Monday, February 26, 2007

Sylvia, Couture Ready for Historic Battle Saturday

By Thomas Gerbasi

Tim Sylvia was chomping at the bit, antsy to find out who would be standing across the Octagon from him at UFC 68 on March 3rd in Columbus, Ohio. His manager, Monte Cox, held the 6 foot 8 ‘Maine-iac’ at bay, assuring him that the delay was all for a good reason.

“He said they weren’t telling him yet – that it was gonna be a big deal, so I just needed to wait and see,” said Sylvia Monday afternoon on an international media teleconference.

It was a big deal, and in mid-January, Sylvia got the news he was waiting for – he was going to be fighting a legend, two-time UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Randy Couture, who at 43 is coming out of a year long retirement to try to make history as the first three-time heavyweight champion in UFC history.

“When I found out, I was like ‘wow, Randy’s coming out of retirement to fight me. That’s crazy,’” recalled Sylvia, a two-time heavyweight champion himself, who can set a record for most consecutive heavyweight title defenses (three) with a win over Couture. “So obviously I called up Randy and asked him what the heck he was doing. (Laughs) In all seriousness though, Randy and I are good friends, so I wished him luck and told him I’d see him in the middle of the Octagon on the 3rd.”

On paper, Couture may need more than luck, given the fact that he is coming off losses in two out of his last three fights to UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, and the added dimension that he will be facing a fighter who dwarfs him by seven inches and outweighs him anywhere from 40 to 50 pounds come fight night. The competitive juices were still flowing though, and Couture jumped at the chance to leave the retirement ranks for another shot at the title.

“When I retired I had a lot of personal things going on,” he said on the same teleconference. “I was going through a fairly nasty divorce and there were a whole lot of things in uproar, and I needed to take a step back and let all that settle. Once it did, I felt a lot more like myself and the competitive spirit of being around the sport doesn’t die easy, and so given the opportunity to compete again, I jumped all over it.”

And despite the odds against him, Couture, one of the most revered mixed martial artists of all-time and a UFC Hall of Famer, has never performed up to mere mortals’ low standards. A world-class amateur wrestler and former Olympic alternate, Couture entered the MMA ranks in 1997 and made a career of upsetting expectations. Whether it was a stirring win over then-unbeatable Vitor Belfort, his ascension to the heavyweight title twice, or his reinvention as a light heavyweight, which saw him hand Tito Ortiz and Liddell stoppage defeats. Sylvia agrees that you can never count ‘The Natural’ out.

“Randy always finds a way to win,” said Sylvia. “He’s an awesome competitor and his wrestling is off the charts.”

The 30-year old Sylvia is no slouch either, winner of all but two of his 27 pro MMA bouts. And in 2006 alone, Sylvia fought and won four times. Couture expects a tough night.

“I think Tim’s stature, both in height and reach, and in weight, pose some interesting problems,” said Couture. “For a guy who’s 6-1 walking around at 225, that’s part of the challenge when you face an athlete like Tim. He’s a well-conditioned fighter who uses his range very, very well and puts together great combinations. The task at hand is to try and figure out a way to get past that.”

It won’t be easy, and Couture even went through some rough moments in the early stages of preparation for the UFC 68 main event, which will be held at the sold-out Nationwide Arena and televised live on pay-per-view (10pm ET / 7pm PT).

“There were a few days where I was questioning what I signed myself up for,” said Couture. “But I kept pushing through and the last four weeks have been fantastic and I believe I’m in the best shape of my life right now, so I’m excited.”


Two other high-profile comebacks will be taking place on Saturday, as former UFC champions Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes look to get back in the win column against Jason MacDonald and Chris Lytle, respectively.

The former UFC middleweight champion, Franklin will be looking to rebound from a devastating first round stoppage loss at the hands of Anderson Silva. It was the type of defeat that forced the Cincinnati native to reevaluate a lot of issues in and out of the Octagon.

“A lot of factors in my life built up and caused a lack of focus for that fight,” said Franklin on Monday’s teleconference. “I had to take a step back and look at the approach that I take, not only in training, but in life in general, and I think I changed quite a bit in my life to help me be more focused for Jason in this fight. I feel prepared.”

Franklin also got past the questions most fighters deal with after such a defeat, especially after a long string of successes.

“You sit around for a couple of days and try to figure out what you did wrong,” said Franklin. “Was it in the training – were you overtraining, undertraining - and you start questioning a lot of different stuff. I went through that for several days until, in my case, came to no conclusion and decided that I had to get right back on the horse and do what I do.”

In Edmonton’s MacDonald, Franklin will be facing a quality veteran of the game who is coming off back-to-back submission wins over Ed Herman and Chris Leben in his two UFC starts, and who has been working with the world-renowned Greg Jackson camp (which includes Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, Nate Marquardt, and Joey Villasenor) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Hughes, the former UFC welterweight boss, lost his title via a second round TKO to Georges St. Pierre last November. A win over Lytle – a finalist from season four of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ - will propel him to a third bout with St. Pierre, assuming the Canadian defeats Matt Serra at April 7th’s UFC 69 in Houston.

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