“Life, Love, And Faustball”

There are times when everything appears stable—yet one day, the bottom simply drops out. PRIDE FC was the largest and most dominant of MMA promotions, yet the loss of a television deal was all it took for the organization to crumble. All of the top stars were up for grabs, with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (16-3) making his debut in the UFC. He was the future of the light heavyweight division; the natural lineage between himself and Chute Boxe team mate Wanderlei Silva etched in history forever with his winning of the 2005 PRIDE GP. Now, 3 years after his explosive, head-stomping emergence as a tournament champion, he is struggling to resurrect his career and reclaim the status that somehow slipped through his fi ngers. The man who beat him— Forrest Griffi n—has gone on to take the top spot in the UFC, while Shogun has had to cancel fi ght after fi ght due to his persistent knee injury.

When we meet face-to-face at Toronto BJJ, where he is in residence for a few weeks to work with UDL teammate Andre “Dida” Amade (6-3-1), what radiates through his face and body language is not fear, anger, or frustration, but pure love. It’s written in his eyes, comes through in his broken English. Shogun brings energy and warmth wherever he goes.

For Mauricio, his career in MMA all began with a young boy’s dream: He wanted to travel to Japan and be a professional fi ghter. Once this idea took hold in his mind, he pursued his goal with singleminded determination to the exclusion of all other distractions.

His roots in his home city of Curitiba, Brazil, shaped his destiny with his neighborhood, the sports he played, and the enduring friendships he made all infl uencing his development as both a fi ghter and as a man.

“I love my father, and I love my mother,” he says, always eager to acknowledge how the sacrifi ce and hard work of others helped him throughout his career.

Inside the Octagon at Toronto BJJ, Shogun’s good friend Joshua DeFrias translates as Rua drifts back to his fi rst language of Portuguese. “His father always worked hard to make sure they never struggled the way other people did have to struggle in Brazil, so that helped him a lot growing up to be who he is now.”

The interest in fi ghting was inspired by his older sibling. “He started in Mixed Martial Arts because of his brother [Murilo “Ninja” Rua]. His brother used to get into a lot of fi ghts in the street and get beat up, and one day at home, they said, ‘You know, we’re going to put you in a school to learn martial arts and defend yourself.’ He became a really tough kid.”

As dangerous as Shogun has proved himself to be at full-contact fi ghting, he excelled at many sports, including “faustball,” and almost went professional at age 16 in this German game that is similar to volleyball except it is played with a heavier ball.

The memory of Shogun’s fi rst Muay Thai bout is burned into his mind—it intersects with the bonding between true friends and the all-consuming anxiety that precedes the trial by fi re. Anyone can love a winner who is rich, proven, and famous, but Shogun remains close to those who were in his corner before anyone realized what he would later become. In 2000, Dida, Mauricio Veio, and Shogun all competed on the same card at a small show. “They all basically slept in the same area that night together, and so when they went in they were feeling sick going into the fi ght—nervous, you know—and he says he remembers that day more than some of his biggest fi ghts. That’s one of his biggest memories of his fi ghts—fi ghting with his best friends.” Rua won that bout and went 10-0 in Muay Thai before changing his focus to his emerging MMA career.

As supportive as his parents were, Shogun noted that his mother always stood behind him, but his father was not immediately receptive to the idea of his son competing when there was a lucrative family business in sporting goods to be run. “He went around for a year, working with his father, and at every stop he would make around the country, he would train.” But something was missing from his life—he knew he did not belong. “He realized after that year that that was not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a professional fi ghter, and that was the end of that.”

Hunger for the big time and the big money was buried within Shogun, but he had to start small. Chute Boxe founder Rudimar Fedrigo fi rst gave Shogun fi ghts in Brazil. “He was really happy to take that opportunity. They saw how good he was, and it wasn’t too long before he had the contract in Japan.”

Shogun means “The General” in Japan, a nickname that attracted the nationalist ire of some. His seventh opponent, Akihiro Gono, explained that Shogun would have to give up his nickname—given to him at the age of 15 because it was the brand of his gi—after he was beaten. “He still has the nickname, right?” says a beaming Joshua as Shogun smiles knowingly.

In sports, being skeptical of a prospect’s chances is a given. The odds against a top draft pick distinguishing himself over the course of a long career are slim—even though everyone wants badly to be the next big thing, the immortal legend, only a handful will ever walk away with the record to prove that they reign supreme. With this in mind, everyone counted Mauricio out as he faced his sternest test opposite Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the opening round of the 16-man 2005 PRIDE Grand Prix tournament.

De Frias translates as Shogun narrates what public opinion was at the time. “No one else expected him to do anything. He wasn’t one of the favorites. Most people— even in the magazines—didn’t expect him to make it past the fi rst round. It was just a dream to be in the GP.”

He tore through the rounds, beating Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and fi nalist Ricardo Arona; the weight of this momentous victory took time to sink in. Shogun was beside himself, unable to believe what he had really accomplished.

His trek to the heights of the MMA universe put him on the stratospheric level with the best of the best, including his mentor and guide, Wanderlei Silva. “Wanderlei is his role model, inside and outside of the ring. Even now, to this day he’s always tried to mirror what he did inside and outside of the ring because he’s a great person in both sides. He’s great at what he does, and he’s great as a family man, the person he is. And right now, they’re still super-great friends.”

Unable to challenge Wanderlei for the 205-pound title, Shogun fought and lost at heavyweight against Mark Coleman, injuring his elbow when posting his arm. The freak injury and subsequent loss was diffi cult to handle, but Coleman’s shameful postfi ght behavior (attacking the referee) was particularly upsetting to Team Chute Boxe.

“Coleman apologized, he thought, ‘OK, Coleman came, he apologized,’ everything was fi ne, and then he started talking again. ‘Oh, he’s nothing. I can beat him anytime.’ And he was saying, ‘What’s this guy doing every time?’ Every time he sees Coleman now, he comes, he hugs him— ‘Hey Shogun!’ Then, when he’s doing an interview, he talks again. ‘Shogun ain’t nothing. Shogun is this. I can beat Shogun.’ ”

Shogun would relish a chance to put Coleman in his place, but the diffi culty caused by rehabilitating his knee has put his entire fi ght career in jeopardy. After rupturing his ACL in the Forrest Griffi n match, Shogun calls it the lowest part of his career. Not only did Griffi n claim the upset of the year against him, but he has been out since September of 2007.

“He knows that at this point in time, it depends on him to get back physically at 100%; it’s all on him. He’s got to work hard to get to that point, and that’s what he’s going to do.”

Even though a legacy is made from facing a long list of names, Shogun can only take it one day at a time. The names he mentions at the end of our interview are not the fi ghters he’s beaten, nor the ones that he wants to face, but rather the people who have helped him: Daniel Gallucci— who Shogun says will soon win acclaim as a trainer; our humble translator, Joshua DeFrias—for hosting him; Bad Boy and Midway—his sponsors who stood by him; and his friends Dida and Mauricio Veio—for always being there.

As we rise from the fl oor of the Octagon, eager to leave the sweltering heat of the upper fl oor, my curiosity turns to the tattoo on Shogun’s left shin. I ask him what it means: “Muay Thai in Thailand.” On the right bicep? “This is Samurai.” The left bicep? “This is Virgin Mary.”

No matter what symbols he’s emblazoned himself with, the image that the public will have of Shogun will come through in his next fi ght. His return could usher in a new era, or it could be the end of one. This is Shogun’s time to shine, and he will do whatever it takes to make the most of it.

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