High stakes for struggling Rua

The double-edged sword of success cuts two ways. When you've performed at a high level, the audience develops high expectations. Churning out an average or mediocre display isn't an option -- being a star requires a level of sharpness and sophistication that stands apart.

That's why all eyes are on Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (17-3) as he looks to resurrect his stalled career at UFC 97 in Montreal when he faces Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell (21-6).

An up-and-comer could be forgiven for losing to Forrest Griffin and for looking unimpressive in winning via third round TKO over 44-year-old Mark Coleman. As the 2005 Pride Grand Prix tournament champion, Rua was met with scathing criticism for being unable to replicate the dominance he showed in Japan, where he steamrolled over the likes of Quinton Jackson and Ricardo Arona.

As the product of the elite Chute Boxe academy that helped mold greats like Wanderlei Silva and Anderson Silva, Rua has always had the athleticism and pedigree to take the top spot no matter what organization he fought for. It's his bad luck that caused his ACL to tear twice and keep him out of action for almost 16 months after his 2007 loss to Forrest.

At this stage of the game, many have counted him out against Liddell. Even if he does edge Liddell, he'll have to show a wide array of skills in order to compete with the current top dogs at 205 pounds.

Rua knows what's at stake.

"I am very focused on this fight and turning [the pressure to perform] into motivation, and really presenting my top game to the American audience," Rua told ESPN.com.

Dispelling the doubt created by his second bout with Coleman will be an uphill battle. Rua showed little conditioning, was repeatedly taken down and ate more than a few shots from the UFC Hall-of-Famer.

He wants fans to know that this time will be different.

"I can tell you I'm feeling much more prepared and much more confident right now," Rua said. "When I fought Coleman, like it or not, I spent almost one and a half [years] sidelined. This gets in the way and hinders a lot the rhythm of training, physical condition and all that."

Shogun might have the tools to hurt Liddell on the inside and finish him on the ground. But Liddell is especially adept at keeping opponents on the axis where he's strongest -- standing, preferably at the end of his looping punches.

Liddell will rely on his time-honored game plan of defending the takedown and counterpunching.

"I'm planning on coming out like I normally do -- and I plan on knocking him out," said Liddell.

The things that a fighter has worked to achieve can count against him during the latter stages of a career. Talent diminishes the reality that you must also work hard, while comfortable surroundings breed complacency. This is why Rua moved his camp away from the distractions of his Curitiba home to the São Paulo area in Brazil.

"It was a new experience for me," Rua said. "And it has helped me mainly because of the focus. Sometimes when we are at home, we get a little acquainted and we tend to get distracted with problems and not push ourselves to the limit. I think moving to another city to train got me 100 percent focused on the fight."

The rule changes and differences between fighting in a ring, as was the case in Pride, and using the Octagon, are also worth noting. There will be no head stomps or soccer kicks as Rua was famed for using to finish downed opponents in Japan, and he'll have to deal with elbows on the ground. With the Octagon three times the size of a ring, it takes more punches to back someone into a corner.

With two UFC fights under his belt and extensive training with a cage, Rua feels acclimated to the environment.

The Coleman performance can be written off due to ring rust. A win against Liddell is necessary to prove the critics wrong and revitalize his career.

It's the promise of Shogun's return to his former level of glory that keeps hope in him alive. We're asking for the improbable -- it's the same hope that was projected on Fernando Vargas after his losses to Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya in boxing, the same unrealized dream that Mike Tyson -- even after his post-prison decline -- would return and dominate in style.

But who would have thought that "Rampage" Jackson would have come back from two vicious knockout losses to Wanderlei Silva to win the UFC title against Liddell? How many people gave Randy Couture a chance in his first fight with Liddell?

Shogun Rua hasn't taken the news of his demise to heart. He has the physical gifts and the mental strength to win. More importantly, he knows that deep down inside, many want to see him return triumphantly. The promise of what he can do is much more powerful than the reality of what has gone wrong during the past two years.

Rua does not care to rest on the laurels of past achievement. He looks ahead with guarded optimism.

"I intend to give my best in this fight and hopefully this will be the next great stage of my career, starting April 18."

A loss at UFC 97 won't be the end. Shogun can always find work with other promotions -- but it's a difficult concept to believe that he'll be comfortable facing lesser competition in a lower-tier organization.

For Shogun, there's still sand in the hourglass. Just how much remains will be determined by what happens Saturday.

Brian J. D'Souza is a Canadian writer whose work has appeared on CBC.ca, men's magazine Sharp and FIGHT! magazine.