Friday, February 23, 2007

Randy Couture has an ageless story

By Dave Meltzer

Randy Couture was in grade school when one of the most improbable sports stories of all-time was happening.

It was 1970, and before the season started, the Oakland Raiders put 43-year-old backup quarterback and kicker George Blanda on waivers. They recalled him just before the season opened, and in a crazy twist of fate, on six consecutive weeks, Blanda either threw a miracle touchdown pass or kicked the winning points through the upright, and wound up as the most unlikely most valuable player in NFL history.

Couture actually had a similar experience. After losing consecutive matches for the heavyweight title, once to Josh Barnett and the other to Ricco Rodriguez, he was thought to be finished as a championship-level competitor. UFC asked him to cut down to light heavyweight, largely because they expected Couture to be a name star who would be impressively beaten by Chuck Liddell, that would lead to Liddell replacing Tito Ortiz as the biggest star of the struggling company. And in the end, that ended up happening, just not when expected.

Couture was put in the ring on June 6, 2003, just 16 days before his 40th birthday, on the night UFC built the entire show up for Liddell's coronation. Liddell had been chasing Ortiz for the light-heavyweight title, the UFC's marquee division, but Ortiz had avoided the match for more than one year. Finally, when a contract dispute with Ortiz got to the point UFC questioned whether Ortiz would ever return, or at least ever face Liddell, Dana White announced they were creating an interim championship out of a Liddell vs. Couture match. Liddell was thought to be a good enough wrestler to keep it standing against the aging Couture, and it was inevitable his superior striking would then knock Couture out.

That feeling was wrong. Couture shockingly outstruck Liddell standing, and took him down several times before finishing him off with punches on the ground. Ortiz then returned to face Couture and Couture outwrestled him for five straight rounds to settle any dispute over who the true champion was. The 40-year-old shutting up the loud-mouthed Huntington Beach Bad Boy, who broke down and cried. It was one of the most memorable moments in UFC history, and made Couture into something of a folk hero. Many athletes, including Shaquille O'Neal, would refer to Couture as their favorite sports star.

Eventually, Liddell did beat Couture, twice via knockout, on April 16, 2005, and again on February 4, 2006, each of which were at the time the two biggest money matches in company history. Liddell finally claimed the spot planned for him years earlier, and has since become UFC's biggest star. While training for the latter match, Couture, going through a messy divorce, had decided, win or lose, it would be his last match. He kept it quiet until after being knocked out, when he said this would be the last time you would see him in a cage. UFC head Dana White never quite believed him, and just about every month, would ask Couture when he was coming back.

Nearly four years later, Couture is back, but this time switching back to heavyweight. Due to problems in getting Brandon Vera to sign a new contract, heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia had no opponent ready at a time when the company seemed short on true marquee main events that would do huge pay-per-view numbers. From a pure business standpoint, everything fit neatly into place.

On the heels of the movie "Rocky Balboa," the public was primed for the idea of a legend from the past challenging an unpopular champion for the title. The story line is such that the match on March 3 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, sold out about a week after this match was publicly announced. With in excess of 15,000 paid, it will be the largest paid attendance in the history of the company and second largest in North America in the history of the sport. It is almost a given it will be the best selling pay-per-view event of any kind for over the first three months of the year.

And it has created an interesting situation. Perhaps due to Couture's more famous wins and tremendous popularity, nearly every fan poll picks Couture by a wide margin to win the championship from his 6-foot-8, 260-pound opponent. And yet oddsmakers, and most within the sport, see him as a longshot, with odds at nearly 3-1.

Couture was considered the underdog, and often the longshot, in ten of his 16 UFC matches, and he ended up with his hand raised on nine of those occasions. The doctrine in the sport has always been that you always bet Couture when he's the underdog. You only question him when he's the favorite. The only time he wasn't favored and also didn't win was in his last fight, where he tried to chase Liddell down, and got knocked out.

But there was a reason he made the move to light heavyweight. Even though he was a stronger wrestler than his opponents, dealing with 30 pound heavier opponents over five rounds ended up being too much at the age of 38 and 39, and Couture is facing an even larger opponent this time.

"Technically, I'm a lot better," said Couture, as compared to when he last fought as a heavyweight. Couture, who plans on weighing 225 pounds for the match, finishes his final day of hard training Friday, before tapering down leading into the fight.

Couture, who signed a four-fight, 18-month contract with UFC, has brought a series of monster-sized guys into camp over the last two weeks, including Dan Christison (6-8, 260), Wes Sims (6-10, 250) and Eric Pele (6-3, 300), as well as a 6-9 kick boxer and a 290-pound college wrestler.

He has also concentrated more on heavier Olympic lifting to give his body more explosive power. Although the added weight at his age may on paper look negative, Couture sees it differently. At 205, he was really a 220-pounder who would dehydrate down. Now he doesn't have to worry about dehydrating and rehydrating the day before the fight, and the affect it will play come fight time on his stamina and his legs. He has also been less stressful about his diet, and unlike before his last fight with the divorce proceedings looming, he has been able to shut off the outside world a lot more effectively the last two months.

Still, he has a lot going on. He's in the process of opening two Extreme Couture gyms, setting up a gym franchise, doing television commentary for The Fight Network (a 24-hour fight channel in Canada) and working on an autobiography. Adding a third heavyweight title to his resume as the most decorated world champion in the sport's history, to go along with two light-heavyweight titles will only aid in outside projects.

And while he said money is not a motivating factor, the UFC's explosion in popularity on pay-per-view really dates its start to Couture's last match. As one of the key guys building the foundation during the days when nobody knew if UFC would be successful or not, most of his paydays were in the $150,000 to $250,000 range until his last fight. If everything goes well on pay-per-view, he could take in $2 million for this fight.

At the start of camp nearly two months ago, he was wondering what he'd gotten himself into, battling against guys so much bigger than he is. But he said now the tables have turned as he's rounded himself into top shape and he's throwing the big guys around and training to get out of every foreseeable bad position where he'd potentially have to handle all that weight.

As for his longevity, he never really stopped competing and never let himself get out of shape. Even though he hasn't fought since the Liddell fight, as recently as November, he faced one of the best submission experts in the world, Jacare, and battled him to a draw in a submission wrestling match. His ability to do that made him even more confident that he could have a successful comeback, but Jacare is also a light heavyweight.

He also credits genetics and luck for his being competitive at an age long past when anyone in MMA history has ever been truly competitive at the top level.

Couture has had no major joint surgeries, which is unheard of for someone who has competed consistently at the highest levels of wrestling and then fighting for a quarter-century, joking that he has Teflon joints.

He's quite convincing, saying he has studied Sylvia and has his game plan. Sylvia isn't as fast as Liddell, nor as technically good a wrestler. But he has the ridiculous size, knockout power if he chooses to open up, and can use his height to throw vicious knees. He's 23-2 as a pro, and turns 31 two days after the fight. No matter how many fights Couture has appeared to be ageless in, that has to be a major factor.

Jeff Monson, Sylvia's last opponent, was a good wrestler, and could only get Sylvia off his feet once in five rounds. Rodriguez, also a good wrestler, never even came close. Even getting Sylvia down leads to more problems because of his height. Couture will have to pass guard and be aggressive on top consistently through the fight to have a shot at winning.

Couture has also looked back at his losses to Barnett and Rodriguez. With Barnett, he blames the loss on having trained so much Jiu Jitsu, he had developed a Jiu-Jitsu mindset. He had trained too much on his back that he wasn't fighting for takedowns, and even pulled guard once in a scramble. But being underneath such a talented fighter ended up costing him the match and his heavyweight title.

After Barnett was stripped of his title after failing a steroid test after the fight, Couture and Rodriguez battled for the vacant title. Couture believes he had won the first three rounds (which is how virtually everyone saw that fight), but he got caught underneath in the fourth round. Rodriguez scored with an elbow that broke his orbital bone and Couture tapped out. The break required surgery and threatened to end his career. His feeling is if it had not been for that elbow, he'd have lost the fourth round. But even if he lost the fifth round, he was still getting the decision. In early 2003, Sylvia won his first championship beating Rodriguez via knockout in the first round.

Couture says not to expect any high slams against someone so big. As a former multi-time Greco-Roman wrestling national champion (1990, 1993 and 1997), his goal is to close the distance, get a clinch, use the cage as an ally, and try a trip or foot sweep to get Sylvia down. If Sylvia tries a knee or a kick, Couture is looking for that as his opening. He believes Sylvia, who is in love with the belt, will come in shape, but his goal is to fight at a light-heavyweight's pace. Nobody has ever done that with Sylvia, who aside from Couture is the only two-time heavyweight champion in UFC history.

"I'm looking for a long fight," he said. "I don't think he'll be giving up early. I have to push him and keep up a pace that he isn't used to, tire him and get him down. I have to be ready for a battle of attrition."

Whomever wins figures to have a summer title defense against Mirko Cro Cop, who is the real-life version of the Ivan Drago character that Rocky faced in one of his movies. That's the one where even Rocky's friends and family start worrying about his safety


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