UFC heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga (16-7) meets fellow contender Stipe Miocic (10-1) on January 25, at UFC on FOX 10. Having won five of his last six contests and currently riding a two-fight win streak, Gonzaga is looking for a second shot at the heavyweight crown having tasted defeat at UFC 74 over six years ago.
After making his MMA debut in April 2003, Gonzaga spent a year and a half cutting his teeth on the Brazilian regional circuit before signing with the UFC in late 2005. Known for his brute strength and ferocious ground game, Gonzaga began his UFC career finishing three of his first four opponents via knock out or TKO, including a highlight reel head kick finish of kickboxing superstar Mirko Cro Cop.
Posting a 4-0 UFC record, Gonzaga earned his shot at the heavyweight belt in August 2007. Standing in his way was MMA legend Randy Couture who had came out of retirement and dominated Tim Sylvia to win the belt five months earlier. Couture’s dirty boxing and grinding style proved too much for the Brazilian, as Gonzaga succumbed to a barrage of strikes early in the third round. The fight marked Gonzaga’s first defeat in the Octagon and the general consensus was that he would learn from the experience and come back stronger further down the line. Instead, a tough two and a half years followed with Napao winning just three fights out of six; with all three wins coming against weaker competition.
Gonzaga was released from the UFC after his decision loss to Brendan Schaub at UFC 121 and subsequently retired from the sport, stating that he would only compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from that moment forward. Within a year however, Gonzaga was back in the cage, this time with New England-based organisation Reality Fighting. A dominant performance and submission win via arm-triangle over the inexperienced Parker Porter was followed by a return to the Octagon as a late replacement at UFC 142 in Brazil. Having neglected his ground skills for much of his UFC career following the knock out of Cro Cop, Gonzaga returned to his roots when facing Ednaldo Oliveira and made light work of the 6-foot-5 gargantuan; a rear-naked choke ending the contest in the first round.
Gonzaga made it three wins in a row with victory over seasoned veteran Ben Rothwell at UFC on FX: Belfort vs. Bisping. A third and different submission finish in a row — this time a guillotine choke — forcing “Big Ben” to tap. Riding a three-fight win streak, Gonzaga’s next opponent was rising star and Greg Jackson disciple Travis Browne. The fight ended in the first round under highly controversial circumstances as Gonzaga was knocked out by a barrage of elbows from the lanky Hawaiian, many of which appeared to illegally strike the back of the head. Gonzaga’s camp appealed to the Nevada State Athletic Commission but were unsuccessful in their attempts.
A quick turnaround saw Napao back in the cage three months later, stepping in for the injured Shane del Rosario to face Dave Herman at UFC 162. Gonzaga finished Herman in the first round with a thumping right hand just 17 seconds into the fight; his first win by knockout in almost four years. Gonzaga would go on to repeat the feat in his latest bout at UFC 166. Facing hard-hitting American Shawn Jordan, Gonzaga landed a perfectly timed counter hook to finish the contest after just 93 seconds of the opening frame.
Gonzaga’s striking looks better than ever and his high-level grappling makes him a dangerous match-up for anyone in the division. The fact he is continuing to improve at 34 years of age shows his determination to reach the top of the pile once again. A victory over Miocic next weekend won’t put him to the summit, but it will move him one step closer on the long journey to UFC gold.