by Ken Pishna – MMAWeekly.com
“I have the utmost respect for the guy. During the night of the fight, I have every intention of trying to snap every bone in his body. At the end of the fight, I’ll cry either way. If I beat him, I beat my hero. But at the same time, my hero lost.”

Those were the words of former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, who will face interim heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira on Saturday night at UFC 92 in Las Vegas.

Even in mixed martial arts, where the majority of the sport’s athletes tend to be respectful to each other, those words are above and beyond the regard typically shown to one’s opponent, especially before a fight where mind games and posturing are standard.

There are few fighters that have earned that type of respect in any sport, but it’s difficult to argue that Rodrigo Minotauro Nogueira is not deserving of the distinction. He has an impressive career that has spanned nearly a decade.

He is currently the UFC interim champion. To earn that honor, he defeated former champion Tim Sylvia in what has become typical Minotauro fashion. After having been battered by Sylvia over the first two rounds, Nogueira came back in the third and submitted the big man to capture the belt.

He started off his career at 11-1-1 in the now defunct Rings organization in Japan, but it would be his move to Pride Fighting Championships that entrenched the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt as one of the top heavyweight fighters in the world.

Not only did Nogueira avenge his lone Rings loss – to Dan Henderson – while fighting for Pride, but he also earned the first ever Pride heavyweight championship, defeating Heath Herring in what would be the first of a trio of wins over “The Texas Crazy Horse.”

He went on to defeat the legendary Enson Inoue, the gigantic Bob Sapp, former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez; and Top 10 fighters Sergei Kharitonov, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Fabricio Werdum, and Josh Barnett (actually splitting a two-fight series with “The Baby-Faced Assassin”), amongst others, en route to his current 31-4-1 record.

Despite his impressive resume, spending the majority of his career in Japan left Nogueira as an unknown quantity to most American MMA fans. That all changed with his recent stint as a coach opposite Mir on season eight of The Ultimate Fighter reality series.

Although reality television – and The Ultimate Fighter is not immune – is rarely known for its realism, Nogueira’s always-professional manner was a major part of his distinction as a coach on the show. His coaching earned him the winner in both the lightweight (Efrain Escudero) and light heavyweight (Ryan Bader) categories of the show.

“I brought my team. The same team that is training me was training them,” Nogueira told MMAWeekly.com.

“I think it was very good for us to have an atmosphere as a team that was easy to work (on The Ultimate Fighter). We work as a team. I think we can help each other better. When we trained before the (Brazilian) Top Team and now when I train, I make my camp with Anderson Silva, you know, so when someone got a fight, everybody got to help them.”

The interim champ says that he carried that same family attitude from the show back into his preparations for Mir. A constant student of his craft, Nogueira doesn’t shy away from the fact that he is still learning and even learned from his charges on the show.

“For (The Ultimate Fighter) I was training with that boxing coach, he improved me a lot, my punch. When I trained a lot of wrestling with Bader, I improved my sprawls and my double-legs. I learned lots,” he conveyed. “Those guys training, very focused on it, so I gonna keep that on my (training). I can say when I started the season I was a little bit out of shape. So I could be in shape, training with those guys (from The Ultimate Fighter), I keep that in my (training for Mir).”

Should Rodrigo Minotauro Nogueira improve his UFC record to a perfect 3-0 on Saturday night, he would then move on in early 2009 to face current UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar to unify the division’s titles. Having defeated the enormous Bob Sapp in the past, he’s not intimidated by the former WWE superstar’s size. Lesnar stands 6’3″ and around 285 pounds at fight time.

“He is a big guy. He’s explosive. He is very hungry because he’s new, fresh body. He’s good wrestling,” said Nogueira in assaying Lesnar, before adding, “If he take me down, he don’t have skills enough to submit me. If the fight stay standing, I think I’m better than him. I got more experience; I got more than 30 fights.

“I know how to handle that type. I think it should be, I can knock him out.”

He knows that with Mir’s pedigree as a proven ground fighter and with ample skills on the feet, there is a significant threat that he must negate before looking to Lesnar.

“(Mir) got good skills. Good on the ground, he’s proven standing up too. Gonna be a hard fight. I take all of my fights seriously,” said Nogueira. “But I think I got skills enough to win the match. I’m faster. When we go to the ground, my ground game, I got more way than him when we are on the ground, more pressure I mean. My boxing is better. He got better kicks; I’m trained to block his kicks.

“If I put him in my game, I can end this match before the end. I’m gonna look for knockouts.”

Nogueira and Mir fight for the UFC interim heavyweight championship as part of Saturday night’s UFC 92 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.