Sunday, February 25, 2007

Couture’s Quest for History: Breaking Down the Matchup

By Michael DiSanto

History is on the line this Saturday at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

It is undeniable that for years to come, Randy Couture, win or lose, will remain the bellwether and benchmark against which every champion measures his career. But the all-time great hasn’t quite quenched his competitive thirst just yet.

Not only will Couture attempt to become the oldest heavyweight champion in UFC history at UFC 68. The UFC Hall of Fame inductee will also look to become the first three-time heavyweight champion; the first former champion to move up in weight and win another championship, and the first five-time champion in the sport’s history.

Tim Sylvia, however, will do anything within his power to make sure that Couture’s championship conquests come to a painful end.

Who has the advantage? What must each man do to claim victory?


Standing a very comfortable six feet, eight inches tall, Sylvia has an unbelievable reach advantage over the challenger. He needs to exploit that advantage by keeping a very straight, very active jab in Couture’s face all night long.

Continually peppering Couture with the jab establishes two very important aspects of the fight – distance and opportunity.

Distance is important for Sylvia because he is the vastly superior striker, both in terms of technique and power. Couture knows full well that if the fight evolves into a boxing match that things will end badly for him. He must take the fight to the ground to win, but he isn’t the traditional freestyle wrestler who shoots in for a double leg takedown. Instead, he prefers to work for takedowns from the clinch. By forcing him to fight at the end of his jab, Sylvia takes Couture completely out of his game because it forces him to dive in for the takedown, something the champion defends against extremely well.

In addition to creating the proper distance, an active jab will preoccupy Couture, thereby allowing Sylvia to detonate his right hand in stealth mode. He can fire it behind the jab and Couture won’t realize that the fight-ending missile is on its way until it is too late. Why? He will become preoccupied with trying to avoid the jab, focusing on Sylvia’s left hand as he tries to find a way to slip to the inside. Such a lapse in attention gives Sylvia the opportunity he needs to end the fight with a knockout.


Couture’s biggest strength on the feet is also his biggest flaw. He thrives off bringing constant, unyielding pressure in the form of a stalking attack in order to force his opponent to the cage, where he can initiate a clinch. But he is no fool, either. Couture doesn’t just rush in wildly. He stalks his foes with a very high, defensive guard while taking measured steps forward.

The problem, however, is that he employs a “step slide’ technique while moving forward. In other words, he steps forward with his left leg and then slides his right foot into place so that he can throw a punch or slip incoming fire, as needed. The flaw is that Couture is out of position and unable to either throw any sort of meaningful punch or slip effectively from the moment he steps forward with his left foot until he slides his right foot back into place to create a shoulder-width base.

Chuck Liddell first exposed that flaw at UFC 52 and again at UFC 57. When Couture stepped forward, Liddell circled away. That forced Couture to restart his step-slide progression, which meant he couldn’t really throw any sort of strike that would damage Liddell and he was really out of position to slip incoming fire. More importantly, moving laterally created firing lanes for the “Iceman” to throw his right hand at Couture’s jaw. The end result was a knockout win – twice.

Sylvia should follow the same game plan on Saturday night. If so, then the odds of a knockout increase dramatically.


Without a doubt, Couture is a finely conditioned athlete who takes his physical preparation as seriously as anyone in the game today. Nobody can reasonably argue to the contrary.

Nevertheless, on Saturday night, Couture will be a mere 111 days shy of his 44th birthday. By any athletic barometer, that is old. Unfortunately for Couture, athletes generally do not age slowly and gracefully. Instead, they maintain their elite skills and physical prowess for whatever duration that Father Time sees fit. Then, the physical tools decline sharply, seemingly overnight.

We have seen it happen again and again in every sport to the greatest of the great -- from Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky to Jerry Rice to Muhammad Ali. Nobody beats Father Time indefinitely. Thus, it is only a matter of time before Couture joins the ranks of the “has been” athletes whose physical tools have deteriorated to a point where he can no longer compete at the highest level.

The interesting point, however, is that nobody knows when that time will come. Maybe it was his last fight against Chuck Liddell at UFC 57 in February 2006. Maybe it is a year from now. Nobody knows. But Sylvia should fight a smart fight to determine if it is Saturday night.

Bernard Hopkins, a man who appears to be boxing’s version of an ageless warrior, spent the last three or four years fighting in short spurts in each round, expertly conserving energy for later in the fight because he knows that he can no longer fight a full 36 minutes. Couture likely has the same game plan for Sylvia, just in case the fight goes the full five rounds.

The champion, therefore, should come out and push the pace from Jump Street. He should throw a lot of punches, which will force Couture to do the same. If the former champion is fortunate enough to get inside his strikes, Sylvia should lean on him and work to free himself rather than resting. Forcing Couture to work every minute of every round will truly ask the question of whether time age has finally caught up to the Hall of Famer.


Couture is a very competent boxer. He is very skilled at relying on his boxing skills to avoid taking a vicious knockout blow long enough to set up a takedown. But he must be very careful not to get lulled into thinking that he can outstrike Sylvia. If Couture uses good head movement and picks his spots, he should be able to occupy Sylvia enough on the feet to work behind his punches and secure the clinch.

In order to do that, Couture needs to basically forget about the jab. Sylvia’s tremendous reach advantage renders that punch largely ineffective. Instead, he should look to counter Sylvia’s jab with right hands to the body. When Sylvia misses with right hand – a punch he tends to leave hanging out there rather than snapping it back – Couture can respond with left hooks to the body. Those two punches alone can create enough of a distraction to force Sylvia to back up in an attempt to reset the proper distance. If he keeps backing up, he will eventually run into the cage, which is Couture’s main tactic for taking the champion down.

Yet, Couture must remain ultra careful. If he finds early success with his hands, he absolutely must avoid the natural instinct to continue throwing punches while standing in the pocket. He must not, under any circumstance, get lulled into a boxing match with Sylvia. If that happens, a knockout loss is all but guaranteed.


As mentioned, Couture has no shot at winning this fight unless he can take the action to the ground. But that is easier said than done against the champion.

Sylvia’s excellent sprawl and good balance makes shooting from the outside a difficult proposition. Couture, therefore, must look to get the fight to the ground with trips, sweeps and high crotch takedowns – coincidentally, those are his bread-and-butter moves. Each of those techniques are used from a clinch. But Sylvia isn’t going to walk into the center of the Octagon and willingly hug Couture.

So, how does Couture get the champion into that position?

Couture’s party line heading into the bout is that he needs to stand in the pocket and throw hands with the champion for a bit to open up opportunities to move in for the clinch. That is absolutely true, particularly once Sylvia is forced into the cage. But if he is unable to effectively work to the inside behind his punches, then the key to forcing a clinch with Sylvia will be to slip a jab to Couture’s right and then step inside. Sylvia is athletic, but it still takes the big fella some time to move his 280-pound frame (yes, he cuts weight to make the 265-pound division weight limit). If Sylvia misses with a jab with Couture moving right and forward, he ends up out of position to follow up with a lights-out right hand because his hips will get in the way. The split second it takes Sylvia to adjust his feet and reload another bomb is enough time for Couture to tie him up.

Once in the clinch, a takedown is likely to follow. And that is when things get extremely interesting.


Taking Sylvia to the ground, by itself, isn’t enough to guarantee victory for Couture. As the world learned in the champion’s most recent title defense, he has an extremely effective defensive guard. Sylvia’s upper body is so long that he can effectively control his opponent with his hips and almost eliminate the danger of any sort of ground and pound. And his legs are so long that once he gets them wrapped around an opponent, it is difficult to pass into side control.

Accordingly, it is important for Couture to stay focused on positioning during the takedown and try to transition into side control on the way down to the canvas. Once there, Sylvia’s size becomes a massive disadvantage. His extremely long limbs make for excellent submission targets, even for a wrestler-first ground fighter like Couture. And every time Big Tim sits up in an effort to rise to his feet, his neck is exposed for a choke.

In the end, however, Couture isn’t heading into the fight looking for a submission. He wants to put Sylvia on his back and then begin hammering away with punches while he controls the position on the ground. Couture wants to slowly grind Sylvia into submission (or a technical knockout) like he did against Liddell, Pedro Rizzo, Vitor Belfort and others throughout his career.

From the side mount, Couture can work his ground game because Sylvia won’t have any defensive tools available except to try and stand up. All the while, Couture will chip away at the champion, methodically searching for history.

In the end, this seems like an insurmountable challenge for Couture. His last two heavyweight fights were vivid reminders that “The Natural” is a smallish heavyweight, as he struggled with the much bigger, stronger Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez. Sylvia is even bigger and stronger than those guys. But he is not a dominant grappler like Barnett and Rodriguez. He is a deadly striker. And Couture has fared extremely well against strikers in his illustrious career.

Will he make history on Saturday night, or will Sylvia finally close the UFC chapter of Couture’s professional fighting career? I can’t wait to find out.

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