by Al Yu – MMAWeekly.com
A legend in the art of Judo, Pawel Nastula made a transition into MMA last year. Considered to be the “Rickson Gracie of Judo” by many, the accomplished Judoka has faced world class opposition in his short four-fight career.

Since signing with PRIDE Fighting Championships in 2005, Pawel Nastula has been thrown to the wolves. In his debut, he faced former PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, arguably the best heavyweight submission fighter today. Although he was unsuccessful in his first professional MMA fight, Nastula gave a strong effort despite having never fought on an amateur level. Many fans and experts were impressed by his performance. However, DSE stated otherwise in a post-fight press conference.

In his next fight, Pawel had the unenviable task of taking on heavy handed Russian Aleksander Emelianenko. Nastula handled himself well against Emelianenko’s superior striking. During the fight, the Judoka scored a couple of takedowns in addition to almost securing an armbar. After seven minutes of action, an exhausted Nastula succumbed to a rear naked choke.

Undeterred by his losses, Nastula remained optimistic about his career. Pawel returned to the ring last July on the undercard of PRIDE Critical Countdown Absolute ‘06. Scheduled to fight yet another tough opponent in Edson Drago, the Judo champion finally got his first victory when he submitted the previously undefeated Brazilian with an armbar.

Nastula made his U.S. MMA debut this past Saturday at PRIDE 32: The Real Deal. Standing across the ring was former UFC heavyweight champion and Open Weight Grand Prix runner-up Josh Barnett. The “Babyface Assassin” is currently #3 on MMAWeekly’s heavyweight top ten rankings. Once again, the Judo legend played the role of the underdog.

Nastula looked impressive, utilizing his Judo prowess, physical strength and good balance to defend against Barnett’s clinches. The Poland native took the fight to the ground and controlled the opening round. In the second, Pawel landed a couple of nice hooks that stunned the “Babyface Assassin” and took the fight to the mat again. The world champion Judoka was seemingly on his way to winning the first two rounds when Barnett reversed positions after a failed armbar attempt and submitted Nastula with a toe hold. Pawel fell short in what could have been a major upset and his record dropped to 1-3. Regardless, his performance warrants another appearance in a PRIDE ring.

As impressive as he has been in victory and defeat, Nastula is not without his flaws. Physical conditioning played a major factor in his first two losses. His striking is good and can benefit with refinement. Nastula did a great job at avoiding submission attempts against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira but Barnett may have exposed a weakness in his ankle/heel submission defense. Starting MMA late in his career, how many more years of competition can we expect of Nastula?

Pawel Nastula has the potential to be a great fighter. Against top opposition, the Olympic Judo Gold medalist’s performances have been admirable. If only DSE would realize his potential, they could properly build him into a top contender or possibly a champion. Most of the titleholders in MMA today have never faced three top ten ranked opponents early in their careers like Nastula has. Even at age 36, Pawel is still growing as a fighter. However, continuing to face top ranked opposition in succession may be detrimental to his advancement in the sport.

Pawel Nastula impresses me more with every fight and his improvements are apparent. He is a very talented fighter but needs some fights that can further his development. It makes me wonder where his career would be today had he started competing in MMA earlier. Age aside, let’s hope that PRIDE can realize his potential and give him a break.