He was winning until he wasn’t. It was less than a minute in to their fight at UFC 96 and Gabriel Gonzaga had already rattled upstart heavyweight Shane Carwin with a pair of right hands. The BJJ black belt even heaved the mammoth wrestler to the canvas and threatened a few guard passes. Then Carwin stood up and landed a crippling right hand and a few more for good measure once Gonzaga toppled. Referee Josh Rosenthal stopped the fight 69 seconds into the first round.
Despite the loss, Gonzaga is happy with his performance at UFC 96. “I got caught and it happens. That is the beauty of the sport,” the 30-year-old Gonzaga says via e-mail. “It is easy to say after [a fight] what you could do differently, but I think it was a good fight.”
When he faces Chris Tuchscherer at UFC 102, Gonzaga stands amidst a division that has grown only more daunting since “Napao” landed the head kick that shattered Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic’s legend in 2007. After losing via TKO in his heavyweight title bout against Randy Couture at UFC 74, Gonzaga dropped his next fight against Fabricio Werdum. He followed the losses with a pair of victories over Justin McCully and Josh Hendricks before his latest, brief outing against Carwin.
In preparation for UFC 102, Gonzaga spent most of his time training with Team Link in Worcester, Mass. – after the fight, he’s opening a new affiliate gym in his home of Marlborough – but he also spent three weeks in Las Vegas at Xtreme Couture; he even shared a session with his former rival. “He is a great guy, and it was good for me with his wrestling experience,” Gonzaga says of Couture. “It will help me against my next opponent.”
After trying out for the tenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter”, Tuchscherer bypassed the reality show and now makes his UFC debut against Gonzaga backed by a 17-1 record, credentials as a two-time Division II All-American wrestler, a pedigree from the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, and a likely size advantage. Gonzaga is unperturbed. “He has a great record and deserves respect, but I think I am in the best shape of my life,” Gonzaga says. “I am very focused and I want to become a contender again. I believe in my skills and I am going to be one hundred percent for this fight.”
Gonzaga has little concern about whom he fights next, no interest in any particular fight beyond what the UFC plans for him. And despite his setbacks, Gonzaga welcomes the increased quality of competition. “That’s great that the division is getting better because I want to fight the best.”