Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"The Natural" Returns

By Grant Gordon

At 43 years young, four-time UFC world champion Randy Couture is returning to the octagon with another title in mind.

"Truth is, I probably could [comeback] in the right situation, [with] the right opponent - I would consider it," UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture said during an interview with Hall of Fame Magazine in December of 2006.

Even in retirement, Randy Couture was a busy man.

Retirement really wasn't even the right word. "The Natural" was a commentator, a trainer, an ambassador and on and on. In every avenue in which he could stay active in mixed-martial arts, he did. In every way in which he could remain a part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he did. Except fighting.

That all changed on Jan. 12. During an interview with Joe Rogan on Spike TV's "Inside the UFC," Couture confirmed that all the rumors about a possible comeback to the cage were indeed true. So, did the right situation and the right opponent come to be? "Absolutely," Couture confirms.

Of course Couture isn't your average man or your average athlete. Hence, the right situation for him was 6 feet, 8 inches and 260 pounds of UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, whom Couture will fight Saturday at UFC 68 for the heavyweight title. Sylvia, 30, boasts a 23-2 record, has won his last six fights and, like Couture, is a two-time heavyweight champ.

Couture (14-8) is 13 years Sylvia's senior, seven inches shorter, considerably lighter and last fought in February of 2006. It's obvious that, once again, Couture is the underdog. But overcoming odds has defined his storied career.

In his conquests of the likes of Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, he was always predicted to fall short. "I'm pretty used to that situation," Couture concedes. "I do well being in that role."

UFC President and co-Owner Dana White was one of many who thought Liddell, the current UFC light heavyweight champion, would run over Couture in their first fight on June 6, 2003 at UFC 43. Couture's previous two fights had been losses to much larger heavyweights and, to many, his time in the octagon looked to be done. Liddell's time at the top looked to be just getting started. That's what White was banking on.

"I used to doubt Randy, I'm the one who sent him in to lose to Chuck," White says. "I don't doubt him anymore." Inevitably, Liddell would get the best of Couture in UFC's most famed trilogy, winning their final two fights after an upset in the aforementioned first bout. Their last fight was Couture's final foray into the octagon, a knockout loss at UFC 57.

Brilliant track record or not, many believe there's just too much going against Couture - the age difference, the size difference, the layoff - to think he can pull off what many believe to be the impossible. "He's in for a challenge with Tim Sylvia," White says. "But I'll never doubt him again."

And for those who do doubt him, the always-humble Couture offers no harsh words. Always quick with a smile and a kind word, he prefers to let March 3 do the talking. "I don't need to say anything," Couture offers. "It's on me to go out there and prove I've got what it takes, that I can still do it at 43."

Whether Couture wins or loses, Saturday won't be his last fight in the UFC - he's signed a four-fight contract. And, whether Couture wins or loses, it will take nothing away from what has simply been another uplifting chapter in an amazing career.

As the story goes, when Couture told White of his decision to retire - win or lose - after his third fight with Liddell, White replied ever so eloquently, "Bullshit." It was a theme that ran through Couture's hiatus from the octagon, according to White. He never believed, nor could comprehend, Couture's decision to permanently give up his days inside the cage.

"I knew it was a matter of time," White says. "[He] lost to Chuck Liddell. He lost to the best guy in the world, that's no reason to retire. He's too good of a fighter still to stay retired." Fact is, Couture was going through difficult times in his personal life, particularly a divorce. Eventually, everything sorted itself out and, "I felt a little more like myself," Couture says. And Couture is a competitor.

For months he had been a competitor unsatisfied. He grappled in a submission match, he was on an episode of Spike TV's "Pros Vs. Joes" and continued to train all the time. But a return to the octagon was the only thing that could quench his competitive thirst.

On Saturday, for the first time in UFC history, the octagon will find its way into Ohio. It's fitting that Couture will headline the card, as he's no doubt a chapter of Ultimate Fighting all to himself. Just the fourth Hall of Famer in the company's history, he's the only fighter to win titles in two different weight classes - heavyweight and light heavyweight. He was one of the coaches in the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," a hit show going on its fifth season that is credited as one of the biggest reasons for the UFC boom. And his trio of bouts with Liddell was the foundation for the UFC's pay-per-view dominance as of late.

Indeed, there's nothing Couture has left to prove - and he knows that. But, no matter what his age, the former NCAA All-American wrestler will always be the ultimate competitor. "I think it's always going be there," Couture says. "At some point, it's going have to be checkers or chess instead of getting in the cage."

That point will wait, though. This Saturday, Couture's comeback begins. If he falls, like most predict he will, some will say it was all a farce - an excuse to sell pay-per-views and pump some life into a heavyweight division long stagnant until just recently. If he wins, it will be yet another night in the UFC in which "Captain America" defied all odds and shocked the mixed-martial arts world.

Either way, a Hall of Famer has returned.

Randy Couture is once again a centerpiece of the UFC, competing inside the caged confines of the octagon - he's back where he belongs.


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