Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
Wow. What a great fight. Anyone who needed proof that "little" Nog has a bright future got it in New Year's Eve. Anyone who thinks Saku is finished needs to see this fight. From beginning to end, Nogueira/Sakuraba was a grueling drama of sharp punches and even sharper grappling technique.
True to his word, Nogueira tried to win standing. As soon as the bell rang, Nog shot across the ring launching a series of knees at the japanese legend. Saku ate a few and blocked a few, but he escaped an early KO. Less than a minute later, Saku caught Nogueira with a straight right before shooting for a single. It opened a big cut over the brazilian's eye and almost prompted a doctor stoppage.
The fight continued and saw both men landing hard punches and kicks, with the brazilian's being more accurate. But Saku was winning in the takedown, putting Nog on his back twice. In the brazilian's guard he was hacking away at Nog's cut with slaps and chops. Nogueira's eye started bleeding again.
The rest of the round saw Saku landing leg kicks and Nog tagging him with straights. Twice it looked like the japanese fighter was down and twice it ended in a defensive shoot for a single leg takedown. As the round closed, Nog was backing up Sakuraba with punches. Then Saku caught a kick and countered with a left straight that put him on his back.
After ten minutes of fighting, Sakuraba was sucking wind and looked a little dazed. But he was countering nicely and taking Nogueira down a lot. Nogueira was hurt and bleeding from right above the eye, but he was tagging Saku with some really accurate punches. It looked like a fight that could end at any moment.
Round 2 opened with more knees by Nogueira, but this time none get through. As he forces Sakuraba into and tries to take his head off with punches, Saku shoots. Nog defends and tries to transition into a crucifix submission. Saku turns hard to the left and dumps the brazilian on his head. As Saku tries to catch an arm, Nog pulls guard. After being stood up again, Nogueira's eye started bleeding againg and he was fighting cautious. But Saku was swinging at it any chance he got with straights and wild looping punches.
In the last minute, Nog went on the offensive, hitting Sakuraba with another nice straight. Before Saku could shoot for the single-leg again, Nogueira went for a guillotine choke and then fell back into the guard to cinch it tiight. But Sakuraba blocked the choke and escaped, only to have Nogueira immediately transition to a triangle choke/armlock combo. In the most harrowing moment of the fight, Nog almost had Saku's arm and head locked in, with Nog straining to past the fulcrum of his hips and Saku wrenching the elbow back between his legs. It looked like it was all over, but Saku escaped to the side and started looking for his own sub as the bell rang.
Round three opened with Nog hitting Saku with a stiff jab that was right on the button and Saku went straight for the single leg again. But the brazilian defended and drove Saku into the ropes, hitting him with knees and punches. But japanese legend gave as good as he got and drove Nogueira back with his own combinations. The round continued that way, with each fight jarring the other with hard punches. With two minutes to go, Sakuraba was coming forward with his hands low and eating punches. But Nogueira couldn't put him down. Then, with ten seconds left, Nogueira was backing Saku up when the japanese fighter slipped, covered while Nogueira threw a few shin kicks at him as the bell rang.
In the end, Nogueira was awarded a well-deserved decision. But Sakuraba definitely won back the respect he lost after his loss to Schembri. He proved his chin's still strong and his game's still top-shelf.