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Shogun: The Return of the Assassin

Once upon a time not very long ago, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was widely regarded as the very best 205 pound fighter in the business. With an enormous arsenal that includes punishing stand up, solid wrestling and a slick submission game, Shogun has long been one of the most naturally gifted and complete fighters in the game.

During his days fighting under the Pride FC banner Shogun put together wins over some of the very best in the business including Quinton Jackson, Ricardo Arona, Kevin Randleman, Alistair Overeem, and he wasn’t just beating these guys, he was finishing them impressively.

That was before a nasty series of injuries forced Rua out of action for seven months, and when the feared Brazilian resurfaced as a UFC light heavyweight he was a shell of his former self, visibly gassing out early in his fight with Forrest Griffin before succumbing to a rear naked choke in the third round.

Although the twenty seven year old Curitiba, Brazil native was victorious in his return to action in January of 2009, a third round TKO over former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman, it did nothing to silence the many critics that were convinced that Shogun was not the dominant fighter that he once used to be. Rua dropped his hands and appeared to be visibly exhausted on several occasions during the latter moments of his bout with Coleman, but still managed to find the fuel to turn it up and knock out the aging UFC veteran in the third round.

The bout was without a doubt one of the most entertaining contests of the evening, but when it received the much sought after Fight of the Night honors there were some that said that Shogun was undeserving of the bonus that came along with the achievement. That he should give his money back to the UFC. There were those that said that the former Pride FC champion was done, just another victim of the infamous “Pride Curse”.

It seems as if many of the sceptics and critics of Rua’s recent performances since his layoff have spent too much time making observations on things that can be addressed, such as conditioning and endurance, and not enough time reading between the lines.

Sure, Shogun was in a bad place physically, and very likely mentally, but the truth of the matter is this; The kid’s got talent. Not just a normal level of talent either, Rua is an amazingly gifted and well rounded fighter. The type of fighter with natural talent that just can’t be taught. The same type of natural talent possessed by fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko, B.J. Penn, and Anderson Silva. With a fighter as young as Rua is it was just a matter of time until that raw potential boiled back to the surface.

For every fighter that has made a career out of combat there is always one fight that people can point to and say, “He was in his prime in that fight”. For someone like Mike Tyson it was the the brutal first round demolition of Michael Spinks in 1987. For Shogun, his prime would have to be his three round war waged with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in 2005 where he captured the Pride middleweight grand prix championship. Rua displayed crisp boxing, captivating flying attacks, a granite chin, amazing recovery ability, and a heart of a lion in the closely contested back and forth battle.

For the first time since that legendary fight Rua began to look a lot like his former self with Saturday night’s brutal knockout victory over former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. You could tell the difference as soon as he entered the octagon, this was a leaner, more solid, better prepared Shogun than we had seen in a while. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if I have ever seen Rua looking in better fighting shape than he did Saturday night.

Gone was the flat-footed, sluggish Shogun that we have seen in his most recent two trips to the cage only to be replaced with a fighter that was light on his toes again while using more side to side head movement than ever before in his fighting career.

Relentless aggression has long been a staple to Rua since his mixed martial arts debut and he got back to what made him the fighter he is today in the fight with Liddell. Pressing forward from the opening bell, Rua was snapping out hard leg and head kicks before the bout had reached the :30 second mark and it was apparent that this was a different fighter than we had seen most recently against Mark Coleman at UFC 93. Shogun was fighting with purpose again.

He also showed a much improved upon and sharpened defense. At one point Rua managed to avoid seven consecutive Liddell power punches while utilizing smooth hip and head movement that served to keep the San Luis Obispo striker out of his game, second guessing when to pull the trigger.

Another area of Rua’s improved game that deserves mentioning would have to be his natural reaction to fire back when Chuck was pushing forward. Liddell was not without his moments during the UFC 97 showdown, but the difference was that every time he would get something going Shogun would fire off a vicious leg kick or one of those looping right hands to keep him at bay.

Speaking of those overhand rights that Rua was throwing during the bout; Every time Shogun would let one of those bombs go I would wince with anticipation of what was to come, and although it was a wide left hook that ultimately got the job done, those nasty right hands deserve mentioning.

With the return of the “Old Shogun” most of us have come to know and love, it appears that we may have the return of his underrated, highly technical and dangerous ground game along with it. After Rua dragged Liddell to the canvas with his incredibly underrated wrestling ability, he transitioned beautifully into a short lived heel hook attempt that brought back memories of his ligament popping kneebar submission over Kevin Randleman in October of 2006. Liddell was able to shake free and get back to his feet as he usually does, but any light heavyweight that sleeps on Rua’s ground game will be in for a rude awakening.

The left hook that finished off Liddell in the late moments of the first round wasn’t the most solid blow that could have landed but it didn’t have to be. Shogun launched himself at the former UFC belt holder from several feet away as he threw the punch like a sledge hammer, and when Liddell crashed to the canvas Rua swarmed like a piranha with a fresh scent of blood like he always had in the past. In eighteen victories Shogun has knocked out fourteen of his opponents and has long been feared and respected as one of the sports most vicious finishers.

At only twenty seven years old, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is one of the most talented fighters in the sport, and the scary thing is, he’s still learning.

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