SEATTLE -- Talking with a longtime MMA trainer earlier this week via text, I asked for his thoughts on the light heavyweight bout between Mauricio Rua and Alexander Gustafsson scheduled in the upcoming UFC on Fox event.
His response: “How much does Shogun have left?”
It’s one of the most uncomfortable questions fighters have to answer -- whether about themselves or their peers.
Gustafsson, who says he has admired Rua since the start of his career, admitted to me during an open workout Wednesday, “I don’t think Shogun is what he was back in the days of his prime.”
By the time he walked across the hall for a video interview with ESPN’s Todd Grisham, he must have decided (for whatever reason) it wasn’t the best response. He told Grisham he believes Rua is the same fighter he was five years ago.
Even Rua, whether because of a language barrier or because he wanted to sidestep the topic, answered vaguely when asked if he has slowed down.
“The sport has changed a lot,” Rua said. “Every day, you try to make yourself better and improve. So, everything in our lives change.”
What happens Saturday should tell us a lot about how much Rua, one of the most popular fighters of the past decade, has left in the tank.
By no means does he look like a man who needs to hang it up, but when it comes to talk of reclaiming the title and a rematch against a very dominant (young) Jon Jones -- Rua needs to show something to keep that kind of talk alive.
He was in position to earn that Jones rematch in August, when the UFC booked him to a No. 1 contender fight against Brandon Vera. Under public backlash at the thought of Vera (1-2 in his previous three fights) possibly getting a title shot, the UFC basically added the stipulation Rua needed to be impressive -- at least more impressive than Lyoto Machida, who was fighting Ryan Bader on the same night.
Rua defeated Vera via TKO in the fourth round, but it fell short of impressive. Vera threatened at an upset multiple times in the fight, staggering Rua with punches when the Brazilian failed to finish him early.
UFC president Dana White immediately announced Machida was the No. 1 contender and expressed concern over Rua’s performance.
“Those are the fights he’s been having lately,” said White at the postfight news conference. “Wars weigh on you. They are tough on the body.”
The talk surrounding this weekend's co-main event probably will revolve around the topic of a title shot for the winner, as they usually tend to do. Beneath the surface though, it probably represents more.
Rua faces a 25-year-old prospect, who probably sees the fight as a perfect test as to whether he’s ready for his own shot at the title in 2013. Technically, I believe Rua is still better than Gustafsson, but if he can’t match his athleticism, he’s in trouble (probably the reason oddsmakers have him nearly a 2-1 underdog).
How much does Shogun have left? The answer should clear up after this weekend.