When Pride announced their 16-man Middleweight Grand Prix in 2005, the appearance of Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua was of little surprise to the MMA community. Despite being relatively green in the sport, Rua had started to develop a mean streak about him. In less than two years under the illustrious banner, he amassed four wins and four devastating first-round knockouts. Soccer kicks, stomps, flying punches - you name it, Shogun was delivering it.
His fan-favourite style certainly contributed to his inclusion in the Grand Prix but Chute Boxe Gym's prodigy had all the tools to make a serious run in the tournament. At only 23 years of age, Shogun entered the tournament as the youngest and most inexperienced fighter.
Shogun's Chute Boxe teammate, Wanderlei Silva, was the Pride Middleweight champion and the tournament favuorite. Thankfully for both fighters, they would end up on opposite sides of the bracket meaning a meeting between the two would only happen in the event that both made it to the final.
Round One: Avenging his Brother's Loss
Round one of the Middleweight Grand Prix would take place at Pride: Total Elimination where Rua was set to face knockout artist Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson.
Earlier in the year, Rampage had defeated Shogun's older brother Murilo by split decision. It was a laborious fight where both fighters depleted their cardio early on and fought on fumes. The decision was a controversial one at the time with many believing Murilo should have walked away with the win.
Shogun made a point of calling out Rampage inside the ring - the latter accepted, and so the first fight of what would be one of the most legendary years for a fighter in MMA history was set to go down at the Osaka Dome.
Jackson was the favourite by a considerable margin. Rua had been burning through his competition but had not yet faced someone of the calibre of the fighters in the Grand Prix, not least of which Jackson. His fight-ending power and brutal slams had seen him reach the final of the previous Grand Prix in 2003. Unfortunately for Jackson, he faced the then unstoppable teammate of Shogun: Wanderlei Silva. The Brazilian, terrifyingly dubbed The Axe Murderer, brutalised Rampage with a combination of knees. When they rematched a year later, the same result almost sent Rampage out of the ring.
It was obvious what the Pride matchmakers were doing with the bracket structure two years later. They placed Wanderlei and Rampage on opposite sides to hopefully get a rematch. And wouldn't it help build the animosity even more if Rampage reached the final with a win over Wanderlei's teammate?
Rua, however, was well-trained at Chute Boxe - the gym had the perfect tried and tested recipe for defeating Jackson.
As the bell rang for the start of the opening round, Rua stormed across the ring and started the fight with a powerful one-two. Rampage immediately crowded Rua and forced him up against the ropes in search of a takedown. Rua, a devastating fighter in the clinch much like his teammate, reversed the attempt and opened up with some big knees to the liver and head of Rampage.
Shogun continued hunting the midsection of his opponent throughout the first round until pain grew visible on the face of Jackson. Shogun had broken one of his ribs, courtesy of those knees to the body. It was like watching a younger version of Wanderlei in action.
As Jackson lowered his guard to defend a strike to the body, Shogun found a home for a powerful uppercut that signalled the beginning of the end.
As Jackson hit the canvas courtesy of more excellent work in the clinch, Shogun followed up with his patented soccer kicks to force the referee into stopping the fight. He had avenged his brother and followed in the footsteps of his teammate and mentor.
And so the 23-year-old underdog claimed the biggest win of his career, advancing into the Final 8 of the Grand Prix.
On the same night that Shogun finished Rampage, Brazilian Top Team's Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (aka Lil Nog) went to war with Dan Henderson. The fight ended in the very final round as Lil Nog secured the 4th armbar victory of his career.
A Classic Against Lil Nog
Just two months after their respective fights at Pride: Total Elimination, Shogun and Lil Nog stood ahead of one another at the famed Saitama Super Arena for the second round of the Grand Prix.
Both of their opening fights in the tournament perfectly exemplified either fighter's game: Shogun was all about the brutal clinch work while Lil Nog excelled at absorbing pressure, wilting his opponents down and submitting them.
In the pre-fight promo, Shogun said that he wanted to prove to the world that his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was just as good as his Muay Thai. It would have to be if he was going to survive any exchange on the ground with Lil Nog.
Lil Nog was five years older than the tournament's youngest competitor and had grown a reputation for being insanely durable and impossible to stop. Shogun, on the other hand, now had five Pride wins under his belt and all by first-round knockout. To add even more stakes to the bout: both men were undefeated in the Pride ring.
Someone was going to have to break and suffer their first defeat.
The minute the fight started, it was evident that Shogun felt confident enough to play in Lil Nog's guard on the ground. Shogun's first significant action wasn't to test the chin of his opponent on the feet but rather to score a takedown and start to land heavy shots on the ground. Shogun was never a proficient wrestler but he had a gorgeous takedown game built into his clinch. Body locks and trip takedowns were his forte.
Lil Nog worked well off his back to minimise the power behind the shots Shogun was trying to land. He did an exceptional job in utilising his legs to prevent the flying stomps from Shogun, too.
When the fight found its way back to the striking, Lil Nog looked to be done. It was becoming obvious that he had nothing on the ground to threaten Shogun and certainly would not be able to compete in the striking department with the Chute Boxe wonderkid. Or so we all thought.
Lil Nog landed a thunderous right hand on an over-confident Shogun and dropped him. This was not going to be a walk in the park for Shogun who managed to secure a takedown amidst the chaos in order to recover from the heavy shot landed.
We were about to find out whether Shogun had a heart and dog-like mentality to match his freakish talent.
As the fight progressed on the ground, Shogun continued to dominate positions and land a few shots. Lil Nog continued working defensively until he managed to sweep and lock in a kimura. This would have been the end of many fighters' nights but Shogun backed his own jiu-jitsu and stepped over Lil Nog to defend the submission. With the separation created on the ground, Shogun landed a few heavy knees to the head of his opponent.
It wouldn't be an accurate summation of this fight if we didn't talk about one of the most iconic MMA photographs in the history of the sport. Shogun managed to find his way back to his feet and land a flying punch on Lil Nog; a thing of beauty. Just like Michael Jordan had his tongue-out dunk, Shogun had the flying attack that followed him his entire career.
As Lil Nog found his way back to the feet, he began to expose a flaw in Shogun's game. While Shogun possessed devastating knockout power, it was built around his clinch and groundwork. On the open mat, his boxing was deficient. He would swing hooks and leave his head exposed. Lil Nog spotted this chink in Shogun's armour and took a measured approach to the striking game on the feet. As such, in the final minutes of the opening round, Lil Nog manages to rock Shogun again with another monstrous right hand. This time, the Chute Boxe fighter was able to stay standing and force the fight back to the ground.
Shogun's cockiness in the striking department on the feet was starting to cost him and so he spent much of the remainder of the fight putting a beating on Lil Nog on the ground. He ended the first round expertly defending an armbar - Lil Nog's trademark submission - and landing some big knees for good measure.
The second round followed similar pattern to the first: Shogun landed heavy shots on the ground and Lil Nog outworked him on the feet. A third-round would be necessary for a semi-finalist to be crowned out of this fight.
It was Shogun who managed to pull away and assert his dominance in the final round. He managed to find his rhythm on the feet and land successive strikes to the granite chin of Lil Nog. After a flurry of concussive hits, Shogun dropped Lil Nog and landed a flying stomp. As the two worked for position on the canvas, their faces looked like they'd just been in a fight with a can opener and not another human being.
The two would go on to fight each other two more times under the UFC banner later on in their careers but this fight went down as one of the all-time great MMA bouts. A back-and-forth classic with some good old mixing of the martial arts.
The final bell rang and both fighters awaited the decision from the judges. Shogun did enough in round three to claim a unanimous decision and hand Lil Nog his first defeat in a Pride ring.
It had been the first fight of his career to go the distance and Shogun proved that he had the cardio and chin to match his offensive firepower.
Shogun progressed to Pride: Final Conflict where the semi-finals and final would take place on the same night. That's right, the winner of the Grand Prix would have to win two fights in one night.
Enter Alistair Overeem
If Shogun had shocked the world by defeating Rampage and Lil Nog, Alistair Overeem was not too far off similar feats in the Grand Prix. The famed K1 Kickboxer made his transition to MMA a few years prior and began to parlay world-class kickboxing skills with a nasty submission game. Not only did he guillotine Vitor Belfort to progress to the second round, he then reached the semi-finals by submitting the 55-win legend Igor Vovchanchyn with a standing guillotine. Fighting Alistair Overeem, you were never guaranteed to be safe in a fight. Either your lights would be switched off courtesy of a combination of strikes or you were to be put to sleep thanks to his flawless guillotine game. Shogun would have his work cut out for him.
On the other side of the bracket, Wanderlei found himself facing off against Brazilian Top Team's Ricardo Arona. Should both men win their fights, the Chute Boxe duo would throw down against one another in the Grand Prix final. Not the ideal situation for either man to be forced to fight his teammate.
But first, Shogun had to take on the formidable Overeem. The fight would be over within the space of three-and-a-half minutes.
Overeem started the fight on fire. Swarming Shogun on the feet and winning the clinch exchange, Overeem worked his arms under the neck of his opponent who defended excellently to escape. Overeem's pace did not stop there. The Dutchman took the fight to the ground and started to land some elbows. Shogun reversed the position but found his neck cinched tightly in the arms of Overeem. The guillotine was locked in. As the crowd's noise began to fill the arena in anticipation of another Overeem upset, Shogun worked his way out of the submission and ended up on top.
Shogun's soccer kicks to the head of Overeem changed the tide of the fight within seconds. Overeem did well to defend the onslaught until Shogun pinned one Overeem's his arms with his knee, leaving the kickboxer defenceless to some heavy ground and pound. The referee stepped in shortly thereafter.
Another first-round stoppage for Shogun and a place in the final later on that night secured. Whatever would happen, we were guaranteed a Brazil vs Brazil final.
Prior to the Shogun x Overeem fight, Wanderlei Silva took on Ricardo Arona. He had arrived at the semi-final bout with wins over Hidehiko Yoshida and Kazuhiro Nakamura. Arona, on the other hand, had beaten Dean Lister and stopped Japanese superstar Kazushi Sakuraba. He was public enemy number one in the Saitama Super Arena. Everyone hoped - and expected - Wanderlei would clobber the Brazilian Top Team stud.
Arona was a sloppy striker but a phenom on the ground. He combined a dominant top game with a serious submission threat.
Wanderlei, however, was the tournament favourite and was allowed to fight before Shogun and Overeem so that he would have longer to recover and gather his energy for Grand Prix final a few hours later.
Chute Boxe and Brazilian Top Team were the two biggest gyms in Brazil at the time. Chute Boxe desperately wanted both of their fighters in the final - proof that their gym was number one. Brazilian Top Team, on the other hand, needed to prove that they could compete with the monsters being produced at Chute Boxe. And what way better to do that than to beat the biggest monster of them all?
Arona took the fight to Wanderlei right off the bat and grounded the Axe Murderer. Not much else happened for the remainder of the fight. Arona imposed his dominant grappling over Wanderlei and avoided the stand-up for as long as he could.
In the final round, both fighters' exhaustion was evident. When standing, Wanderlei was unable to get his striking going and Arona was more than happy to languidly move around the ring. Both fighters were handed a yellow card for stalling before Arona managed to get the fight right back to the ground.
When the bell rang to signify the end of the fight, Wanderlei immediately got up and expressed his frustration at Arona's fighting style.
Brazilian Top Team had done it. They had a fighter in the final and against another Chute Boxe fighter. Would their blueprint translate well against the youngest fighter in the tournament?
Brazilian Top Team vs Chute Boxe
With no Wanderlei in the final, Shogun no longer had to concern himself with the drama of fighting his teammate and mentor. The goal now was easy: yes, win the Grand Prix but, more importantly, beat Brazilian Top Team.
And so the lights hit the ring as both fighters stood in their corners with their coaches and teammates behind them.
Paulo Filho - one of Arona's teammates - taunted the Chute Boxe corner by signalling the number 2 with his fingers. Translation: Brazilian Top Team were planning to go 2-0.
The fight certainly commenced in a way that favoured Arona. He took Shogun down and began to work. The fight would be done before 3rd minute of the very first round.
Shogun's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was significantly better than Wanderlei. Using an omoplata to sweep, Shogun reversed the position and worked the fight back to the feet.
In the clinch, Shogun was absolutely unstoppable. He made Arona look like an amateur. Eventually getting the fight back to the ground and in side control, Shogun starts to deal some serious concussive damage to Arona.
After missing marginally on a stomp, Shogun found himself kneeling over Arona and landing uncontested strikes to the head. Arona was out.
The Chute Boxe team charged into the ring in celebration, led by an elated Wanderlei while Arona lay concussed.
Wanderlei's jubilation for his teammate is one of the most wholesome moments of the very violent Pride era.
A Legendary Year
Somehow, the youngest competitor in the Grand Prix ended up with the $250,000 reward, the belt and the gargantuan trophy.
His first-round finishes were brutal and his fight of the year with Lil Nog exciting but what impressed most about Shogun was that he showed he could deal with adversity. Most young fighters on win streaks tend to fold the minute they face adversity. And why wouldn't they? It's hard to train for what happens after you get hit hard, or end up in a tight submission. It takes a resilient and determined competitor to win amidst adversity. Shogun did exactly that - and all at the age of 23. He escaped submissions against one of the great Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in Lil Nog, he survived getting dropped and hurt badly by the same man and also survived Overeem's infamous guillotine. When Arona imposed his wrestling right off the bat, Shogun remained calm and trusted in his defensive grappling.
Shogun would go on to have an exceptional career, winning the UFC Lighty Heavyweight belt against Lyoto Machida in 2010. However, nothing will ever hold a candle to his legendary run in 2005, which is rightfully considered as one of the very best years any MMA fighter has ever experienced.