Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sylvia takes offense to title challenge

By Michael DiSanto

Imagine being the UFC Heavyweight Champion.

The holder of that title knows without a shadow of a doubt that he at the top of the MMA food chain – an apex predator with no true threats outside of his own species. Other heavyweights may dare challenge his authority, but fighters occupying the lighter weight divisions typically know better.

After all, the entire point of weight divisions is to protect smaller, lighter fighters from the severe physical injury that may result from fighting bigger, stronger, more formidable opponents. Those protections weren’t necessary back when the sport was nothing more than a spectacle, but now that we have highly trained, world-class athletes competing in mixed martial arts, size does, in fact, matter.

Let’s take the hypothetical a bit farther.

Imagine watching Randy Couture, a true Hall of Fame fighter at (or very near) the end of his career, retire after suffering two vicious knockout losses to Chuck Liddell, a super predator in his own right, but still a man who cuts weight to compete among guys his own size rather than roaming in the realm of the heavyweights.

Next, imagine UFC president Dana White calling to say that the retired Hall of Famer is ready to return to action after a one-year hiatus. But rather than taking his chances against Liddell, Couture wants to move up in weight and challenge for the heavyweight championship.

By implication, Couture is saying that the facing heavyweight champ is an easier fight than locking horns with the light heavyweight champ. He may not say that in his own words, but his actions scream that notion loud and clear.

To be quite honest, that is something that I would find offensive as the heavyweight kingpin. Reigning UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia agrees.

“Absolutely,” he responded without hesitation when asked if he is offended by Couture returning to the sport because he believes that he somehow has a better chance of beating him than Liddell.

“He’s 43 years old and has been retired for a year. I don’t know what kind of competitive training he has been doing for the last year, but I fought four times in 2006. They were all very competitive fights, too. I think I still have my fighting edge. I don’t know if he still has it.”

In all fairness to Couture, fights are about stylistic matchups and finding physical or technical advantages over an opponent. Obviously, he feels that there is a hole in Sylvia’s game that he can exploit, unlike with Liddell, and that is why he chose Sylvia as his mark. Besides, it’s not like Couture is wading into virgin waters when he steps into the Octagon as a heavyweight.

Couture happens to be a former heavyweight kingpin in his own right, defeating Maurice Smith at Ultimate Japan on December 21, 1997, to begin his first reign as UFC Heavyweight Champion. After losing the title via a contract dispute with UFC brass, Couture returned more than three years later to defeat Kevin Randleman at UFC 28 on November 17, 2000, to reclaim his crown.

But that was more than six years ago, well before Couture entered his fifth decade of life – yes, living in your 40s means that life is in its fifth decade. Only a few months shy of his 44th birthday, he should be far beyond his athletic prime and well past “long in the tooth” for a professional fighter.

Sylvia, who is 13 years Couture’s junior, may be offended by the notion that his friend thinks he can steal away the heavyweight crown. Yet, he insists that he is not taking the aging warrior lightly.

“We’re talking about Randy Couture,” Sylvia said pragmatically. “You can’t approach a fight with Randy with the sort of attitude that you are just going to blow through him. Hey, I want to go out there and beat his ass early. Don’t get me wrong. If the opening is there early in the fight, I’m going to crack him -- absolutely.”

Sylvia has a point. It wasn’t that long ago that an aging all-time great smacked Father Time squarely in the chops by winning the World Heavyweight Championship – in boxing, that is.

On November 5, 1994, George Foreman, two months shy of his 46th birthday, knocked out 27-year-old Michael Moorer to regain the boxing’s most coveted title. Boxing certainly isn’t mixed martial arts, but it is an appropriate parallel. And Sylvia knows it. So, he is training as hard for this fight as he has for any before it.

“We are expecting the worst,” Sylvia admitted when asked about preparation for UFC 68. “I’m prepared to get beat up the first two rounds. If that happens, it happens. If I get out and knock him out in the first round, then that is awesome. But Randy is a handful.

“I’ve trained with him many times, so I know what to expect. I know what type of fighter he is. If he comes out and beats me up in the first two rounds, I’ll be ready to really take it to him in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. I don’t want it to go that long. I want to knock him out in the first round. But I’m preparing for the worst.”

Fair enough. It’s not like Couture was some chump competing 205 pounds these last few years. Aside from suffering two knockout losses to possibly the most difficult fighter to take down in the sport, Couture also owns a win against Liddell, as well as wins over Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort and Mike Van Arsdale, all amazing athletes and very gifted fighters.

Sylvia, therefore, is preparing for a long, grueling war of attrition. Not because that is the type of fight that he wants. Rather, he strongly believes that the odds swing greater and greater in his favor as each round ticks away.

“Remember, Couture is 43 years old now, so I don’t think his cardio will be as good as it used to be, and that should be the difference,” he reminded.

Cardiovascular conditioning may very well turn out to be the difference in the fight. But it seems much more likely that a Sylvia win will be the result of a nuclear-styled right hand, something he hopes to set up by following the blueprint that Liddell laid out in his two wins over Couture.

“If he tries to bum rush me, we are going to work angles the same way that Chuck did,” Sylvia said. “Randy is a straight forward and straight backward fighter. He has a lot of trouble with angles.”

Couture certainly does struggle with opponents presenting ever-changing angles. But he also excels tremendously during infighting. If Couture can turn this into a fight in a phone booth, then he will be halfway to upsetting the heavy betting favorite on March 3.

Suffice to say, Couture wouldn’t agree to fight Sylvia if he did not see something in his game that the former two-division champion feels he can exploit. He wouldn’t step into the cage with Sylvia unless he had enough success against him in training to believe that he had a good chance of winning the fight.

Sylvia may be offended that his friend picked him as his “comeback target” on March 3, but he welcomes the challenge with open arms.

“I really look at this as a way to propel my career to the next level,” he admitted. “I’m very secure in my [financial] future. Now, I’m focused on my fighting legacy, and Randy Couture is in my way.”

Let’s see if Tim Sylvia can take him out.


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