THE CANADIAN PRESS
LAS VEGAS — Brock Lesnar’s introduction to the cage may be hogging the spotlight at UFC 81: Breaking Point, but the final fight of the night Saturday could make history as Tim (The Maineiac) Sylvia takes on Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the interim heavyweight championship at Mandalay Bay.
Sylvia is looking to become only the second man (behind Randy Couture) to hold the UFC title three times. Nogueira, a former Pride champion, is bidding to become the only mixed martial arts fighter to win both Pride and UFC belts.
It’s a battle of dangerous big men. At 6-8 and 255, Sylvia is an awkward opponent with a giant reach and good striking power. He is hard to take down, although Couture put a slight dent in that part of his reputation at UFC 68 last March. Sylvia is also no slouch on the ground, proving at UFC 65 against accomplished grappler Jeff Monson that he has excellent submission defence.
Sylvia also appears healthy this time out. He underwent back surgery after the Couture loss and beat Brandon (The Truth) Vera last time out at UFC 77 despite nursing a bad hand.
The six-foot-one, 240-pound Nogueira is a human tree trunk whose craggy head looks like it belongs at Mount Rushmore. While a talented amateur boxer, the Brazilian is best known for his submissions, with 18 career wins via that route.
"The guy’s a legend," Sylvia said. "I was watching Nogueira when I was just training MMA, when I was a fan of the UFC. I’ve watched him for a long time. … He’s just a great guy and a great fighter."
Still, Nogueira almost went down to defeat to Heath Herring in his UFC debut at UFC 73 last July when he survived some rocky moments after a kick to the head late in the first round to claim a decision.
Sylvia’s size often prevents other fighters from executing their game plan, allowing the big man to chip away with jabs and punches. It can make for dull but effective wins for Sylvia.
Lightweight contender Kenny Florian, however, believes this matchup will deliver excitement.
"This is a hell of a fight," he said. "Sylvia is so hard to fight. He’s very dangerous obviously on his feet. We’ve seen him knock out out people in the past (he has 16 KOs or TKOs). That reach is so hard, so awkward to get used to. He’s got a real powerful jab, a stinging jab that he likes to use and he uses that space to prevent people from shooting in on him.
"Nogueira’s significantly smaller. I think it’s going to be harder for Nogueira round after round, feeling that weight over and over, round after round, it adds up on you. I think Nogueira’s best chance is to finish him early. Sylvia is so consistent and so well-rounded and so experienced. He’s a tough man to beat."
The bookies think differently, however, making Nogueira close to a 2-1 favourite.
Sylvia is no stranger to lack of respect. He is the Snidley Whiplash of the sport, garnering as many boos as cheers from the fans.
He’s used to it by now but has no real answer for why he attracts such a negative response.
"You know if I could answer that, I’d fix it. I don’t know. I just say because I’m the biggest guy in the division and everybody’s always rooting for the smaller guy. I’m from the East Coast, I shoot from the hip. … I’m not going to give you a bullshit story, I’m going to tell you the truth."
"Maybe it’s his bubbly personality," UFC president Dana White added dryly.
"I don’t know what it is but the fans like to boo him … But the thing is is Tim keeps winning fights. If he keeps winning fights, it is what it is. Love him or hate him, as long as he keeps winning, he’s going to be here. Eventually you have to respect him. You might not have to love him, but you’ve got to respect him."
Said Sylvia: "I’ll eventually win them over, It may take time but … I’ll win them over, I’ll guarantee you."
.The Maineiac is sometimes his own worst enemy. In 2003, he was stripped of his title after testing positive for steroids. He apologized, admitting he took them essentially out of vanity to buff up his body.
More recently, on a pre-UFC 81 conference call, he was largely ignored by reporters and then disappeared midway through the call. But in person at the pre-fight news conference, he was relaxed and dare we say it — charming.
When Sylvia praised Lesnar, the 6-2 265-pound former WWE star thanked him. "No problem, little buddy," Sylvia responded.
Sylvia is 26-3, including 9-3 in the UFC. His only losses are to Couture, Frank Mir (who fights Lesnar on Saturday) and Andrei Arlovski. He went on to beat Arlovski twice.
Nogueira is 30-4-1 with one no contest, including 14-3 (and the no contest) in Pride and 1-0 in the UFC. The only people to beat him are Fedor Emelianenko (twice) and Josh Barnett in Pride and Dan Henderson outside of Pride and none of them managed to stop him.
He went on to defeat both Barnett and Henderson and had a third fight with Emelianenko declared a no contest because of a cut.
Both men are 31.
The winner Saturday will have to wait on Couture to see what happens with the real belt. The UFC has sued The Natural for walking away from his contract.
"Whoever wins this fight is the interim heavyweight champion and Randy Couture owes him a shot," said White. "Tim Sylvia gave Randy Couture a shot after he got knocked out twice by Chuck Liddell."
NOTES — Nogueira’s twin brother, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, fights as a light-heavyweight. The trick in telling the brothers apart is Rodrigo has a large scar on the right side of his back from a tractor accident as a youth. … Sylvia can credit UFC welterweight Marcus (The Irish Hand Grenade) Davis for a helping hand in his fighting career. Sylvia used to be a doorman at a nightclub Davis managed and Davis decided Sylvia, then 6-8 and 335 pounds, need to learn how to handle himself. "I just told him `Listen man, you need to learn how to fight. You’re big. Guys are going to point you out and come after you specifically because you’re big. And you’re really awkward. So we need to teach you how to fight,"’ Davis told The Canadian Press last June.