on one late August night. Rua was slotted against Alistair Overeem, an occasionally dazzling fighter who ran through one of the tournament's softer brackets. Rua put on a Brazilian jiu-jitsu clinic at his expense, eventually pinning down an exhausted Overeem from mount and lacing a lunch-pail TKO win. And now he had to fight Ricardo Arona, the other Brazilian Top Team light heavyweight in the GP and the one who had just beaten Chute Boxe icon Wanderlei Silva, the defending GP champion and reigning 205 lb. champion. Rua had to fight the man who'd just secured a claim to being the best light heavyweight alive.
The claim was promptly handed over when Rua scored a stunning first round KO. Arona managed a lone takedown that was promptly reversed, and set off a cruel game of cat-and-mouse. Rua leapt in and out of Arona's guard with unpredictable strikes, inching closer and closer to landing the perfect one. It came when Rua tried for a step-over face-stomp and slipped in a hammerfist across the jaw behind it. Arona never saw it coming and was out on impact. It remains one of the most stunning displays of MMA ever recorded. It would be the last time anyone got to see that version of Shogun against elite competition.
A meaningless match with faded heavyweight Mark Coleman was a 49-second disaster as Rua dislocated his elbow defending a takedown and took a fluke loss. He'd go on to pick up four busywork wins in Pride as the company rotted from the inside out -- thanks mostly to Japan's MMA boom going bust and business-damning organized crime connections. Pride's fall, however, did open the door to Rua, the world's best light heavyweight, signing with the UFC.
He went into his debut heavily favored to beat middling contender Forrest Griffin, an imagined prelude to fighting for the UFC light heavyweight title. Instead, Griffin improbably won the first two rounds before choking out a gassed Rua in the third. None of it made any sense. Rua then revealed he went into the fight with a knee injury that botched his training camp. Surgery soon followed, but Rua's damaged knee ligaments re-ruptured just months later. It would be 16 months before Rua fought again.
His return was a rematch with Coleman. The wait wasn't worth it. Rua's knees mocked him as he shambled about the cage, off-balance and clumsily searching for the elegance that fueled his violence. He won thanks mostly to Coleman being 44 years old, and looking every bit of it. A match with another shopworn former champion, Chuck Liddell, was quickly made as the UFC scrambled to cash in on their investment.
It took three fights, but UFC fans finally got to see the fighter they were promised. Rua snapped off kicks freely, had his cardio in order, and generally made Liddell look primitive by comparison. Still, those damn knees. It felt like they'd turn inside out any second. As if to prove they wouldn't, Rua dipped to the right and flung himself into a left hook that would end Liddell's night. He looked like the Shogun of old, but skepticism was enflamed when the UFC announced he'd challenge Lyoto Machida for the light heavyweight title. Two knee surgeries and a pair of wins over fighters overdue for retirement seemed like poor preparation for Machida.
Undefeated and undisputed, Machida was revolutionizing the concept of effective MMA with his perplexing blend of techniques and idiosyncratic timing. He remains an entirely unique fighter, and his style was the Zodiac Code of MMA -- a cipher without a solution. Rua cracked it.
The fight put to rest whatever concerns lingered over Rua's future. He wasn't the same fighter he once was, but Rua did what great athletes do when age and injury betray them, he adapted. His movement suffered the most, but he could still kick. By staying on the outer edge of the pocket and loading up on those kicks, he forced Machida into a defensive holding pattern, every step forward was rewarded with a shin finding some unprotected hole. The judges either failed to notice or didn't care as Machida was gifted a unanimous decision win. An immediate rematch was scheduled.
The question became if Shogun had one more in him. That twice-reconstructed knee wasn't going to hold up forever, and it didn't. However, it did hold up just long enough.
If the first fight was about Rua solving Machida's style, the second was about Rua invalidating it. Late in the first round of a previously even rematch, Rua improbably dropped Machida with a partially blocked overhand right. The punch barely touched Machida's temple, but it still folded him in half. Showing the calm confidence of someone with 15 knockouts in 18 wins, Rua took mount, took his time, and took the belt. He lost it at the same time.
Rua injured his knee during the fight. He began his title reign with a third knee surgery. He'd lose the title 10 months later to Jon Jones in one of the more depressing fights you'll ever see. Rua's knees were clearly done, so deteriorated that they kept him from even getting into fighting shape. Jones fought like Rua's spiritual heir in dynamism, he styled on him. Rua has gone 2-3 since winning the title, and he keeps looking worse and worse.
This Saturday he'll headline against Chael Sonnen in the UFC's debut on Fox Sports 1. The fact that Rua is a +120 underdog to a 36-year-old middleweight coming off two knockout losses kind of says it all. Rua is still three months away from his 32nd birthday, but you'd never know it watching him fight. He creaks about the cage, seemingly confused as to how to use a body that can no longer do what it once did.
In sports, this happens. Injuries and age are part of what make it human. A drama without end needs many things, among them an omnipresent threat and a looming reality. Neither should be of much concern for Rua, not this soon, but here we are and there he is, a 31-year-old harvesting what little is left of his greatness. A former UFC champion and Pride Grand Prix winner, he is playing out the hauntingly familiar athlete's endgame, years before anyone is ready to see it play out at his expense.
That Rua compels such an elegiac tone is understandable, but unnecessary. The funereal sadness, if anything, robs him of the context he's earned. His career is not best understood by happenstance conspiring against him, but by all he did in overcoming it. Injuries and age are inevitable, and Rua resisted them both as well as any athlete could. If it is time to eulogize his career, it's best to focus on what matters, and what matters is that he was a great fighter.
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Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.