Schaub shaking 'former football player' tag

Rio de Janeiro -- Having the home advantage can be huge, and it’s no secret that Denver-based sports teams always enter a contest with a leg up on their opponents. The combination of the city’s climate and elevation create factors that can cause plays to fail, balls to be dropped and shots to be missed. Athletes from Denver perform best when at home.

With this in mind, Denver-based Brendan Schaub has a tough test ahead of him. He’s facing former UFC and Pride heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the Brazilian’s back yard of Rio de Janeiro on Saturday. Schaub will have to contend with choking humidity, the effects of long-distance travel, hostile fans and the small matter of the jiu-jitsu black belt’s fearsome grappling skills.

What people may not realize is that Schaub asked for this fight, and specifically in Brazil.

“I think I’m up to the challenge,” he says with a smile. “It doesn’t get much bigger than this. No doubt it’s the biggest fight of my life on the biggest stage. I think UFC Brazil is the biggest card of the year -- that’s why I asked to be on it.”

“Nogueira’s regarded as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. To fight him in his own back yard, it’s something no one’s ever done.”

From football player to pro fighter

It wasn’t so long ago that you rarely saw Schaub’s name in print without the prefix former football player. A season with the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze and a stint on the NFL’s Buffalo Bills’ practice squad meant Schaub was always thought of as a pigskin handler first, fighter second.

“It’s tough to get the credit I deserve,” he says, somewhat ruefully. With four consecutive wins behind him, he’s been steadily climbing the heavyweight ladder since “The Ultimate Fighter” thrust him into the limelight in 2009. He knows he’s got the respect of his fellow fighters, but he’s not convinced the media are sold on him yet.

“I’m earning respect as a top-10 heavyweight in the world. I see some rankings where I’m top-10, and some where I’m not. I get it; I’ve got some work to do,” he admits, before adding: “This fight will make a big statement.”

That it will. Schaub has taken out a number of veterans in his last couple of bouts. Just look at his three round handling of Gabriel Gonzaga, or dramatic third-round knockout of Mirko Filipovic. Yet he still struggles to shake off the “new guy” tag.

“I fought Gonzaga, who was a top-5 heavyweight. Cro Cop, who was one of the best strikers in MMA, and now Nogueira. These are all vets with their backs against the wall,” he says. “You don’t want to corner these guys. I don’t think there’s a more dangerous time to fight these guys, but I’m taking them out; I’m finishing these guys. For me it’s a big deal.

The fight fanatic

Football paid Schaub’s way through college, and he’ll always struggle to distance himself from the sport. But Schaub has been a fan of MMA since he was 10 years old and is a lifelong martial artist. An excellent sportsman and competitive youngster, he dabbled in boxing and jiu-jitsu while playing lacrosse and football. Football careers are notoriously short, and Schaub was sensibly playing the long game.

“It was my ultimate aim to stay in the [MMA] game. Nobody believed I could be a fighter, and especially at the time as it wasn’t as famous as it is now. Everybody told me I was an idiot to want to fight, asked me why I would pursue this.”

Hanging onto his dream has paid off. Schaub’s rise through the ranks was fast. He says he simply relied on being tougher than his early opponents, but as the stakes rise he’s upped his efforts with equal measure. Shane Carwin and Nate Marquardt “took him under their wings” in the early days, but for this camp he worked with some of the sport’s biggest names.

“I travelled, I got out of my comfort zone. I worked with a bunch of different guys, different coaches. I went to Greg Jackson’s in Albuquerque, I went to Imperial in Florida with Rashad Evans, went up to New York to Renzo [Gracie’s] -- all over.”

“I’ve never grown so much in a camp as I have in this camp for Nogueira. Not even close. I was just a sponge. The thing I know now is that I’ve got a long way to go, man! I can get so much better, and to me that’s so cool.”

A contender?

Schaub’s vocally confident of a win this weekend, but he’s concerned detractors are readying excuses for Minotauro. “Whatever happens in this fight, it will be because ‘Nog’s getting older’,” he says. He can take heart from the fact that Dana White has said the winner of this fight is “right up there” in terms of a title shot.

“I agree with that 100 percent,” he says.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s all I think about. It’s tough for me to enjoy the wins. As soon as I get done with a fight, I’ll critique the heck out of my fight and then I’ll think about what’s next.”

“I think I match up very well with Dos Santos or Cain Velasquez. I would love to fight the winner of that. But I hear Brock Lesnar is healthy, and I would love to see how I match up with a guy like that as well. From here, there’s not many fights left -- only a couple of guys.”